Hawkeye offensive line looks to bounce back from its poorest outing
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley was under pressure from the very first play Saturday against Penn State.
The junior was sacked for a five-yard loss and penalized for intentional grounding to boot.
The Hawkeye running backs had trouble finding holes in the Nittany Lion defense as well. Sixteen first-half carries produced just 51 yards.
There were many reasons the Hawkeyes were held without an offensive touchdown in a 30-24 loss at Beaver Stadium. But start up front, where an offensive line that has been a big asset all season turned in its poorest showing against a strong Nittany Lion front four.
Stanley was sacked a season-high three times and hurried on another seven occasions. The running game found a little more traction in the second half, thanks to Mekhi Sargent, but still averaged a subpar 3.6 yards per carry. Iowa’s tackle tandem of Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs were whistled for four false starts between them. Even senior center Keegan Render, the calming influence on the offensive line, struggled with snaps in the shotgun formation, firing a few of them low and one of them before Stanley was expecting it.
“There was a couple, yeah, where we had a motion so it has to be on Nate’s cadence and I couldn’t hear him. A lot of guys up front couldn’t. But that’s not an excuse. We’ve just got to work through that,” Render said of the penalties. “The bad snap on was just on me. That’s not on Nate. Just a lack of focus by me. Something I wish I could take back.”
Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) entered the game ranked 18th in the coach’s poll and on a three-game winning streak. Its previous two road games — at Minnesota and Indiana — produced 899 yards of offense and 90 points.
Penn State (6-2, 3-2) proved a much more formidable opponent — and not just because of a crowd announced at 105,244 that made communication difficult. The Nittany Lions used a sequence of stunts and blitzes to try to confuse Iowa’s offensive line. Wirfs said Iowa was ready for most of them after studying film of Penn State’s previous game, against Indiana. There were a few new looks, though, Wirfs said.
“They were moving a lot, stunting a lot. They were showing some different stuff,” Wirfs said.
“We might have let ourselves down a little bit.”
Stanley had been sacked six times all season entering the game. He’d been hurried only seven times, a number that doubled after Penn State’s performance.
The result was that Iowa’s offense struggled to move the ball. The first five possessions of the second half ended in punts. The longest two drives of the game were the final two, which ended with an interception and the clock expiring after another near-sack.
“We’d get a big run. We’d kind of shoot ourselves in the foot with a penalty — that’s a drive-killer right there. You can’t really get any momentum off that,” Wirfs said.
“Our nerves might have been high. I think we all need to relax a little bit.”
Render acknowledged the difficulties but also saw promise from the fourth quarter.
“It just hurts because we know what we’re capable of and, obviously, (Saturday) wasn’t our sharpest performance,” he said. “One step forward, I think, is we came out and we finished and we put ourselves in a chance. Those last couple drives, they knew we were going to have to pass, and I think we did pretty well at least giving Nate a chance to go out there and make some plays.”
Next up is a trip to Purdue at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The Boilermakers (4-4, 3-2) have been strong against the run and vulnerable through the air this season. Even so, the defense has produced 19 sacks this season.
It won’t be easy, and Render will be one of the Hawkeyes called on to help the offensive line have a better performance.
“We got caught out of position a couple of times and a breakdown in fundamentals, I think, was the biggest thing,” he said of Saturday’s loss. “Going forward, I just want to see guys get up off the mat. Obviously, this is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt for the plane ride home.
“I think just picking ourselves up and realizing that, ‘Hey, we’ve got four more opportunities to go out there and prove that we’re a good offensive line.”