'It was a grind out there': Assessing Iowa's seesawing offensive performance against Purdue

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tristan Wirfs didn’t take the audible grumblings personally, nor did many of his black-and-gold brethren. The boos peppering Kinnick Stadium as Iowa trudged to halftime would fade if the Hawkeyes re-discovered some offensive life.

“They probably just wanted to see some action,” Wirfs said.

After a stagnant opening that featured three field goals, an uninspiring two-point intermission lead and additional mounds of offensive frustration, No. 22 Iowa finally put together a half with some substance. Two touchdowns signal progress for the Hawkeyes these days. Offensively, Iowa did a bit more than the bare minimum to avoid a drastic collapse against middling Purdue. Saturday’s 26-20 victory halted a two-game losing streak that undoubtedly couldn’t linger any longer.

Still, this wasn’t the breakout performance it could’ve easily been. The Boilermakers have defensive holes everywhere — and Iowa pounced on some — but not enough to feel completely confident these offensive sputters are in the rear-view.

It makes for a murky assessment, as Iowa readies for a pivotal month on the road.

“Last couple weeks, we couldn’t even get down there (to score), so we’re working our way up the ladder right now,” wide receiver Tyrone Tracy said. “(The halftime message) was really just, ‘Do us.’ There wasn’t much to it. We have a lot of faith in our line, our quarterback and our receivers and running backs. So there really wasn’t much to it. The results were up there.”

Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley calls the play in the second quarter against Purdue on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes’ closing act at least makes the up-and-down showing a little easier to stomach. Tyler Goodson’s 1-yard scoring plunge in the third, coupled with Mekhi Sargent’s game-sealing TD scamper in the final minutes, marked the first time Iowa reached the end zone twice against a Power Five team since Sept. 7 versus Rutgers.

Both were significant in their own regard.

Clinging to a 9-7 lead, Iowa couldn’t waste Riley Moss’ pivotal interception early in the third. The Hawkeyes responded with their best drive of the day, pushing 72 yards with three chunky completions to three different receivers. Goodson’s first collegiate score was a needed boost. So were Sargent’s late rumbles of 21 and 14, which came after Purdue’s failed onside kick. Everyone in a sold-out Kinnick knew ground attacks were coming. Iowa successfully shut down any lingering upset thoughts.

But toss those aside, and there are still plenty of concerns. Iowa racked up nearly 200 total yards on four field-goal drives, further magnifying the Hawkeyes’ end-zone sputters once they cross the 50. Half of Iowa’s 10 third-down failures came on those four possessions. All five failed chances saw Iowa facing 3rd-and-5 or shorter. Peculiar decisions that offered little chance of conversion dominated those situations.

Consider this: In Iowa’s last four Power Five games, it’s had 24 drives end in opponent territory; only four of those have finished in the end zone. Comprising the other 20 are 11 field goals, four punts, two interceptions, one missed field goal, one turnover on downs and one kneel down. The Hawkeyes’ 15 red-zone TDs are tied for fourth-worst in the Big Ten, along with pedestrian teams Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois.

Keith Duncan’s reliability amid years of patience is a fantastic 2019 storyline, but Iowa is leaning on his services much too often. The fact he has more made field goals (17) than extra points (16) further illustrates the end-zone whiffing.

After burning them in narrow losses to Michigan and Penn State, the Hawkeyes skated by Saturday on mostly threes. Iowa knows that can’t continue with some of the challenges up ahead.

“Some things we're going to have to clean up — that's not going to change,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Obviously, still working on finding our rhythm better, offensively — and we'll continue to press on that.”

Driving that rhythmic skip is the continual up-front shuffling, which doesn’t seem to have an established conclusion. Iowa again went rotational-heavy at the guard position, playing four different bodies before the second quarter’s midway point.

Landan Paulsen (left) and Mark Kallenberger (right) started, but Cody Ince (left) and Justin Britt (right) checked in shortly after. The protection was much-improved — one sack surrendered — giving Nate Stanley a consistently clean pocket to pick apart Purdue’s dismal secondary. Nine of the quarterback’s 23 completions went for 13-plus yards. Five receivers got in on the long-ball action.

The ground attack was less fluid, rolling up just three runs of double-digit yards on 33 attempts. Two of those did come when Iowa needed them most. A mix of poor and productive in just about every area.

"Obviously, there are things we can do better," center Tyler Linderbaum said, "but we're just going to kind of build off this and go forward."

Added Wirfs: “It was a grind out there. It was a battle — a back-and-forth game. But a win is a win.”

That’s why the boos came, then vanished — at least those directed at the home squad. A similar seesawing assessment sums up Iowa's current offensive state.

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