Hawkeye football team at midseason: Defense asserting itself while offense pivots to run game

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This has been the most challenging college football season ever when it comes to evaluating teams. Iowa is a perfect case in point.

The Hawkeyes slogged through two mistake-filled losses and responded with two immaculate performances in blowout wins to sit at 2-2 halfway through the Big Ten Conference season. There is no bye week this year for teams to assess what is working and what needs correcting. Iowa will just plow ahead with its schedule, including a 2:30 p.m. Saturday game at winless Penn State (Big Ten Network).

“This year is going to have an asterisk next to it,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of his 22nd, and strangest, season at the helm. “We are all competing. We are all playing pretty much by the same rules, but as we know it, region to region, things are different. With the virus right now, you really don't know what's going on behind the scenes. You don't know if a team has had, you know, X amount of guys out and all those kind of pieces of information really. They are not out there.”

Still, some patterns have emerged for the Hawkeyes. We know their special teams, and the punt game in particular, are as good as anyone’s. Phil Parker’s defense, against all odds, is battling as hard as ever and coming off two very impressive showings. The offense has been inconsistent under first-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras, but is starting to find an identity in the run game and is at least avoiding the careless penalties that stung early.

Here’s the midseason report card:

Iowa cornerback Riley Moss, here intercepting a pass against Minnesota, is among the playmakers who have made the defense one of the nation's best again this season. The Hawkeyes are allowing only 14.8 points per game, to rank eighth in FBS, at the halfway point of the year.

OFFENSE: Points are starting to pile up, thanks to a strong offensive line

Petras, a sophomore from California, has not been able to make use of a wide receiver group thought to be the best in the Ferentz era. He has only three touchdown passes against four interceptions. The Hawkeyes rank 120th out of 126 FBS teams in passing efficiency and are 96th with 193 yards per game through the air.

These results have been disappointing to fans who expected a more explosive offense, with skilled playmakers continually pressuring opposing defenses. But Iowa lost 21-20 to Northwestern in Week 2 while stubbornly trying to move the ball through the air. It was after that game that the Hawkeyes committed to the run and put up 84 points in wins over Michigan State and Minnesota.

It helps greatly that center Tyler Linderbaum and left tackle Alaric Jackson are showing week in and week out that they are ready to play in the NFL next year.

Petras said Tuesday that he’s feeling more comfortable with each passing week, but also acknowledged: “I wouldn’t say I have any secret formula yet” for success at the major-college level.

“Make the makeable plays. That’s what it takes to win games,” Petras said of his philosophy for this season.

And that may have to be what it takes for Iowa, which has taken pressure off Petras by not drawing silly penalties (the Hawkeyes had 10 in a season-opening loss at Purdue, but only 11 since) or allowing him to get sacked (just three in four games to tie for 10th nationally).

Add in a rushing attack led by Tyler Goodson that has gained more than 200 yards in each of the past two games, and it has meant more manageable third-down situations for Petras. This is where he must get better this season. Iowa ranks 98th in the nation by converting only 34.6% of its third downs. Those are makeable plays that he needs to make more often. The big passing numbers, if they are to come, can wait until he has a full offseason to develop as a starting quarterback.

Meanwhile, Ferentz professed full faith in his quarterback Tuesday.

“The most impressive thing about him is just his awareness and composure out there,” Ferentz said. “He just seems to have a good feel and a good grip on things. And it's just like any position player, typically get better with experience and get better if they have a good attitude and good work ethic, and Spencer has those things.”

DEFENSE: Finding impact players at every level

That may be enough because, once again, an Iowa quarterback can rely on a strong defense to keep the team in games. Petras doesn’t have to do too much this year, because Parker’s group ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 14.8 points per game. It’s remarkable how the Hawkeye defense finds ways to be among the nation’s best year in and year out.

This year, there were significant questions up front. But they’ve been answered each week. Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon proved to be an immediate star as a first-year starter. And now defensive end Zach VanValkenburg seems to be joining him, coming off a three-sack performance at Minnesota. Senior Chauncey Golston, on the other end, and graduate transfer Jack Heflin at tackle round out what has become a dangerous quartet.

“He really takes a mature approach,” Ferentz said Tuesday of VanValkenburg, who transferred in last season from Division II Hillsdale College.

“You can see him playing faster, more comfortable now and he really works hard. He is very well-respected by everybody on the team.”

At linebacker, senior Nick Niemann was asked to hold down the fort in the opener, but has gotten reinforcements when Seth Benson joined the lineup in Week 2 to play the middle and Jack Campbell joined him last week. That is suddenly a very strong group, and it shows up in Iowa’s No. 17 ranking in yards allowed per game, at 314.

The secondary has solidified, with Kaevon Merriweather sliding in alongside Jack Koerner at safety, allowing Dane Belton to man the cash spot. Matt Hankins and Riley Moss are terrific cornerbacks.

The Hawkeyes have eight interceptions this season, with 11 sacks. The defense is dynamic.

Benson said the defense’s growth comes from “watching film after every game and implementing that in the practice and knowing that we can get better every week.”

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SPECIAL TEAMS: An elite unit, thanks to a pair of newcomers

Kicker Keith Duncan, coming off an all-American season, said there’s no secret why Iowa typically fields special-teams units that are among the nation’s best. The Hawkeyes actually devote a great deal of practice time to kicking and punting, with a dedicated special teams coordinator in LeVar Woods.

“We take pride in our special teams here,” Duncan said. “Coach Ferentz speaks very highly about how we work and how we do things here as a unit.”

This year, that work is especially evident in the punt game. Tory Taylor, a 23-year-old freshman from Australia, has the Hawkeyes atop the nation with a 46.2-yard net punting average. That includes a nation-leading minus-8 yards in punt return yardage allowed. He’s been amazing at helping Iowa win field-position battles.

And punt returner Charlie Jones, a transfer from Buffalo, has given juice to that unit. His 15-yard average on returns ranks 14th in the country.

It all sets up Iowa for a promising second half of the season, with games against struggling teams Penn State, Nebraska and Illinois before a home finale with Wisconsin.

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.