Hawkeye offense looks to break loose in order to keep up with Gopher counterparts

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa had just throttled Northwestern 20-0 on Oct. 26 when Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz was asked if his team had embraced “winning ugly.”

“Down the road, there’s going to be one of those 38-33 games,” Ferentz predicted. That was a bold claim, considering his offense is generating only 19 points per game against Big Ten Conference opponents and his defense surrendering just 10.

But this could be that week, and the No. 22 Hawkeyes are certainly preparing that way.

Seventh-ranked Minnesota brings a 9-0 record and a red-hot offense into Kinnick Stadium for a 3 p.m. Saturday kickoff to air nationally on Fox.

The Gophers just scored 31 points against a Penn State defense that stifled Iowa in October. They have a running back in Rodney Smith who gashed Illinois for 211 yards on the ground last month and a wide receiver in Rashod Bateman coming off a 203-yard afternoon against the Nittany Lions. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is fourth in the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 191. He has 2,100 yards, 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

Meanwhile, a Hawkeye offense that has been moribund much of the season bolted to life late in a 24-22 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday. Quarterback Nate Stanley threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns after getting the green light to go up-tempo.

“I think we were just in more of a rhythm as far as the play-calling,” Stanley said Tuesday.

That’s likely what it will take again Saturday to keep pace with Minnesota, the most balanced and dynamic offense Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) has seen this season.

Nate Stanley and the Iowa offense shook loose late in Saturday's loss at Wisconsin, with 16 fourth-quarter points. Now, the Hawkeyes must try to keep pace with high-flying Minnesota.

The Hawkeye offense is aware that settling for field goals, as it has done 22 times this season, is not the answer against the Gophers.

“We’ve got to match them. If they score, we’ve got to do our part to help the defense out,” Iowa guard Kyler Schott said. “We’ve got nothing to lose. Not really. We’ve made a bowl game. By mathematics, I guess we could still win the (Big Ten) West. I say, ‘Let’s just go out there and do what we have to do. Have fun.’”

That’s what the Hawkeyes appeared to do in the late going against the Badgers, after falling behind 21-6. Stanley, who hadn’t targeted emerging star Tyrone Tracy all game, suddenly found him five times for 130 yards and an electrifying 75-yard score.

In Saturday’s game, all the pressure will be on Minnesota, which is trying to protect its flawless record and its two-game lead in the Big Ten West. It’s a young team not accustomed to such success, but also one playing with a great deal of confidence.

“They’re the ones that kind of control their own destiny. If we can come out and just play loose and just go out there and really just give it all for 60 minutes, that’s all we can ask for,” Stanley said, drawing on an example from 2017. “I think that’s something we did when we played Ohio State two years ago, and obviously that turned out pretty well for us.”

That was a 55-24 home upset of the then-undefeated Buckeyes in Stanley’s first season as a starter. He had NFL-bound tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to throw to then.

This year, he’s seen a different approach from defenses that includes more blitzes, a tactic that emerged in Iowa’s 10-3 loss at Michigan and has been a fixture ever since. Stanley pointed it out as the biggest difference in this year’s Gophers defense, in its third season under head coach P.J. Fleck.

“They’ve got some new things that they’ve done that they haven’t done to us in the past,” Stanley said.

“Certain formations, certain personnel groupings, we’re seeing more blitzes than we have in the past. (Defenses are trying to) stop certain plays. Certain formations where we run the ball more or pass the ball more, (they’re using) certain blitzes to get us to check into runs or check out of passes.”

Stanley will need to read those situations, and his offensive line will need to buy him more time, something that got better as the Wisconsin game progressed.

Iowa has struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone all season, and that must change as well if this game becomes a shootout.

Stanley said opponents have been relying on “zero coverage” when Iowa moves inside the 20-yard line, with no deep defenders and an extra pass-rusher or two to try to disrupt his timing. They don’t fear Iowa’s run game as much as in the past.

“That’s on myself and our receivers to make those plays and, unfortunately, we haven’t made enough,” said Stanley, who has only two passing touchdowns in the red zone against Big Ten opponents.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz reiterated Tuesday that he switched to an up-tempo offense against Wisconsin mainly because of the score and the time remaining. It’s not necessarily a sign of things to come, he said.

“(I) just felt like we needed to push the envelope a little bit and really get things going,” he said. “But we'll stay open to any possible way to move the ball a little bit better and score more points.”

Ferentz demurred when asked to assess the progress of his offense under his son, Brian, now a third-year offensive coordinator.

“I'll leave all the grading and evaluations until postseason. That's kind of my mode of operation,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We didn't score enough to win the other day.”

Iowa has dropped three games to ranked opponents by a combined 14 points. This is the last chance this regular season to face another, with the Gophers being the highest-ranked of them all.

So, despite what Ferentz said publicly Tuesday, you know privately he’s aware that Iowa’s offense has been the weak link the past four seasons. He clearly has plenty of respect for Minnesota’s offense, and rightfully so. But he also has seen the tape of the Penn State game, in which the Nittany Lions rolled up 518 yards on a Gophers defense that can be victimized.

Add it all up, and it’s the best chance the Hawkeyes have to find themselves in a high-scoring game this season. And Stanley seemed to sense that, without saying it outright.

“We know that we have to do our part to help our defense out,” Stanley said, “whether that be scoring a lot of points or keeping their offense off the field.”

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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