Iowa's offense passed its first test. What are the keys to a successful Cy-Hawk game?

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It wasn't always pretty. Statistically, it wasn't overly impressive.

But Iowa's offense did their job in the season-opener against Indiana.

Take away Riley Moss' two interceptions returned for touchdowns and Iowa still wins the game in comfortable 20-6 fashion. The Hawkeyes outgained Indiana, 303-233, quarterback Spencer Petras played turnover-free and they only had one offensive penalty, which occurred in the first quarter.

On a macro level, the offense hit certain required benchmarks and had a much cleaner showing in penalties than in last year's season-opening loss.

But there's still massive room for improvement, especially considering Iowa State's defense consistently ranks among the best in the Big 12 Conference.

"We didn't want to have too big a head with the score," veteran receiver Nico Ragaini said of the team's film review. "We pretty much won by 30, but we can't get complacent and know that if we make little mistakes against a team like Iowa State, then the outcome won't be as good as this past weekend. 

"You can always improve. Even on plays that were really good plays, there were people missing things, myself included. Just trying to focus on the little things and get everything down right before this game."

We've discussed the good from Iowa's offense in the win over Indiana. Let's get to the bad: Four drops by receivers, two fumbles out of the backfield and a couple of throws by Petras he'd like to have back that could've gone for long gains. 

How should Iowa fans perceive this mixed bag? On a grading scale, the Hawkeyes offense would likely receive a B for last Saturday's effort. In all likelihood, it'll take a much greater effort to extend their Cy-Hawk series winning streak to six games. 

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Iowa State's base 3-3-5 defense presents several issues for Iowa's offense. It's a look that Iowa doesn't see at all throughout the year and it boasts a group that's as experienced as any in the country.

In their past six games dating back to 2020, the Cyclones have allowed only 16 second-half points. Overall, they're allowing just 13 points per game during that span. The past two Cy-Hawk games have seen 51 points total. Every yard could be hard to come by. 

What does Iowa's offense need to do to be successful? Cleaning up small mistakes is a given. But here are three more keys to success, as outlined by coaches and players.

Iowa's offense faces a unique challenge in Iowa State's defense. The Cyclones play a 3-3-5 base set, which Iowa doesn't see any other time during the year.

Accounting for the Cyclones' 'star' 

The title "star" both in name of position and on-field production belongs to Iowa State redshirt sophomore safety Isheem Young. Last year's Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year is strong in pass coverage. His reputation as one of the conference's hardest hitters (he forced three fumbles last year) makes him formidable against the run, too. 

How much does his presence affect what Iowa does offensively?

A lot, according to head coach Kirk Ferentz. 

"It affects everything you do," Ferentz said. "I don't coach there, just I've watched from afar, but I think that's one of the reasons they've had the success.

"It's a unique preparation. You don't see that much." 

Petras said, wherever Young is on the field, he affects every play in some way. 

"In the run, there's a lot of times where that 'star' player is unaccounted for," Petras said. "And they do a really good job of filling (gaps) hard and trying to make things hard on our running backs. 

"In the pass game, Cover 2 or (Cover 4) is now different because they have an extra guy in the middle of the field that takes away certain things that could normally beat that coverage." 

There's a multi-prong plan in place to best Young on Saturday. 

"In the pass game, it's being aware of that 'star' player," Petras said. "How that's going to affect what they do and what we do and how I have to make decisions. In the run game a lot of times, it's knowing 'Hey, that guy is free and we just have to execute.'"

Potentially more aggressive attack 

In order for the Hawkeyes to have success in Saturday's Cy-Hawk series matchup, veterans like junior receiver Tyrone Tracy, Jr. will need to have big performances.

Despite a generally positive performance against Indiana, there was a shortage of big plays, particularly through the air. That's largely due to Iowa's large, early lead holding firm throughout the game, but spectators were hoping to get a glimpse of how the offense progressed in terms of its aggressiveness.

This could be the week that gets shown. What that likely means is more involvement from the receivers. The leading receivers last week were Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Ragaini with two receptions each but only 36 combined yards. As much as Ferentz wants to get the ball in their hands, it doesn't always happen that way. 

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There were also two big plays left on the field: missed passes to running back Ivory Kelly-Martin and Tracy Jr. on what could've been 30-plus-yard gains. 

Ragaini, Tracy Jr. and redshirt senior Charlie Jones' experience sets them up for success on Saturday. The Cyclone defense is tough to understand and tougher to execute against (more on why later) but those three have prepared for them at least twice already. That familiarity can go a long way.

"It's becoming more comfortable for me," Ragaini said. 

Consistency in the running game 

Iowa's top priority on offense is to establish a strong running attack to try to control the tempo and crowd noise.

Iowa had strong rushing statistics against Indiana: 158 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and two touchdowns. Take away Goodson's long touchdown run and the numbers are much more modest, though, at 2.9 yards per carry. Then there were the two fumbles by Iowa's top two backs.

Why did Iowa's rush offense slow down? Sometimes great players like Goodson have to tip their cap to the defense.

"They did a good job of giving us looks we didn't prepare for," Goodson said of the Hoosiers. "Those guys were more aggressive, so we focused on reaching those guys and running and running instead. We normally just get vertical and push guys back.

"But they made those adjustments. When our line got used to overflowing and trying to run and reach those guys, they slipped back and got us out of our comfort zone. I think going in, we're focused on being prepared for everything."

The Hawkeyes won the turnover battle last week and will want to avoid extra Iowa State possessions. As for better rush output, Iowa State's five-defensive back group presents challenges for the Iowa linemen. They'll have a similar challenge as they did against Indiana: getting to the second level and blocking downfield. 

"(They have) six (players) in the box and five defensive backs," Goodson said of Iowa State. "They don't show a lot of blitz. So we're doing the best we can to get our linemen up to the secondary and make sure we're able to run the ball strongly and pass the ball confidently so we can get momentum going early in the game and continue it throughout the game." 

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