'Anxious' Hawkeyes offense looks to fix itself
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Don’t tell T.J. Hockenson that the Iowa offense is close to finding a rhythm.
“Close is a dangerous word,” the sophomore tight end said Tuesday. “You want to think you’re close, but at the same time you can be so far away.”
More wordplay from the Hawkeyes’ leading receiver after two games (10 receptions, 97 yards):
“Frustration, it’s a weird word. I think the better word is 'anxious.' We’re anxious to be there. We want to be there so bad. The fact that the last two games haven’t represented what we’ve been doing, what we’re able to do, is part of that.”
If Hockenson sounded angry, well, he dismissed that word, too. He’s just tired of seeing his offense suffer from what he called self-inflicted wounds. He doesn’t want to hear that Saturday’s 83-yard scoring drive that sealed a 13-3 victory over Iowa State was some sort of turning point.
“It’s a little glimpse,” Hockenson countered. “That’s what we’re trying to work on is we’d rather not have a 15-minute offensive display, but a 60-minute one.”
Keep in mind that Iowa is 2-0 entering Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. home game against Northern Iowa (0-1). Still, interviews with a half-dozen offensive players Tuesday revealed a great deal of dissatisfaction with their overall performance. No one is yet looking ahead to the Sept. 22 Big Ten Conference opener against Wisconsin, but it’s clear that this is a prime week for the Hawkeye offense to shake out of its malaise ahead of that pivotal game.
If not now, then when?
“I don’t really care too much about the numbers, to be honest with you,” said Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley, who has just one catch this season. “We just want to be productive and win games.”
Here are three themes that emerged when addressing a Hawkeye offense that is averaging 4.5 yards per play with 10 punts this season:
Starting quarterback is 'pressing' while trying to make quicker decisions
It starts, naturally, with quarterback Nate Stanley. He is in his second season as a starter but hasn’t yet shown the increased accuracy and better decision-making that was expected. Stanley has completed 29-of-53 passes with one touchdown and one interception.
“He looks like he's pressing to me a little bit,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of his junior signal-caller. “You can't aim a ball. … I think he's doing a little bit of that right now, trying to be too perfect.”
Stanley said he’s focusing on quicker releases on his passes this season, and that’s a work in progress. He has been sacked only one time, which is a positive.
“Getting from read one to two, and then if something is taken away, just get off it right away and get to the next throw,” he said.
“Being able to adjust on the fly is something that (I) personally need to get a lot better at. … When things aren’t the way they’re drawn up, you’ve still got to go out there and make a play.”
One thing no one questions about Stanley is his leadership. His teammates all pointed to his command of the huddle as a positive.
“We have all the confidence and all the trust in him, and I think he’ll play well,” Easley said.
Smith gets first catch, and plenty of praise from others (but not himself)
Easley led the Hawkeyes with 51 catches for 530 yards last season. His first catch of 2018 came during that fourth-quarter touchdown drive against the Cyclones.
Sophomore wideout Brandon Smith also got his initial reception of the season on that drive. It gained the Hawkeyes 30 yards and Smith a great deal of confidence. With Ihmir Smith-Marsette questionable this week after a shoulder injury, Easley and Smith will need to ramp up the production.
Stanley has been praising Smith all offseason, so you know the quarterback was glad to see his receiver leap to grab a perfectly placed pass. That play was followed by Mekhi Sargent’s two yard-touchdown run.
“He poses a lot of problems for defenses,” Stanley said of the 6-foot-3 Smith. “He’s a big, strong guy at the ‘X’ receiver and obviously can take advantage of one-on-one matchups. I think if he continues to progress like I know that he can, like he showed during spring ball and through the summer, I think it’s a great weapon for us.”
Ferentz echoed that sentiment.
“It's really the first time, to me at least, that he's really kind of used what he has, what he possesses. It's good when you play towards your strengths,” Ferentz said. “That's my favorite Brandon Smith play thus far in his career, and hopefully he's got a lot more down the road here.”
Smith, who caught three passes last year but is seeing much more playing time this season, is a potential difference-maker for a wide receiver group in need of one. He feels the weight of that and was unusually hard on himself when speaking to reporters Tuesday. He still blames himself for Stanley’s Week 1 interception, when he allowed himself to get pushed to the sideline on a deep route.
“I just want everything to be perfect. Nate needs me to be a better receiver than what I am,” Smith said. “I’m not saying that I’m terrible. … I just want things to get corrected.”
Easley, the leader of the wide receiver group, was more matter-of-fact. He said the Iowa offense had a good day of practice Tuesday and that he’s sure improvement is on the horizon.
“We’ll be all right. We have a good gameplan,” Easley said. “We’ve just got to get clicking.”
Hawkeye offense aims to shake off sluggish beginnings of games
Lastly, Iowa’s offensive players all said it’s imperative that they get off to better starts in games, beginning with Saturday’s. The Hawkeyes have opened each contest with a three-and-out and have only a pair of field goals to show for their two first halves.
Senior guard Ross Reynolds said coming out with a better tempo Saturday has been a major emphasis in practice.
“We’re working on starting faster and coming off the ball and being the more physical team out there,” he said.