Iowa takeaways: Bye-week injury bug, deep-ball alert, punt-return struggles

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — A bye week wasn’t enough time to heal two key injuries to Iowa’s defense that didn’t bubble up publicly until close to Saturday’s kickoff against Northwestern.

Out, Josey Jewell — the all-American middle linebacker with a shoulder injury.

Out, Brandon Snyder — the great comeback story and signal-calling free safety on Iowa’s defense with an unspecified injury.

Those were two big absences in a painful 17-10 overtime loss at Ryan Field.

Iowa's Matt VandeBerg makes a 61-yard catch against Northwestern's Alonzo Mayo to set up the Hawkeyes' only touchdown.

“Carry over from two weeks ago,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said of the pair being injured during Iowa’s 45-16 victory against Illinois on Oct. 7.

Jewell made the trip and was in uniform, although he wasn’t cleared to play. Snyder stayed back in Iowa to rehab, although it wasn’t clear if the injury was related to the ACL he tore in April.

Asked whether he rushed Snyder back too quickly, Ferentz pivoted by saying sometimes players wake up Sunday after games with injuries they didn’t discover during the game.

More:Iowa's offense evaporates in second half of overtime loss

“They leave the stadium fine and come back Sunday and they’ve got some issues. It’s not uncommon,” Ferentz said. “(Snyder) is going to work back from it. Hopefully we’ll get him back next week or the week after.”

As a result of both injuries, Ben Niemann became Iowa’s first starting middle linebacker not named Josey Jewell since Quinton Alston in the Jan. 2, 2015, TaxSlayer Bowl. Niemann didn’t start working at middle linebacker until late in the bye week and didn’t find out Jewell couldn’t play until Friday night.

“(Jewell) would’ve loved to be out there,” said Niemann, who had 11 tackles and a pass breakup. “He was involved on the sideline, giving me help, and the other guys. He wasn’t on the field, but he still helped us as much as he could.”

Kevin Ward (four tackles) made his first career start at outside linebacker, replacing Niemann, and Jake Gervase (six tackles) subbed for Snyder at free safety with Amani Hooker (seven tackles) starting at strong safety.

Of Jewell and Snyder, Ferentz said it was more likely Jewell could return for next Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. game against Minnesota.

Stanley hits deep, not often enough

It’s a bird, it’s a plane … it’s a completed deep ball for Iowa!

Yes, Nate Stanley connected with Matt VandeBerg for a 61-yard pass play late in the first half of Saturday’s loss. The long throws — or, more accurately, overthrows — had been plaguing the sophomore quarterback in the first half of the season.

This one was perfect — hitting VandeBerg in stride up the middle of the field to set up the Hawkeyes’ lone touchdown of the day.

“It felt great,” said VandeBerg, who made three catches for a season-high 90 yards. “That’s a lot of work we put in during the bye week and really up until now since the season started. It’s nice to see that come to fruition.”

Unfortunately, that play accounted for almost 20 percent of Iowa’s total offense (312 yards). The Hawkeyes need to try and hit more of these going forward. Stanley was only 6-for-14 for 41 yards after halftime, with a poor-decision interception, while mostly throwing underneath routes.

“Too many mistakes,” Stanley said.

Gersonde up, Jackson down

Iowa seems to have its punting game figured out with true freshman Ryan Gersonde – with a little rugby-style action from Colten Rastetter.

But now the big issue on special teams is punt returns, which cost the Hawkeyes precious yardage in a slugfest that went to overtime.

Recapping Joshua Jackson’s first three punt-return attempts:

—A fair catch with seemingly plenty of room to run, netting 44 yards into the wind.

—Letting Hunter Niswander’s second boot with the wind bounce forward without catching it for a net of 59 yards.

—And then, a field-position game-changer: After Iowa stopped Northwestern three-and-out on its second-half-opening drive, Jackson either wasn’t able to catch Niswander’s punt or let it go. The ball bounded forward and rolled dead at Iowa’s 3-yard line. The result was an 80-yard punt, flipping field position from Northwestern’s 17.

“Two things on that one,” Ferentz said. “The guy just nailed it. Kind of throws your charts off a little bit. Tough sun right there, too. Those two things make it tough. It was a huge play for them.”

After a Hawkeye punt, Northwestern tied it up at 7-7.

Jackson said “it was hard to see” when he was facing the East.

“Running over there trying to catch it, it would’ve been a hard catch,” he noted. “I’ve got to be better in my alignment.”

Anyway, the Iowa punters looked fine. Better than fine. Gersonde had excellent height and distance on his left-footed boots (five for an average of 52.6 yards). And Rastetter — who lost his starting job after five underwhelming games — got back into the action with a 55-yard rugby punt (all net).

Wadley's brief comments

Akrum Wadley’s postgame interview answers were short. The competitive senior hates losing. He used the word “embarrassing” to describe Saturday’s loss, a far cry from his experience here two years ago — when he rushed 26 times for 204 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-10 Hawkeye romp.

About the difference in emotions?

“No comment,” he said. “Next question.”

On the run-game struggles?

“Can’t pinpoint it.”

For the first time in four games against Northwestern, Wadley didn’t score a touchdown. He had combined 55 carries for 345 yards and seven TDs in three previous meetings.

He ended up with 26 carries for 90 yards and three receptions for five yards — just 3.3 yards a touch for Iowa’s most dynamic player.

Still, Wadley did move past Ronnie Harmon and into ninth place on Iowa’s all-time rushing list Saturday. He has 429 career carries for 2,336 yards. Owen Gill is eighth at 2,556 yards.

Run defense was better

All week long, Iowa players heard about the 4.51 yards per carry they were allowing.

The rush defense was significantly improved Saturday, with Northwestern generating 3.2 yards per attempt on 46 carries. That's under the goal of 3.3 set by defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

“That was the emphasis over the bye week," defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said. "We were struggling with that against Illinois. I think we did a good job there.”

It's something to build on.