Bland Hawkeyes offense needs to add some wrinkles

Mark Emmert

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Iowa cornerback Desmond King has a knack for saying things that could be construed either as compliments or sly criticisms.

Like this evaluation of the Minnesota offense his Hawkeyes will be facing at 11 a.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN2):

“It’s very similar to our offense. They want to run the ball, run the ball, kind of draw you to sleep and then play-action you and take a shot downfield.”

It's time for Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to start being more inventive as his Hawkeyes struggle on both lines of scrimmage.

There may be similarities in intent, but certainly not in execution.

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The Gophers (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) have been running the ball much better than Iowa this year (a 228-143 edge in yards per game) behind an improving offensive line that averages 320 pounds per blocker.

The Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1) have been more focused on the “sleep” part of King’s description. They have failed to establish a ground game or to be inventive in the pass game, resulting in one punt for every 10 offensive plays.

Last Saturday, in a home loss to Northwestern, Iowa put up 31 points but also punted eight times and was intercepted once. It was an uncommonly uneven performance for the offense, which found some spark on one second-quarter drive when it forced the Wildcats out of balance by going up-tempo. The result was a seven-play, 55-yard quick strike for a touchdown.

The elapsed time was 2 minutes, 5 seconds. The elapsed time before the Hawkeyes went back to that tactic was 32:51, when they embarked on a last-chance shot for a tying touchdown that ended with that C.J. Beathard pick.

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By this time in the season, it’s obvious that what Iowa has been doing won’t work. A vanilla offense and a stubborn reliance on a base defense is fine when you have a physical superiority at the line of scrimmage.

Instead, the Hawkeyes have been outmanned on both sides of the ball. That’s a difficult thing for a veteran team coming off a 12-2 season to admit. But it is reality. Even opponents without strong rushing games have piled up an average of 183 yards per game on the ground against Iowa.

When you keep getting flattened, it’s time to add some wrinkles.

And Iowa has found some sparks of success there. The up-tempo drive against Northwestern was one. The unleashing of the “Raider” defensive package at Rutgers two weeks ago was another.

Beathard was noncommittal when asked if the Hawkeyes were planning to mix in more no-huddle sequences Saturday.

“There’s always an opportunity to do that in a game plan. We may or may not do that,” was all he would say.

Maybe Beathard didn’t want to tip his hand. But his coach seemed to understand the need to get his offense out of the quicksand it’s sometimes appeared to be sinking in.

“The more of that we can get, the better off we're going to be,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the importance of quicker-developing pass plays. “And that's a team thing, whether it's protection, guys not getting open fast enough or maybe it's us not reading the right plays, right places, all those three things factor into it. So that's what we gotta keep working on.”

Iowa is averaging only 64 plays per game, ranking 118th out of 128 FBS teams. There’s no guarantee that quickening the pace won’t just place an added burden on the defense. A three-and-out that lasts only 23 seconds can be more devastating than one that consumes 123.

But no huddle doesn’t mean abandoning the run. Iowa’s up-tempo drive against Northwestern included only two passes — a 10-yard completion to Riley McCarron and an outstanding 22-yard grab by Jay Scheel. Five rushing plays picked up 23 yards, capped by Akrum Wadley’s 6-yard touchdown jaunt around the left end. In contrast, Iowa huddled up and took its time on two third-quarter drives, threw six passes and punted twice while the Wildcats seized control of the game.

It’s more about not becoming predictable. Avoiding penalties or other negative plays would help, too.

Beathard said practices have been going well, but there’s no way to tell how that will translate to the field.

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“We won’t know until we get out there on Saturday. You’re never going to be 100 percent clean. I guarantee you there’s going to be times where I am going to get pressured and maybe have to move or whatever, but that’s part of every game. I don’t know a game that anybody’s been able to sit back there all day and not get touched,” he said.

“We just expect our guys to protect better and me to get the ball out quicker and receivers to get open, and we can all help that.”

If it sounds simple, it hasn’t been in recent weeks for Iowa.

It’s time to abandon simple and start forcing defenses to stay awake instead of trying to lull them to sleep.