What we know about Hawkeye football after 3 games; what that means for Big Ten play

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Hawkeyes have started 3-0 five times since 2006.

Once in 2006, before losing seven of their final 10 games. Again in 2008, en route to a 9-4 season. A 3-0 start led to an 11-2 year in 2009. Of course we remember 2015, the 12-0 season that ended in back-to-back heartbreaks. And with Saturday’s bizarre 31-14 win over North Texas, the 2017 Hawkeyes have also won their first three.

Iowa tight end Noah Fant celebrates as he runs in for a touchdown during the Hawkeyes' game against North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

Whether this year winds up more like 2015 or 2006 remains to be seen. Obviously, it comes down to these next 10 weeks in Big Ten Conference play.

Here’s what we’ve learned about the Hawkeyes through their nonconference schedule, and what it all means for their Big Ten chances:

Iowa's Parker Hesse forces a fumble as he sacks North Texas quarterback Mason Fine during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

1. The defense is a mixed bag at this point.

Josey Jewell led a New Years Six Bowl-worthy effort against Josh and the Fighting Allens in Week 1's win over Wyoming. Then, the defense laid an egg in Week 2, allowing 467 yards and 41 points to Iowa State.

Week 3 was supposed to give us some clarity — will Iowa’s real defense please stand up?

That didn’t happen. The Hawkeyes looked overmatched by a Conference USA opponent in the first half … before pulling a full 180 and blanking the Mean Green in the second half.

"The first half’s still going to bug us a lot," Jewell said. "You have to play a full game. You have to play a full 60 (minutes)."

The Hawkeyes are currently 74th in the country in pass defense (238 yards per game; seventh in the Big Ten) and 23rd in rush defense (97 yards per game; sixth in the Big Ten).

What does this mean for Big Ten play?

That we can't yet expect sturdy performances from the defense, like we thought we might after Week 1.

The Big Ten offenses Iowa will face are not Wyoming or North Texas. Six of its conference opponents currently rank in the country’s top 50 for total offense. That includes this Saturday's opponent Penn State, which ranks 41st with 469 yards per game.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz said his defense is better than what it showed the first half against North Texas. He just hopes what he sees in practice can find its way to the field during games.

"My experience is, sometimes it just kind of shows up at funny times and sometimes it doesn't show up for a while, and that doesn't mean you're not getting better away from the game," Ferentz said. "But, you know, the only thing I know and what I've learned is you've got to press as hard as you can press and hope it starts showing up at some given point."

The key to success on defense is simple, according to Manny Rugamba: "Everything comes down to communication."

More Iowa football coverage:

2. Iowa’s passing attack has more punch than it was supposed to.

Who guessed 10 of Iowa’s first 13 touchdowns would come via the pass? (Oh stop. Put your hand down.)

Listen: It’s usually not a good sign when a team names the starting quarterback six days before the season opener. (Yes, Chuck Hartlieb in 1987 is an exception.)

So, when Ferentz named Nate Stanley the starter Aug. 28, not much was expected from Iowa’s passing game. Especially with what appeared to be a dearth of talent at receiver. Especially with only one convincing public performance from Stanley. And especially with a running game as potent as Iowa’s.

Iowa's Nate Stanley (4) passes the ball during their football game against North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Iowa City.

But that’s why seasons aren’t won or lost in August. Through Iowa’s first three games, Stanley looks legitimate. He's 51-for-83 for 655 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception, toting a 165.1 passer rating. 

On the receiving end, junior-college walk-on Nick Easley leads the team with 16 catches for 162 yards and two scores. Noah Fant seems to be the next in a long line of successful Hawkeye tight ends. And true freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette just might turn out to be a recruiting steal.

"I kept reading in the papers up until August that we don't have any receivers," Ferentz joked with reporters Saturday.

What does this mean for Big Ten play?

That the Hawkeyes have its most intriguing offense entering conference in recent memory — especially under offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

With the news that Butler will be sidelined at least through Iowa's bye week, Stanley's arm will take on even more importance early on in the Big Ten slate.

Defenses can’t just key in on Wadley and Butler (or Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin while Butler's out). If they do, Stanley has proven the ability to make teams pay.

The sophomore quarterback and his receivers will have their opportunities; only three of Iowa's conference opponents (Michigan State, Penn State and Minnesota) rank in the country's top 50 in passing defense.

"Nate is not out of the woods yet," Kirk Ferentz said. "But you think about the progress he's made from Week 1, when we were out here last time, he was struggling a little bit. But the last two weeks he's really done a good job of sitting in the pocket and finding the open guy and getting the ball there pretty accurately."

You can’t talk about Stanley and this offense without mentioning Brian Ferentz. He’s breathed new life into a unit that played predictable and, frankly, boring football for a long time. Under Ferentz, the I-formation is just one setup; not the setup. Iowa still employs its patented zone running schemes, but Ferentz also gives Stanley some freedom out of the shotgun and draws up plays to get the ball to his playmakers — namely Wadley and Fant.

We've seen the Smith-Marsette jet sweeps. Heck, Wadley's running the ball out of shotgun sets at times. 

3. The offensive line has work to do.

Injuries have left bumps in the road for Iowa’s offensive line, a unit that was likely the team’s strength entering the season.

James Daniels missed the first game. Boone Myers is dealing with an ankle injury and playing both left guard and left tackle. Keegan Render moved from left to right guard, and Ross Reynolds assumed the top spot at left guard. Alaric Jackson is starting at left tackle as a redshirt freshman. Ike Boettger is gone for the year with an Achilles tear, which puts Sean Welsh at right tackle and true freshman Tristan Wirfs as the first right tackle off the bench.

Iowa's James Daniels (78) warms up before taking on North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Iowa City.

We saw the negative results of all that rearrangement Saturday, when Iowa mustered just 3.7 yards per carry in the first half. The line also broke down for a near-disastrous 10-yard sack and fumble in the second quarter.

"I think some of the hiccups we saw in the first half, pass protection, some stuff there, usually if a guy comes through unscathed that means we blew something, and I think we had a couple of those today," Ferentz said. "I don't want to blame it on the rotation stuff, but we have to do a better job of getting cohesive."

What does this mean for Big Ten play?

That things must shore up.

Everything nice we just said about Iowa’s passing game, plus everything that people expect from Iowa’s running game is all predicated on what happens in the trenches.

The good news: Nobody is going to out-talent Iowa on the offensive line. These issues are examples of miscommunication and miscues that, logically, will work themselves out through reps.

"We've got to be more cohesive playing together," Ferentz said. "It's no different than a basketball team, you know? If you play seven, eight guys, guys have to rotate, but they have to know each other's moves."

4. These new kids are pretty dang good.

Iowa had eight true freshmen on its depth chart Saturday. All eight are second-stringers, but several are making immediate impacts.

A.J. Epenesa gets regular playing time at defensive end, and usually wreaks at least a little bit of havoc when he's in. The five-star recruit has logged three tackles, 1.5 sacks and many more quarterback pressures.

Smith-Marsette became the Iowa's newest hero with two touchdown grabs against Iowa State, and he's proven to be a versatile piece in Brian Ferentz's offense.

Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6) can't come up with a pass during their football game  against North Texas at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in Iowa City. Iowa would go on to win 31-14.

With his 74 yards and two scores Saturday, Kelly-Martin looks like a very capable backup (along with Young) should anything happen to Wadley or Butler — which, for the latter, it has.

The other five: cornerback Matt Hankins (who has three tackles), receiver Brandon Smith (who made his first catch versus North Texas), right tackle Tristan Wirfs (who checked in late in the fourth quarter versus North Texas), punter Ryan Gersonde and free safety Geno Stone (who has one tackle).

What does this mean for Big Ten play?

Let's see.

Are these performances examples of rookie magic? Or can the heralded newbies keep it up against Big Ten athletes they were recruited to play against?

Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at mbain@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.