Leistikow's 4 thoughts: Iowa football faces significant style change in five-game finish

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Sunday’s cold, rainy conditions served as an annoying reminder that unpleasant weather will soon be here to stay across Iowa, at least through basketball season. 

And when it comes to the Hawkeyes’ 10th-ranked football team, there’s another seasonal change afoot. Iowa’s first four Big Ten opponents — Indiana, Maryland, Penn State and Purdue — are Nos. 1-4 in the conference when it comes to passing attempts per game.

But now? As the weather gets colder, 6-1 Iowa’s schedule bring a forecast of run-heavy conditions, starting with Saturday’s massive 11 a.m. CT, ESPN-televised showdown at 4-3 Wisconsin.

“It always starts up front,” Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta said Tuesday, “But this week especially.”

A quick look at Iowa’s all-Big Ten West finishing slate:

  • Saturday at Wisconsin, which has rushed 155 times while throwing just 42 passes during its three-game winning streak.
  • Nov. 6 at Northwestern, which always brings a physical battle against Iowa.
  • Nov. 13 vs. Minnesota, which ranks 127th out of 130 FBS teams with 18.3 pass attempts per game.
  • Nov. 20 vs. Illinois, which just went to Penn State and rushed 67 times for 357 yards in an upset win.
  • Nov. 26 at Nebraska, which ran the ball 53 times for 427 yards in a rout against Northwestern.

How is Iowa built to stack up that kind of style?

Well, the Hawkeyes’ rush defense numbers are good. They rank seventh nationally in allowing just 89.9 rushing yards per game and sixth with 2.73 yards per attempt. But again, Iowa hasn’t exactly been facing powerhouse running programs — like the one it’ll see on Saturday.

Wisconsin 238-pound running back Braelon Allen rushed 12 times for 140 yards in Saturday's 30-13 win at Purdue. Allen has three straight games of 100-plus yards as a Badgers backup.

Granted, it’ll be a nice break to go to Madison and not see Jonathan Taylor in red and white. Taylor ran 60 times for 407 yards in 2017 and 2019 home wins against the Hawkeyes. The Badgers don’t have anyone like Taylor, but they’ve hit on a good 1-2 combination of elusive Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi (5-foot-11, 204 pounds) and powerful freshman Braelon Allen (6-2, 238). The pair combined for 289 rushing yards on 39 attempts in Saturday’s 30-13 win at Purdue, in which quarterback Graham Mertz threw only eight passes.

“Wisconsin’s probably one of the most physical teams in the conference," Iowa strong safety Kaevon Merriweather said. "Each year, they try to run the ball down your throat.”

Before the season, Iowa’s defensive line was considered a big question mark. Through seven weeks, it’s been one of the pleasant surprises of the team. Yet there's only one example this season of Iowa's undersized defensive line going against a large, run-first offensive line. That was in Week 4 against Colorado State, which had the Hawkeyes on the ropes for a while. Still, ground yardage was tough for the Rams to accrue — 48 rushes for 95 yards — in Iowa's 24-14 win.

Wisconsin averages 312.2 pounds per man on its offensive line, which has improved greatly as the season has progressed. It looks like a typical Badger O-line again. The average size of Iowa's four rotating defensive tackles is 279.9 pounds; the top four ends average 261. The biggest key for the Hawkeyes is for the front four to sacrifice themselves on run plays. If those four can fill their gaps and successfully take on five blockers, that frees up Iowa's three talented linebackers — Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs — to make plays.

“Our linebackers do a really good job in stuffing the run," Merriweather said, "and making sure they’re getting into their gaps and limiting those big plays in the run game.”

More:How does Iowa football fix its offense? That's been Brian Ferentz's focus in Hawkeyes' off week

Iowa’s lack of quarterback mobility continues to be a factor.

It was painfully clear against elite Purdue edge rusher George Karlaftis that Iowa is at a disadvantage every time it tries to pass the ball. That’s because when an Iowa opponent sends a pass rush, it knows two things: 1) A linebacker is not needed as a “spy” for a possible quarterback scramble; 2) Defensive ends can crash toward the middle of the backfield, as Iowa’s Spencer Petras hasn’t shown an ability to get outside to extend plays. 

This isn’t new for Iowa quarterbacks. Three-year starter Nate Stanley had a large frame similar to Petras’ and was limited in what he could do with his legs. But it’s an issue that seems to crop up every year, especially on Wisconsin week. The Badgers’ well-coached 3-4 defense can bring blitzers from anywhere, and Iowa hasn’t had a blitz-beating quarterback very often.

Petras knows he isn’t gifted with quick feet in the pocket. He good-naturedly said Tuesday, "I’m certainly not like Lamar Jackson back there.”

He has had trouble getting outside of the pocket to throw the football away, often taking sacks instead (as he did several times at Iowa State in Week 2). The pass protection has been lacking, too, as first-year starting tackles Mason Richman and Nick DeJong have been inconsistent.

Two of the most mobile starting quarterbacks of the Kirk Ferentz era led Iowa to 8-0 records in Big Ten play — Brad Banks (in 2002) and C.J. Beathard (in 2015). One of the other That’s not a knock against Stanley (who had a 27-12 record as a starter) or Petras (who is 12-3). Iowa recruits to a type at quarterback — a pro-style pocket passer with an emphasis on arm strength over improvisational ability. The QBs that can do everything typically end up at places like Clemson or Oklahoma or Ohio State.

But at the same time, the top mobile quarterbacks don’t see Iowa’s offensive style as a good fit.

“You take the best guys that you see out there, and the quarterback situation is especially like that. We’re committed to building around the quarterback, is what I’m saying," Ferentz said. "Beathard, of all the guys … at least since Brad, is probably the best athlete we’ve had. And that worked pretty well. So did Stanley, and Spencer’s done pretty well as a starter, too.

"We don’t necessarily get to pick the guys in a mold, like the pro guys do."

Long-term, it does feel like a recruiting blind spot.

Short-term, what can Iowa do to mitigate Petras’ lack of mobility? Particularly this week? Short of a change to backup Alex Padilla — and Iowa is a long way off from that, having placed a ton of trust in Petras — the best way for Iowa to beat blitzes is with Petras’ right arm. Connect on a few medium-range completions against pressure in a low-scoring game and that pressure might back off.

"The biggest thing is if there is pressure is throwing the ball away or getting the ball out of my hands faster," Petras said. "Sometimes that’s not possible. That’s part of it. Taking sacks are a huge killer to drives, and that’s my job to avoid."

More:How can Iowa football 'win' the bye week? Hawkeye coordinators emphasize several key factors

The quick version of Iowa-Purdue DVR Monday: A bad day for the Hawkeye secondary.

Loyal readers know that this is my first column since the immediate aftermath of Purdue’s 24-7 upset of the then-No. 2 Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 16. Some much-needed, long-scheduled family time was on the books during Iowa’s off week. (Everyone needed to take a breath after that game, anyway!)

As such, there was no DVR Monday column from Purdue. If there would’ve been, my review of the game in summary was: There wasn’t a good plan or good execution against David Bell. Obviously. Bell’s Kinnick Stadium-record 240 yards receiving on 11 catches stings even more after seeing Wisconsin consistently double-team Bell, holding the fantastic junior to just 33 yards on six receptions. Purdue coach Jeff Brohm added salt to the wound by saying Monday, “We're going to see (doubling Bell) a lot this season. We didn't see that very much at Iowa, for whatever reason."

It was a rough day in coverage across the board for the Hawkeyes. Matt Hankins’ in-game shoulder injury seemed to derail his performance, and a pretty pedestrian quarterback in Aidan O’Connell had little trouble finding soft spots in Iowa’s zone scheme. The cushions from Hankins and Terry Roberts were way too big. Certainly the absence of Riley Moss was significant against Purdue; Moss still ranks second nationally with four interceptions despite missing the last 1½ games with a left knee injury.

Unfortunately, Moss (6-1, 194) won't make it back this week, meaning Hankins and Roberts are Iowa's starting corners again. 

"It's week by week right now; day by day, actually. So we're gaining ground," Ferentz said. "We're optimistic (about) next week (at Northwestern). But there's no guarantees."

While Wisconsin only threw eight passes against Purdue (and has thrown just 42 times during its three-game win streak), getting Moss back on Saturday would have helped. The senior provides three important things: Experience (with four seasons worth of starts), excellent communication (with his secondary mates) and a play-making ability that is essential to Iowa's ball-hawking backfield.

“I can’t really tell you how he’s feeling. As much as I’ve talked to him, he’s definitely ready to get back," Merriweather said of Moss. "He’s definitely excited to get back. He’s doing everything he can to get back.”

More:'You can't freak out': Examining pros and cons of Iowa football's off week after Purdue loss

Let's finish with some positive vibes.

There's been a lot of talk about offensive retooling during Iowa's lone off week of the regular season. As I wrote in the Purdue postgame column, I'll continue to be an advocate for elevating freshman Keagan Johnson to the full-time "X" receiver going forward. He played 16 snaps vs. Purdue; he needs to be playing closer to the 49 that Tyrone Tracy Jr. got against the Boilers.

But fellow freshman Arland Bruce IV touched on another advantage of the off week Tuesday. With four weeks of fall camp plus seven game weeks, this was the first time since July that Hawkeye players could recharge their bodies.

"My legs have not felt this great since before fall camp," Bruce said. "We practiced Sunday and I feel like everyone was saying the same thing, ‘Man our legs feel great.’”

That's something to think about. Purdue came into Kinnick Stadium with an inspired, fresh-looking performance off its lone off week (after an ugly home loss to Minnesota). Perhaps Iowa can do the same at Wisconsin.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.