Hawkeye analysis: For one drive, Iowa offense shows its potential

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The bad news for the Iowa offense Saturday was that 31 percent of its production came on one drive. 

The good news is that that drive happened at all.

Even the Hawkeye players were starting to wonder when everything would fall into place for an offense that has mostly been stuck in neutral through two weeks.

“It felt good, just to finally get some things rolling, to get the ball moving,” Iowa running back Toren Young said after a bare-knuckled 13-3 victory over rival Iowa State.

“We knew we were close on some things. … I think there’s a lot that we can take from that drive moving on. We’ll get on the film and we’ll see that.”

Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith (12) gets tackled by Iowa State defensive back D'Andre Payne (1) during the Cy-Hawk NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

What the Hawkeyes will see when watching that 83-yard fourth-quarter drive that sealed the victory is:

  • Three big third-down conversions by three different ball-carriers. Iowa had converted only three third downs all game to that point.
  • Senior wide receiver Nick Easley’s first catch of the season, on a play when he momentarily had his sight of Nate Stanley’s pass blocked by a defender, then readjusted to pick up 15 yards.
  • Sophomore wide receiver Brandon Smith’s first catch of the season, on a third-and-4 play that picked up 30 yards and which marked Stanley’s best pass of the game.
  • Sophomore running back Mekhi Sargent’s first touchdown as a Hawkeye, on a beautifully blocked 2-yard scamper around left end on which he spotted the pylon as soon as he took the handoff and then was determined to get there.

“I’ve still got the chills. My hairs are standing up right now,” Sargent said afterward, motioning toward his forearm.

None of this erases all of the ineptitude that Iowa’s offense has shown early this season. The Hawkeyes are 2-0 because the defense has been extraordinary.

But the sense from the Hawkeyes in postgame interviews was that, for one drive at least, they showed what the offense is capable of.

EARLY CY-HAWK THOUGHTS:A big play, at last, and it's still a Hawkeye state

“It’s big, being able to spread the ball around and be able to take advantage of some of those different coverages that they ran,” Stanley said after completing 16 of 28 passes for 166 yards and no interceptions. “And being able to get everybody involved so they can’t really focus in on one person, especially the tight ends."

Stanley has completed just 53 percent of his passes through two games and has sometimes made curious decisions about where to place the football. He was initially called for a fumble Saturday on a play in which he decided to try to throw a pass despite a rapidly closing Cyclone defender. It was ruled an incomplete pass instead.

It's not entirely his fault of course. He has completed 10 passes to tight end T.J. Hockenson for 97 yards. Tight end Noah Fant has another seven receptions for 41 yards and Iowa’s lone touchdown catch, which came last week in a 33-7 win over Northern Illinois.

That leaves only 12 catches for the wide receivers and running backs, a dismal number that was much worse before that second-half ray of hope Saturday.

Stanley connected with his fastest receiver, Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a perfectly executed 45-yard pass in the third quarter. The offensive line created a huge pocket for Stanley to stand in. Smith-Marsette got a step on two defenders. It was Iowa’s longest play from scrimmage this season.

But two things happened that may be seen as omens for this offense. First, Smith-Marsette injured his shoulder on the play and sat out the rest of the game. Second, the Hawkeyes followed that play with a 15-yard chop-blocking penalty.

The crowd sat back down. The Hawkeyes moved backward. And eventually settled for a 48-yard field goal from Miguel Recinos that tied his career long.

Iowa had that uneasy 6-3 lead when it got the ball back at its 17-yard line with 11 minutes, 17 seconds remaining. Fant dropped Stanley’s first-down throw. Young rushed for 1 yard up the middle. This team is not built to convert on third-and-9 too often, but the Hawkeyes got exactly 9 yards on a Stanley pass to Hockenson.

Next, Stanley found Fant for 11 yards. Soon, came the 15-yarder to Easley, Iowa’s leading receiver a year ago.

“He said the ball, it was behind a defender and then it poked out and then he made a great catch because he barely saw the ball,” Smith marveled afterward.

The Hawkeyes moved to Iowa State’s 32-yard line for the third-and-4 that set up Smith’s big moment. He has started both games and seen extensive snaps, but hadn’t caught a pass.

“They came down, loaded the box on a run play that we had,” Stanley said of the Cyclone defense. “That’s one thing we always talk about is not running dead plays. Running the ball against an eight-man box really isn’t the best thing. Brandon did a great job of getting open and he made that play for us.”

Smith hauled in a 30-yard pass and immediately felt relief.

“I figured that the play was coming to me because Nate gave me the signal. So instead of thinking too much about it, I went back to what I do at practice,” Smith said.

“That was exciting. What was going through my head was, ‘Finally. I finally got a good catch.’”

And Iowa’s offense finally had a good drive, a week after its longest was 58 yards.

“I think as a unit we did a really good job taking it one play at a time and we made the most of every play,” Sargent said.

“We needed to get in the end zone. We wanted to end the game. And that’s what we did.”