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Be careful when knocking a particular offensive lineman, just because on TV it looks like he missed a block that led to a quarterback hurry or sack.
Second-year Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek wants to let you know there are a lot of reasons for pass pressure. It could fall on the blocking back, or even the quarterback himself. Maybe the offensive line's setup or communication misfired, and the guy who appeared to get beat actually executed his assignment properly. Occasionally, Polasek said, the line chooses to let a guy rush freely because it’s a “hot” passing play.
“We get it. I get it. It falls on the offensive line,” Polasek said Wednesday night on Hawk Central radio, which airs on KxNO (1460 AM) in Des Moines. “OK, the O-line sucks. We gave up a sack.”
The complexity of line play is almost impossible for outsiders to understand.
It’s why Polasek doesn’t put much stock into ratings distributed by analytics outfits like Pro Football Focus within hours of a game. Sure, it’s easy to see a dominating block and know the offensive lineman did a good job. But it’s dangerous to assume an understanding of everything that goes into a particular play call.
“(It’s hard) even for another coach. I visit places all winter (recruiting) and you’ve got to learn their terminology and how they’re doing things before you can guess on who’s right or wrong,” Polasek said. “I think that’s a very challenging thing for somebody to do. For them to produce those reports, I’m not so sure. We don’t buy much into it.”
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Assessing the line play
No team in the Big Ten Conference has given up fewer sacks (10), but Iowa's 3.88 yards per carry ranks 10th in the league and 95th nationally.
Here’s how Polasek graded his four every-down offensive linemen:
Left tackle Alaric Jackson (sophomore) — Rapidly improving as a run blocker. “It’s actually pretty neat to watch him function in the run game daily. He’s really starting to play well in that area. Technique wise, he’s let some things slide a little bit in pass protection.”
Left guard Ross Reynolds (senior) — Iowa’s most consistent lineman. “He’s been probably our most dominating run blocker, and I’m just talking big blocks or physical blocks, on a week to week basis.”
Center Keegan Render (senior) — The line's unquestioned leader. “We’ve had way less of the communication (errors) than we did last year. And Keegan’s been a one-year starter at center, doing a really good job.”
Right tackle Tristan Wirfs (sophomore) — Still learning but has infinite upside. “I don’t think we’re even scratching the surface yet. (Maybe) he’s given up a hurry or two, but he’s been pretty dang reliable on that right side as far as pass protection goes. We’ve got to get him cleaned up in some of these conceptual things."
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Why the rotating right guards?
Polasek said the revolving personnel there has been more about injuries than performance.
Sophomore Cole Banwart (three starts) is finally nearing 100 percent after suffering an early-season high-ankle sprain. When healthy, he's Iowa's No. 1 right guard. He could slide to center next season.
Senior Dalton Ferguson (seven starts) missed last week’s game with a meniscus issue, Polasek said. And junior Levi Paulsen (one start) has been good in practice, which is why he earned 13 snaps at Purdue.
Resiliency is apparent
Polasek expressed similar frustration that fans are feeling with Iowa’s 6-3 record, which includes two last-minute losses and another in which the Hawkeyes threw a goal-line interception with a chance to take a lead in the final minutes. He also said the team has looked sharp in practice in advance of Saturday's game vs. Northwestern (2:42 p.m., Fox).
"We’ve practiced well. We’re a couple possessions away, in our mind, of pushing this thing through and having a little bit different record, right?" he said. "And that (isn’t) good enough. You’ve got to win these games."