Hawkeyes analysis: Iowa offense stalls behind poor line play
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The bright spot for the Iowa football team Saturday was punter Ron Coluzzi.
Seriously. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz even made a point to say so in his postgame news conference.
What that means, of course, is Iowa’s offense was misfiring like your grandfather’s old tractor.
Six times Coluzzi was called on as No. 11 Iowa fell 23-21 to North Dakota State at Kinnick Stadium. He averaged 45.5 yards, with none returned. That is quite good. Coluzzi deserves no blame for what happened to the rest of the team, which lost to an FCS opponent for the first time ever.
You can pin the loss on a defense that couldn’t hold its ground, on receivers who dropped passes, on quarterback C.J. Beathard not being as accurate as he normally is.
But the underlying theme was an underwhelming offensive line.
The Hawkeyes ran for 34 yards. In the second half, that figure was minus-7.
Beathard was blitzed often, sacked twice, had to fall on an errant snap once and committed Iowa’s first turnover of the season when he was intercepted after being blindsided by Bison linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker. That gave NDSU its first touchdown.
“We saw that they like to blitz and especially the downs and the distances that they did,” said Iowa center Lucas LeGrand, making his second career start in place of the injured James Daniels (knee). “We came prepared but we just didn’t block it the way we should have and we didn’t handle it the way we should have.”
Keegan Render was making his first career start, at right guard, as Sean Welsh sat out with an ankle injury. Daniels and Welsh are expected back next week, as Iowa opens Big Ten Conference play at Rutgers.
That would help, but it’s not to suggest that LeGrand and Render were the sole causes of Iowa’s problems Saturday. Senior tackle Cole Croston had some rough moments as well. It was a full-unit meltdown from a group that is typically a Hawkeye strength.
“It seemed like we were kind of slow,” Render admitted, speaking specifically about blitz pickups but really serving as an accurate assessment of the whole line.
That was especially true in the second half, when Iowa was outscored 16-7 and mustered a mere 57 yards. It started with such promise, a 62-yard bolt through the line by tailback LeShun Daniels Jr. that ended at the Bison 3-yard line.
But the play was nullified by a holding penalty on Iowa tight end George Kittle, normally a superb blocker.
“I think my arm might have got hooked on him,” Kittle said of the Bison defender. “I know if that’s what the ref sees, he’s got to throw a flag.”
Said Render: “I think that kind of almost deflated us. … It was hard for us to get momentum going.”
Iowa had 100-yard rushers in season-opening victories over Miami of Ohio and Iowa State. Akrum Wadley went for 121 against Miami; Daniels followed with 112 vs. the Cyclones.
Daniels, his one long run called back, ended up with 29 yards on 14 carries Saturday. Wadley, nursing a knee injury of his own, ran only four times for 20 yards. That was a stunning reversal for the Hawkeyes, who relied on three touchdowns through the air to nearly pull out a victory.
“We’ve got to be able to sustain some drives and move the ball more than that,” said wide receiver Riley McCarron, who scored Iowa’s first touchdown. “It helps to establish the run game, but at the same time we’ve got to do our job on the perimeter to help that go as well.
“We looked flat out there. We didn’t execute.”
Added LeGrand: “We didn’t give the running backs the opportunities that they needed. Running the ball is a big part of the game because then you can get play-action going.”
Beathard completed 11-of-22 passes for 152 yards, leaving the game briefly after suffering an injured left shoulder on a running play. But he was harassed all game, for the first time this season.
He seemed at a loss to explain why.
“They were blitzing a lot on third downs. Nothing that we shouldn’t be able to handle,” Beathard said.
Ferentz said he wanted to watch the film from this game before assessing individual offensive linemen. He credited the Bison defense for keeping his team at a standstill when it mattered.
“They're a very aggressive, tough football team, and we didn't measure up, run or pass,” he said.
For Kittle, who caught five passes for a career-high 110 yards, it also was that simple.
“We just didn’t match their intensity the whole day,” he said. “They just took advantage of that and we couldn’t get anything going.”