Hawkeye offense has a recipe for winning that will work on the road

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Iowa’s offense has been grinding away at defenses all season, ranking third in the nation with 36 minutes, 7 seconds of possession time each game.

Once in the red zone, no team in the country has been more efficient. The Hawkeyes have gotten points on each of their 17 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, including 13 touchdowns.

This is where senior quarterback Nate Stanley has been at his most masterful in No. 14 Iowa’s 4-0 start, preaching a mantra of “six points, instead of three.”

And this is where he’ll need to shine again at 11 a.m. Saturday, when the Hawkeyes tangle with No. 18 Michigan (3-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) on its homecoming day in a stadium called the Big House. The Wolverines have the league’s stingiest pass defense, allowing only 128 yards per game. Stanley will need to pick his spots, and make them count.

Six instead of three.

“How long a receiver is open changes,” Stanley said of life in the red zone, where he has passed for six touchdowns and rushed for another this season. “The field is condensed, so your play-calling is limited. The ball placement, the accuracy you need to score touchdowns, it’s a lot higher and needs to be a lot better.

“You still want to be aggressive, but you’ve got to know you can’t throw some balls the way you would normally throw some balls. Just knowing that you can’t throw a guy open as you normally would.”

Stanley will be making his 31st consecutive start, but is seeking his first signature win in a Big Ten road game. He was far from his best in a 2017 loss at Wisconsin and last year at Penn State.

His maturation this year has been evident. He has completed 76-of-118 passes (64.4%) for 965 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions. He has spread the ball to 12 receivers. The Iowa offense has been methodical, converting 50% of its third downs to rank second in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes haven’t hurt themselves with turnovers (just one all year), penalties (16, fewest in the Big Ten) or negative-yardage plays (15, second in the Big Ten).

This is how you win football games in big-time road environments: Hold on to the ball and capitalize on every goal-line opportunity.

Iowa devotes part of its Tuesday practices to red-zone offense. The emphasis has been made clear to a team that wants to be built to win close games: You can’t leave points on the field.

“We harp on making sure we finish when we’re down there. We’re hard-nosed. We line up in heavy personnels down there. Then we can spread it out, too,” Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said.

“Once you get down there, you get more man coverages. Everything happens faster. We execute during the week at picking it up, giving ourselves our best plays against what’s possibly coming.”

Nate Stanley has the Iowa offense humming this season, avoiding negative plays and capitalizing each time it's reached the red zone. It will take that kind of performance again Saturday to win at Michigan.

Last Saturday provided a perfect example of this. In the third quarter, Iowa had the ball at the Middle Tennessee State 14-yard line. A quick look at how the Blue Raider defensive ends and secondary were aligned gave an indication of a play that would work. The Hawkeyes sent a man in motion to gauge the defense’s reaction. Every Iowa player knew what was coming next because they’d prepared for this moment.

Stanley handed the football to Smith-Marsette on a jet sweep. Tight end Nate Wieting led the way for an easy touchdown.

“The communication level has been really good this year,” Wieting, a senior, explained of the red-zone perfection. “Everyone being on the same page, understanding what we’re trying to do.”

That doesn’t just show up in the red zone, of course. It’s been apparent throughout Iowa’s first four games as they drain the clock and frustrate opponents hungry to get their hands on the football.

Michigan has a senior quarterback in Shea Patterson and potential big-play wide receivers in Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones. The Hawkeyes would prefer to see them standing on the sideline.

“They’ve got great athletes. If we can keep their offense off the field, that’s huge for our defense,” Stanley said. “If we continue to chunk away and have those long drives, it wears down a defense.”

Wieting, a blocking tight end at heart, lives for those moments. He hopes to experience the feeling again Saturday. If he does, it will likely be a happy plane ride home for the Hawkeyes.

“I think that speaks to the way we train around here and the way we work all year long,” Wieting said of Iowa’s ability to prolong drives. “By the time the fourth quarter rolls around, they’re going to be worn down. We’re going to be able to get up to the second level. We’re going to be able to start cutting yards out of them.”

No. 14 IOWA (4-0, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) at No. 18 MICHIGAN (3-1, 1-1)

When: 11:05 a.m. Saturday

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV: Fox (Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, Jenny Taft)

Line: Wolverines by 3.5

Weather: Partly cloudy and 56 degrees; winds from southeast at 10 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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