With a full offseason of preparation, Hawkeyes hope to limit mistakes, score more points

With a return to normalcy in 2021, the Hawkeyes football team is looking forward to putting the not-so-fond memories of a COVID-riddled year behind them. However, there were valuable lessons learned from last season. 

One big lesson? The importance of starting a season strong and keeping mental errors from halting that momentum. 

In their first two games of the 2020 season, Iowa was a neutral zero in turnover differential with five giveaways and five takeaways. Additionally, they committed 13 penalties, including 10 in the season-opening loss to Purdue. As a result, they sputtered out to an 0-2 start and had to climb out of that hole for the remainder of the season. 

Head coach Kirk Ferentz said it himself: Iowa cannot succeed with mental errors. This offseason, the focus has been on making sure that they're more fundamentally sound to start the upcoming season. 

"Needless to say, that really hurt us in game two (against Northwestern)," Ferentz said. "Penalties, turnovers in game one (against Purdue) as well. If we're going to play good football we need to be really good in that area — that's our DNA, we have to do that. 

"I think that takes practice. I think that takes cohesion and it probably helps if you don't have an inexperienced quarterback. No guarantees but at least your odds are a little bit better." 

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In their last six games of the 2020 season, all wins, the Hawkeyes had a +8 turnover differential.

Back to the not-so-fond COVID-related memories of 2020. The Hawkeyes — every college team, really — fell victim to lost preparation time ahead of the season, including not having a spring practice period. 

The Big Ten in particular faced delays to start their season. The conference was originally supposed to kick off on Sept. 3 but postponed their season only six days after releasing the schedule. After a month of pushback, the season was set to resume in late October. 

Factor in daily unpredictably of playing a sport through a pandemic, like players missing time to positive tests or contact tracing, and it was difficult for the team to find a rhythm. 

"That's just how the season went a little bit last year," veteran receiver Nico Ragaini said. "We didn't have spring ball because of COVID. It was tough. During some practices some people were getting quarantined and couldn't practice and stuff. It was a little bit of a rocky start."

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Veteran defensive back Riley Moss (33) helped lead an Iowa secondary accounted for eight interceptions during their six-game win streak in 2020. Overall, the defense forced 13 turnovers during that time.

Players point to their Week 3 win over Michigan State as the turning point in their season. The Hawkeyes were plus-three in turnover margin, including zero giveaways in their dominant 49-7 win. 

In the following five games, all wins, they won the turnover battle every time. For the season, they finished plus-eight in turnover differential. 

"Those first two games hurt a lot," defensive back Riley Moss said. "We prepared, our season got canceled and put on again so it was kind of a whole mess. But we never made excuses because everyone had to go through the same stuff. We just put our heads down and went to work." 

Moss' unit, the defensive backfield, was especially key in the team's turnaround. The secondary accounted for eight interceptions during the six-game win streak. Overall, the defense forced 13 turnovers during that time. 

"We have a goal sheet each week," Moss said. "That's one of our goals: Win in turnovers and takeaways. I think that puts us in a positive spot when we have turnovers and give the offense a chance to score." 

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Veteran wide receiver Nico Ragaini, the team's top returning pass catcher, is projected to have an even larger role for the Hawkeyes in 2021.

Offensively, the unit became more cohesive. Quarterback Spencer Petras cut down on interceptions, from three in the first two games to only two in the final six games. Additionally, running back Tyler Goodson eclipsed 100 yards in five of the final six games after sub-100 yard games in their opening losses. 

This year, the offense hopes to take the next step: controlling the ball and scoring more points.

"We know last year there were times we didn't put enough points on the board," Ragaini said. "This year our goal is to put more points on the board, obviously."

And what’s a good way to score more points? That goes back to what coach Ferentz said: taking care of the ball. 

"Coach Ferentz is talking about that all of the time," Ragaini said. "If you don't turn the ball over during a game, chances are you're the team coming out with a victory. If we can limit mistakes and not turn the ball over, we're confident in getting the win." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com