UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There is justifiable concern over Greg Davis’ Iowa offense, but no free pass could be given for Phil Parker’s defense Saturday night in Happy Valley.
The Hawkeyes allowed a shocking 599 yards in a 41-14 loss to Penn State — the most in the Kirk Ferentz era since 1999 (Wisconsin, 604) and certainly the worst statistically in Parker’s five years as defensive coordinator.
It was the most yardage Penn State had gained against a Big Ten opponent since its juggernaut 1994 season. Twenty-two years ago.
Parker puts great emphasis on limiting opponents’ big plays, but on Saturday, the Nittany Lions had five plays that totaled 234 yards alone — fittingly, the same yardage Iowa’s offense gained in the entire game on 52 snaps.
“That’s where they hit us, with the big plays,” cornerback Desmond King said. “You’re not going to have a good game if you give up big plays like that. We just didn’t see it coming.”
The longest play of the night caught Iowa’s players and coaches flat-footed.
With Penn State holding a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and facing a third-and-5, Iowa inserted its “Raider” defensive personnel — six defensive backs and no defensive tackles.
Quarterback Trace McSorley saw that, and checked into a shotgun handoff to star running back Saquon Barkley — who sped around the left end for a way-too-easy 57-yard touchdown run.
Why didn’t Iowa coaches call a timeout when it appeared obvious — even from the press box — that Penn State was changing the play?
“In retrospect, that’s a call we’d love to have back,” said Ferentz, who went to the halftime locker room down 24-7 with his full allotment of three timeouts. “… We put our guys in a tough situation there.”
The most concerning defensive development, though, was Iowa’s inability to stop the run. The Hawkeyes seemed to be improving in that area since adjustments following a 38-31 Week 5 loss to Northwestern, but that progress vanished Saturday as Penn State racked up 349 yards on the ground.
About the assistant coaches
Don’t look for any in-season coaching changes. That’s not in Ferentz’s DNA.
He was, however, asked after Saturday’s game about whether he’d consider making a change at some point. Patience among Iowa’s fan base is certainly wearing thin with Davis as offensive coordinator, the coaching position Ferentz has referred to as the worst seat in the house because it's often a lightning-rod for criticism.
Ferentz mostly dodged the question, but did provide a vote of confidence for the people inside the Iowa Football Performance Center.
“We have great people that work with us. Our players and coaches have a good attitude and a really good work ethic,” said Ferentz, who in September signed a contract extension that would pay him nearly $50 million plus incentives through the 2025 season. “You check those boxes off. And we’ll go from there. But we have to look at everything, obviously.
“We are focused on our players; what we can do for them and prepare for next week. And that is where my focus is right now certainly.”
Despite continued offensive struggles, there were at least a few bright spots — and one change — in the passing game.
Sophomore Jerminic Smith had one of the best games of his young career, and the Hawkeyes’ screen game was working well.
It may not sound like much, but C.J. Beathard threw for 204 yards — tying his second-highest total of the season. He even saw open receivers at times. He completed 18 of his 26 attempts and threw for two touchdowns.
“Today, there were times guys were getting open,” Beathard said. “Jerminic did a good job getting open today.”
Smith finished with a career-high five receptions for 85 yards, including a 36-yard TD on Iowa’s final possession. The Hawkeyes have needed their young receivers to step up, especially in light of Matt VandeBerg’s season-ending broken foot, and Smith — at least on this night — showed some life.
Outside of Smith, some of Beathard's most effective completions were to running backs Akrum Wadley (five catches, 32 yards and a 12-yard TD) and LeShun Daniels Jr. (two for 36, including a nice 24-yard designed screen in the second quarter).
Still, the Hawkeyes need more at receiver. That’s part of the reason sophomore Adrian Falconer got the most extensive action of his career. Though he didn’t make a catch on one target, Falconer was the No. 4 guy in Bobby Kennedy’s wide-receiver rotation (joining Smith, Riley McCarron and Jay Scheel). Ronald Nash did not play.
“We’re looking for answers,” Ferentz said of the receiver group. “We spent the last two weeks looking. Certainly, we didn’t advance far enough tonight. We’ve got the players we’ve got. We’ve got to try to coach them a little better.”
The injury front
Beathard probably won’t have a healthy George Kittle the rest of the season, Ferentz said Saturday. Iowa’s top tight end was limited coming in with a right ankle injury, and the Hawkeye radio broadcast said he re-injured it during the game.
Kittle was noticeably limping during the second half.
“I’m good,” he said afterward when asked about the re-aggravation.
Ferentz was less optimistic about Kittle’s contributions going forward. (He had two receptions for nine yards Saturday.)
"I don't know if he will be totally healthy all season, based on what I saw tonight,” Ferentz said. “He got good rest during the bye. At practice this week, we thought he was making progress."
Defensive tackle Nathan Bazata had his playing time limited as he battles a lower-leg injury. He got hurt Oct. 22 against Wisconsin and had his 22-game starting streak end at Beaver Stadium. Senior Faith Ekakitie started in Bazata’s place, and true freshman Cedrick Lattimore was rotating in at defensive tackle, too.
The outlook didn’t sound good for Cole Croston, either. The starting right tackle was available but did not play Saturday, as he nurses a nagging ankle injury. That moved Keegan Render into the lineup at left guard and pushed Ike Boettger out to right tackle.
“Frustrating for him; frustrated for all of us,” Ferentz said of Croston. “He took the bye week off also. He’s making progress, but it’s not real dramatic. We just can’t count on that right now.”
The Hawkeyes, at 5-4, need one win in their final three games to become bowl-eligible. Only one of Ferentz’s previous 15 teams (in 2012) didn’t reach the six-win mark.
If the Hawkeyes get to six — the most likely win coming Nov. 19 at Illinois, although that’s no guarantee after the Illini upended Michigan State on Saturday — their most likely postseason landing spot would center around Christmas instead of New Year’s Day.
As of Sunday, the Hawkeyes are probably the Big Ten Conference’s eighth- or ninth-best team. That means the New Year’s Six and other prime bowl slots would go to other teams.
Without getting into the weeds too much here (we can do more of that if and when Iowa wins again), Iowa’s most likely landing spots under the Big Ten's bowl partnerships would look to be among these five: the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Dec. 23 in Fort Worth, Texas), the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dec. 27 in Dallas), the New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium in New York), the Foster Farms Bowl (Dec. 28 in Santa Clara, Calif.) or the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Dec. 30 in Nashville — Beathard’s hometown).