Harty: Iowa offense took a step backward against ISU

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen

I know this will go over like a booger in your soup right now, but it has to be said.

Kirk Ferentz still deserves your patience, your trust and your faith, but it's getting harder to say that in the wake of Saturday's 20-17 loss to Iowa State.

It's also getting harder to watch his offense sputter under third-year coordinator Greg Davis, who seems obsessed with horizontal passes and strange running back rotations.

Why Jordan Canzeri only had three carries during Saturday's 20-17 loss to Iowa State, all of which came in the first half, makes no sense because Canzeri seemed locked in against the Cyclones. He gained 18 yards on his three carries, which averages out to a respectable 6 yards per carry.

It could be that Canzeri was injured against Iowa State because he also was replaced as a kick returner by redshirt freshman Jonathan Parker in the second half. But Canzeri only having three carries in the first half still seems like a waste of talent.

Why senior receiver Damond Powell didn't have any catches, or even any passes thrown to him against the Cyclones is another head scratcher. Powell has blazing speed, especially by Iowa's modest standards, and has shown a knack for making big plays as evidenced by his 22.2 yards-per-catch average as a Hawkeye.

But Powell only has 15 catches in 16 games as a Hawkeye. It's almost like he's being used as a decoy to create space for the other receivers on shorter routes.

The handling of redshirt freshman receiver Derrick Willies also seems odd. He has gone from being the toast of spring practice to being missing in action against Iowa State.

Ferentz was asked after Saturday's loss against Iowa State how difficult it was for his offense, which was held to 102 yards in the second half, to get into a rhythm.

"To me, that seemed to be the story of the game," said Ferentz, who is in his 16th season as the Iowa coach.

Ferentz went on to praise Iowa State in typical Ferentz fashion. But you could sense his frustration with the offense, which also is a family affair with Ferentz's oldest son, Brian Ferentz, coaching the Iowa offensive line.

After a disastrous first season under Davis in 2012 when Iowa made completing a forward pass seem almost impossible, the situation started to improve last season. Iowa couldn't have won eight games last season without the offense doing something right under Davis.

But now the offense is reverting back to 2012 in terms of being inept, caused in large part by the inability to establish a consistent rushing attack. That's surprising to say the least, considering Iowa's reputation as a power-running team under Ferentz and considering that three starters and one part-time starter returned on the offensive line, along with three proven running backs.

Iowa's rushing attack was the least of my concerns heading into this season on either side of the line of scrimmage.

The absence of a running game prevents Iowa from using play-action effectively and that prevents junior quarterback Jake Rudock from being on top of his game. Rudock, like so many of Iowa's pro-style quarterbacks under Ferentz, needs play-action to keep defenses guessing and to compensate for his lack of mobility and for his lack of arm strength.

What's hard to know is if Rudock is being told by Davis to check down to the underneath routes on a regular basis or if Rudock is reluctant to throw downfield. It could be a little of both, but at some point an offense has to try to stretch the field, especially if it can't run.

Speaking of quarterbacks, the popularity of Iowa backup C.J. Beathard continues to rise with each listless performance by the offense. This isn't to suggest that Rudock should be benched because much like Ferentz, Rudock has done enough good things to keep his position.

But what harm would it have done to give Beathard a series or two against the Cyclones? Perhaps he could have provided a spark that Rudock clearly didn't have against Iowa State. It's not about keeping Beathard happy because somebody has to be the backup. It's about trying to seize the moment.

Now it's on to Pittsburgh to face an undefeated team Saturday that is to power running what Iowa used to be. The Panthers (3-0) are led by 6-foot-2, 250-pound sophomore running back James Conner, who has 544 rushing yards in three games, averaging a whopping 6.7 yards per carry. Pittsburgh is averaging 344.3 rushing yards per game as a team.

"We have to get better as a team," Ferentz said. "We'll look at everybody. Everybody is competing every day."

I assume that also means the coaches because Saturday's loss to Iowa State was a group effort. It's time for everybody to look in the mirror.

Ferentz doesn't call the plays on offense, but he is ultimately accountable for the person who does. He put his legacy on the line when he hired Davis to replace former offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe.

It was a gamble that has produced mixed results at best so far.

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