Against a porous Purdue defense, Hawkeyes' much-maligned attack must come alive

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There was never going to be any Boilermaker bashing, especially from an Iowa offense that doesn’t have much to boast about these days. Throw in Purdue’s back-to-back series wins, and the Hawkeyes certainly have no reason to brush off Saturday’s 11 a.m. affair at Kinnick Stadium as a guaranteed rout.

Still, the numbers are what they are. And 22nd-ranked Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) must add to the misery.

With the Hawkeyes’ offense deservedly under fire from every angle, Saturday offers a glowing chance to get right against a porous Boilermaker defense. Purdue (2-4, 1-2) hasn’t slowed hardly anyone in every football facet.

If Iowa can’t shake from its October snooze this weekend, the offensive problems run much deeper than originally anticipated.

“Whether they give us run-friendly looks or pass-friendly looks, we’re trying to take advantage of whatever they give us on the offensive side of the ball,” tight end Nate Wieting said. “I think we have good receivers, good backs, good tight ends, offensive line and quarterback. I still think we have a very good offensive unit.

“And if we execute, we can hurt them through the air or on the run. We’ve got to be able to do both.”

Iowa offensive linemen get set after a huddle during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Penn State, Saturday, Oct., 12, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

A statistical dive indicates Iowa should have offensive options.

We’ll start with the basics.

The Boilermakers are in the Big Ten’s bottom four when it comes to average scoring defense (29.8 points, 12th), total defense (444.5 yards, 13th), rush defense (166.5 yards, 11th), passing defense (278 yards, 13th), first downs allowed (20.8 12th) and total sacks (14, 11th). Those totals come in a league that still features the likes of Rutgers, Illinois and other sputtering programs.

Zooming out only magnifies the futility. The scoring defense, total defense and passing defense figures slot 88th, 104th and 112th nationally out of 130 FBS teams. Only nine Power Five squads yield more average yards through the air. Only 12 have surrendered more points per game.

Box-score plunging reveal skill players routinely have their best days when Purdue looms on the other side. Three largely pedestrian quarterbacks — Nevada’s Carson Strong, Vanderbilt’s Riley Neal and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan — set season-highs in touchdown passes and total quarterback rating against the Boilermakers. All three racked up 29 percent or more of their respective 2019 passing yardage in their days against the Boilermakers.                     

The elite performances extend beyond under center. Multiple running backs have wielded extreme potency while slicing through Purdue’s holes. TCU’s Darius Anderson (179 yards, 11.2 average) and Penn State’s Noah Cain (105, 8.8) both achieved season-bests in rushing yards and yards per carry, propelling their squads to blowouts. Horned Frogs senior Sewo Olonilua also had his second career century-mark outing inside Ross-Ade Stadium. The showings are, in large part, why Purdue’s rushing yards per attempt (4.6 yielded) is the second-worst in the Big Ten.

Even in the Boilermakers’ best 2019 showing — last week’s 40-14 drubbing over Maryland — Terrapins sophomore Dontay Demus Jr. broke loose for career-highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (105).

That’s a mound of evidence to suggest Iowa can re-discover the offensive hype that peppered the preseason and early weeks. Whether it’s the backfield depth shaking free, the offensive line uncovering some much-needed confidence or Nate Stanley leading touchdown drives instead of settling for field-goals, the stage is lit for a grand performance.

“We feel confident with the players that we have,” Stanley said. “We feel we have a lot of weapons we can put on the field, not only down in the red zone but anywhere else on the field.

“We’re obviously disappointed in our performance (the last two weeks). We knew we have had opportunities and just haven’t been able to capitalize on them. But with that said, we know we have the ability to put more points up on the board. We know that if we just finished one or two more plays, we might have 14 more points (the last two weeks). Obviously disappointed, but not discouraged.”     

Although an offensive rebound will do wonders in the bigger picture, Iowa may need it in the micro, given what Purdue can do on the other side. For all their defensive shortcomings, the Boilermakers own a let-it-fly, no-boundaries attack that bit Iowa hard last season. The Hawkeyes delivered plenty of points, and it didn’t matter.

It’d be a fitting lift to an Iowa defense that’s held its own the last two weeks to no avail. Yielding 27 points in in eight quarters to a pair of ranked foes should be good enough for at least one win, despite what the Hawkeyes’ defensive members claim. The group deserves some leeway that Stanley and company can provide.

“If we want to get a win this week, we know we have to put points on the board,” wide receiver Nico Ragaini said. “… You can see watching the game, our defense is doing a great job holding two great teams to very minimal points, and that definitely bothers everyone on the offense. We know we have to push harder than we did the past two weeks.”

For now, part of the offensive blame can lie with the recent foes. Seventh-ranked Penn State sports an elite defense that’s suffocated just about everyone. Michigan, at No. 16, is a bit more flawed, yet thriving in the Big House is never easy. Winnable games, sure — but there’s at least some stomaching two ranked losses to storied programs.

Not this week. Iowa’s offense has no excuse not to come alive.

Doing so will revive some buzz. Falling flat again will justifiably crank up the noise even louder.  

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.