Why Iowa football's offense feels confident for Saturday's opener vs. No. 17 Indiana
Iowa's offense is in a much different position today than a year ago. And that's good news.
For perhaps the last time, let's rewind to the COVID-affected 2020 season. At this exact time last year, Big Ten football was canceled.
More preparation doesn't guarantee victory on Saturday against No. 17 Indiana, but what's for certain is there's a greater sense of confidence among the players. According to running back Tyler Goodson, a return to normalcy has made a huge difference.
"A lot better," Goodson said on comparing the offense's comfort level from last year to this year. "Now that we've had a spring ball and a (fall) camp, I think we're able to be more prepared going into the first game. I think that's the main difference from last year to this year is not having that practice time to get ready for Saturday's."
The majority of the questions for the 2021 Hawkeyes are centered on the offense: How much has Spencer Petras progressed at quarterback? Who else on the offensive line besides Tyler Linderbaum will emerge? And potentially most important, will Iowa take better care of the football?
Their first opportunity to answer those questions is against one of the most aggressive defenses in the Big Ten, who led the conferences in sacks per game (3.13) and turnovers forced (20).
What Iowa offense can fans expect to see against Indiana? A lot of that will depend on the progression of Petras. An encouraging sign: in the words of head coach Kirk Ferentz, where he is now to a year ago is "night and day".
"Last year he went into the season pretty much cold — no spring ball, no camp. And now he's got eight games under his belt, "Ferentz said. "But he's also had a lot of time to practice beyond those eight games and watch himself perform and learn more about himself.
"And I think that experience has just allowed him to play a little faster now, a little bit more decisively."
During August camp, Petras was sharp in public showings. He (unofficially) completed 17-for-27 passes with zero turnovers while leading several scoring drives against Iowa's starting defense in the Kids Day scrimmage on Aug. 14.
That's carried on throughout camp, from the sounds of things. In his Tuesday presser, Ferentz described the redshirt junior as playing "quicker and more decisively."
Petras agrees with that assessment.
“I feel really good about how I’m throwing the ball right now,” Petras said. “And really, I’d say, my processing — how fast I can do it. Getting us into the right play as fast as I can and making the right decisions faster. I feel really good about both those things."
As a whole, Kids Day was a confidence-builder for the offense, which overall got the better of the defense, a rarity in fall camp to that point, according to Ferentz. Since then, the goal has been to continue to "stack" the momentum ahead of Saturday's opener.
"With camp, it kind of feels like you're in a daze," standout tight end Sam LaPorta said. "Stacking really good days on top of each other is the goal, of course. Squandering opportunities that just can't happen."
LaPorta is correct. Lazy days in preparation could lead to mental mistakes on the field which plagued the Hawkeyes in their first two games last season. Ball security in particular has been a point of emphasis during fall camp. Fortunately, the offense gets the benefit of competing against Iowa's defense that was second in the Big Ten in turnover margin last season.
"Our defense is dang good at getting the ball out and intercepting us too," LaPorta said. "The first two games it hurt us last year and one could say that cost us those games.
We have to do everything we can to limit those. We've been doing ball-security drills going back to spring ball. We're happy with ball security but if something happens we just have to bounce back."
Indiana's defense is secondary-driven. Like Iowa, they have every returning starter from last season, including cornerback Tiawan Mullen who, according to Pro Football Focus, led all Power Five cornerbacks with a 22.9% forced incompletion rate.
LaPorta is the team's leading returning receiver from last season and leads the tight end room. According to Ferentz, Luke Lachey is firmly the No. 2 tight end right now.
Departures by veteran receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette presented questions about who would step up in the receiver core this year. The Hawkeyes knew they had a top two in juniors Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr.
At Tuesdays presser, Ferentz revealed that they have a solid six receivers they're comfortable with: Tracy, Ragaini, redshirt senior Charlie Jones, true freshmen Arland Bruce IV and Keegan Johnson and emerging sophomore walk-on Jackson Ritter.
Not to mention running backs Goodson and Ivory-Kelly Martin are pass-catching options as well.
"The chemistry is really, really good right now." LaPorta said.
No doubt that Iowa will look to establish the running game against Indiana. There shouldn't be any concern about the running back room, however. It's highlighted by Goodson, an All-Big Ten performer who should be among college football finest backs this fall.
Linderbaum says Iowa's linemen and backs must be prepared to handle Indiana's pressure looks.
"A big thing with the 'pressure team' is having good communication," Linderbaum said. "Whatever they throw at us, hopefully we can handle it."
Iowa remembers the feeling entering last year's hastily-planned opener and the subsequent result (a loss to ho-hum Purdue) and will be desperate to lay a stronger foundation this year.
How will they do it against Indiana?
How will they carry it over through the year?
Ask Linderbaum and it comes down to one thing: Consistency, every day.
"You can't have ebbs and flows," Linderbaum said. "I think we've done a better job of that throughout fall camp. Obviously, it's a little harder for the offense at the beginning of fall camp but you have to keep getting better and I think we've done that."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org