Iowa's offense is improving in November. Can they put it all together against Nebraska?
Iowa's football game against Nebraska will feature two offenses on opposite ends of the statistical spectrum.
The Cornhuskers rank among the Big Ten's top four teams in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense and are fifth in rushing offense. Meanwhile Iowa ranks last, 10th, 10th and 12th in those respective categories.
Yet Iowa's record is 9-2 while Nebraska is 3-8.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz hasn't put too much stock into numbers this year except in one category: Wins.
"You can talk about style points, and that's important at some point maybe," Ferentz said after the Hawkeyes' 33-23 win over Illinois. "But to me, it's about trying to find a way to be successful whatever the given situations are. And in football, it's hard to predict what that's going to be."
His players on offense agree with the sentiment that winning is most important but push back on a potential growing narrative that this is who they are as an offense.
"As an offense we don't want to be ugly and just win," freshman receiver Keagan Johnson said. "I don't want to say that's the 'Iowa way' because I don't think it's cool to have an ugly offense and we want to improve, but I think the main thing is coming out on top. I don't think that's how we measure our offense but as a team that's how we look at it."
Good situational football led to offensive success in spurts this year but in their last three games there's reason to believe the Iowa offense is turning the corner. Just don't look at the box score for that evidence.
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Raw statistics won't show significant strides. They're averaging 23 points per game (just offensive scores) and 297 total yards in November compared to 22 points and 291 yards in their first nine games. However, a closer look at those three games reveal positive takeaways:
- Northwestern: The quick passing and play-action game emerged in Alex Padialla's first appearance.
- Minnesota: Perhaps Iowa's most explosive game this year with 5.7 yards per play (highest of the season) and 18.7 yards per completion
- Illinois: A dominant rushing performance where Iowa's top two running backs averaged over five yards per carry despite only 83 passing yards.
Incorporating every facet into a cohesive showing against Nebraska on Friday starts up front where Ferentz and the players have seen the most improvement during November. A large part of that is due to health — starting left tackle Mason Richman is still on the mend but outside of him, the unit is healthy and several players who had been playing hurt like Kyler Schott are back to normal.
"When you can't block consistently up front, it's just hard," Ferentz said. "The thing I've been encouraged by and I was optimistic about probably six weeks ago, I really felt like if guys could practice, we would see improvement, but then are they going to be able to practice because we had guys in and out seems like every other day. I think we're gaining a little bit of traction here, but it will be another challenge this week."
Six weeks ago was about when the Hawkeyes suffered one of two ugly losses to Purdue followed by Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz admitted a few weeks later that he felt like the offense lost it's identity during that skid. Looking back, players pinpoint the week after Wisconsin leading up to Northwestern as a turning point.
"We were fed up," Johnson said. "We were No. 2 (ranked team nationally), then the Purdue game happened and that shocked us then we went to Wisconsin and that hit us. I feel like at that point it was like okay if we want to get the season back on track it has to be against Northwestern and I think we all felt that."
Their result against Northwestern wasn't pretty. Neither was Minnesota or Illinois but the proverbial eye test indicates that good things are happening for Iowa's offense in November.
That aligns with the mark of most Kirk Ferentz teams: trending upwards in November.
"Of course, you want to want results to follow as quickly as they can," tight end Sam LaPorta said. "Coach Ferentz has been telling us that incrementally we have to get better every week, focus on the game plana and execute."
Is it too little, too late? Possibly as Iowa doesn't control their own destiny in the Big Ten West race. One advantage of playing on a short week this time is winning on Friday has Iowa's full attention, because a loss clinches the division for Wisconsin. The Badgers play on Saturday.
This week, the Hawkeyes are best served taking advantage of an offensive line growing in confidence and establishing the run. The Cornhuskers have surrendered 169 rushing yards per game during their five-game losing streak including 252 yards to Wisconsin last Saturday.
The Iowa running game will also have a little bit of added motivation as starting running back Tyler Goodson is only 55 yards away from reaching the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career.
And as Iowa players pointed out on Tuesday, a successful rush offense allows for big plays in the pass game. Cutting down on dropped passes will help as well.
"I know that pass success comes from the run game," Johnson said. "Iowa football is just known for downhill running. If we can add a dynamic of throwing on top of that, it can really improve our offense."
Iowa's offense has been playing catch up all season but November's felt like the unit is finding success and most importantly consistency. And they're well aware of Nebraska's ability to score points even without Adrian Martinez's presence.
If points are aplenty on Friday, Iowa's offense is more prepared to hold their own than any other point this season.
"It's extremely gratifying to see us moving the ball more effectively," LaPorta said. "Moving the ball, scoring points and field position is our job at the end of the day. We need to do that in order to win on any given day of the week."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.