How Iowa football can use Kent State game as opportunity to improve on 'the little things'

From the outside looking in, Iowa football couldn't be off to a better start to the season. The Hawkeyes' dominant wins over Indiana and Iowa State skyrocketed their place in national rankings from No. 18 in the preseason to the Top 10. 

The defense has been lights out and the offense is managing the game and taking advantage of favorable scoring opportunities when given the chance. 

But within the program, players know that even in great performances there's room for improvement. 

"That's the thing, people say you're doing well," defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. "But there's a lot of stuff we need to fix on film. We have a clear path moving forward of what we need to do and right now that's in practice fixing our practice habits." 

Raw offensive output aside, there aren't many glaring concerns through two games, but that doesn't mean everything else is perfect. Coaches and players often refer to "the little things," minor details that make a big difference. 

After two games against highly ranked teams, Saturday against Kent State should serve as the first of two opportunities (the second coming Sept. 25 against Colorado State) for the Hawkeyes to continue their dominant ways while also correcting smaller mistakes. 

Iowa's defense has been the star of the early 2021 season. But the players will admit that there's still several improvements to make going forward.

For VanValkenburg and the defensive line, that means leaving less spare change on the field. 

"We have good gap responsibility," VanValkenburg said. "But like (defensive line coach Kelvin Bell) likes to say, 'We're leaving some change on the table.' There's some plays we're leaving out there and that's where our focus needs to be on." 

This includes big things like being in position for a sack and not finishing, or smaller things such as one player not being in the correct gap. Even in a situation where the defense has a positive result, having each player on the line fully understanding the full scope of his assignment is what could make a difference in a later contest.

"Some of our pass rush stunts and things," VanValkenburg explained. "In the playbook it says you go this way and the guy goes that way but there's more nuance to it. Knowing what gap to be in, what crack to expose in the protection and staying in that so the game works. Because if all four guys aren't on the same page you won't get the pressure or the sack." 

The Iowa defense's back seven will be working on their eye work and play recognition. Despite forcing four turnovers against Indiana, there were a few instances where poor eye placement cost the Hawkeyes big plays. One in particular was the Brock Purdy 49-yard pass that set up a Cyclone touchdown before halftime. 

"Our eyes sometimes can be off," cornerback Riley Moss said. "We let up a seam ball against Iowa State in Cover 2 and right before half we let up that (deep crossing route) in Cover 3. So right now it's our eyes and staying focused for the entire game and not giving up any big plays." 

How will Kent State test that eye discipline?

"They run a lot of (run-pass option), hitches and slant (routes)," Moss said. "So that's really big for where you're looking and what you're reading. So this game will be really good for us in terms of learning and getting used to getting our eyes right. 

"There's absolutely a lot of opportunity. They throw the ball a lot and throw it up so we have to stay on top of it and work on our eyes and it should be a pretty good day." 

Iowa's offense has turned every Hawkeye defensive turnover into points. However, the rush offense and third down conversion rate needs improvement.

Offensively, where the concerns are larger, it's more of a long-term process to getting the unit where they hope to be by year's end. Two areas where quicker fixes are more feasible are consistency in the running game and better third-down conversions. 

Iowa has faced two strong defensive teams to start the season. And the Hawkeyes have some inexperienced players on the offensive side.

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"Look at the offensive line, take (guard Kyler Schott) out of there," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "which we have the last couple weeks. We expected some bumps, at least I did. Thought that was going to be part of the process.

"You pay some dues along the way. We paid for it then, too. But it paid off for us down the road. Yeah, that's part of the territory sometimes." 

Good news for Iowa is that Schott is expected to return Saturday, though perhaps not at full capacity. The offensive line has been breaking in three new starters in Schott's absence and a new tight end in Luke Lachey. That means the running attack is a work in progress. 

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, Kent State is allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game on the ground. 

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Lachey said it's a joint effort between the line and the tight ends to move as one to spring the Iowa ball carriers open. One play he can look back to is Tyler Goodson's 56-yard touchdown run against Indiana that was broken up by tight ends setting the edge. More consistency by tight ends in front-side and back-side blocking will pay dividends this Saturday and moving forward.

"If I'm on right and we're running right that's front side," Lachey said. "That's just kind of setting an edge. If I'm on the left side and we're running right that's more sealing someone back so that's back side. 

"I think it starts with everyone. All of the guys on the line and as a tight end if we can just hit our assignments, then Tyler or whoever is back there will have room to run." 

Iowa is converting only 30% on third downs. It's essential to stay ahead of the chains to have favorable downs and better execution when they're in position to make plays.

"It's an area obviously we want to do better in," Ferentz said. "That's part of our whole offensive production. Two of the biggest stats are third down, staying on the field, the other part is getting in the red zone, getting touchdowns, not just field goals.

"There was a third-and-15 (against Iowa State) where we had a chance to convert it and didn’t. Those are plays we have to make. We have to make those plays moving forward. Can't get away with that next time."

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