Iowa postgame mailbag: What changes do the Hawkeyes need to make on offense moving forward?
Minutes after Iowa's 20-17 loss in the Citrus Bowl, Iowa players tried their best to put this season in perspective. When asked, one word became clear to cornerback Jermari Harris.
"I think this team will be remembered as fighters," Harris said, "There were a lot of games where we were down and came back and fought. Nebraska, Penn State, this game — even though we didn't come out with the win. This team really fought to the end, that's why I feel like this was a great team.
Iowa finished the season with five wins decided by one possession. Two of them were in double deficit comeback fashion. As far as remembrance, Iowa's 10-win season will go down as only the 10th in school history. Along the way there they extended a few long win streaks against their rivals, including Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska. Not to mention a Big Ten West title.
But how they arrived at 10 wins will leave somewhat of a sour taste. A 6-0 start and meteoric rise to No. 2 in the country was followed by a pair of ugly losses to eliminate them from college football playoff contention. Then came a four-game win streak to end the regular season, and two painful postseason losses.
The circumstances surrounding the 2021 season set up for a potentially interesting off-season in Iowa City. There could be a lot of change, or potentially none at all. But the idea of what's to come is enough to fuel conversations until spring practice.
That said, for the last time this season, I present my Iowa football postgame mailbag.
Thoughts on Iowa punting on 4th & short?
To set the stage: Iowa's offense faced a 4th & (less than) 1 with 3:38 remaining in the game at their own 45-yard line and the Hawkeyes leading 17-13. Kentucky just used their last timeout meaning the Hawkeyes only needed one more first down to put it away. They elected to punt and play defense, but Kentucky was up to the task.
Before I share my thoughts, here's what head coach Kirk Ferentz thought on that decision:
"Pretty simple for me," Ferentz said. "Felt like I liked our odds. Perfect world, you like to get the ball inside the 20, but even with the ball, they had 80 yards. I don't know if they had a timeout — they didn't at that point. I liked our odds, and we played those odds. Retrospect, a lot of things you do it over, but I felt comfortable with where we're at. Obviously, we would rather have converted on third down."
I initially didn't mind Ferentz's decision. To that point, the last five Kentucky drives went as followed: punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, interception. To me, the worst part of the decision was using a timeout prior to the punt during an attempt to draw Kentucky offsides versus either going for it or taking a delay of game to give Tory Taylor a little extra room. And that timeout could've been useful at the end.
The conservative decision greatly aided to Saturday's loss.
What does the quarterback room look like in the spring?
Junior quarterback Spencer Petras had a message postgame for Iowa fans wondering about his status concerning next season.
"See you next year," Petras said.
Petras will be back. The question is who will join him in spring practice. Class of 2022 signee Carson May won't enroll until June so we'll just look at the quarterback depth chart over the next few months. At this point, I find it hard to believe that Alex Padilla will stay that long.
Padilla's played in about four full games combined, but Petras got his starting role back after healing up from the Big Ten championship game. With Petras' remaining eligibility it's hard to envision Padilla overtaking him. But that would leave Iowa with just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster: Petras and freshman Joey Labas.
Petras is a multi-year starter and Labas has been generating buzz with the team, but they'll need depth. And most importantly, someone that can push the talent already in the room. Would that prompt Iowa to look deeper into the transfer portal? I think there's a good chance they would. But I don't see a quarterback coming via transfer portal.
Final prediction: Petras starts. Padilla transfers. Labas is the new QB2.
For what it's worth, we could see a somewhat different Petras. He hopes to slim down to improve his mobility inside and outside the pocket.
Overall, what does offensive change at Iowa look like?
Offense dominated the talk during the postgame presser. The Hawkeyes gained 384 yards, enough to push their average yard per game above 300 yards. But it doesn't negate this season's struggles.
"I think there is a lot of things that we can work on," said tight end Sam LaPorta. "Starting with me individually, I mean, but then to the team as a whole, we have to be a little bit more consistent. We went backward a couple times today which is really hard to overcome, especially when you have those long third downs and things like that. Negative plays are always a drive stopper, so we can always try to work on that."
Coaching personnel-wise, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is facing the vast majority of criticism. During his tenure as OC, Iowa's offense has averaged a 104 national ranking in total offense. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game they're well aware that they need to score more points and the conversations about what to do next will happen in about a month.
If Ferentz isn't removed, or doesn't leave on his own, I suggest it's time for Iowa to seek outside help in the form of a new coach to pair with him. Co-offensive coordinators with one responsible for play calling is becoming more commonplace. Look at Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger for LSU in 2019, this year's Broyles Award for the nation's top assistant is Michigan's Josh Gattis, a co-offensive coordinator. The problem is Iowa’s already at the 10 full-time assistant limit.
I believe Brian Ferentz is capable of change, but the decision for the philosophy change must come from the top. Player personnel-wise Iowa isn’t too far off. This is a program that consistently recruits good linemen and tight ends, they’ve recruited well at running back recently and freshmen receivers Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV provide a solid foundation at the position. But they’ll need more playmakers to fill out the room. And Iowa has two four-star quarterbacks between the 2022 and 2023 class.
I believe there will be change at some level. What’s for certain is the Hawkeyes need to find more creative (and simpler) ways to put playmakers in space and create easy big play opportunities.
What's another position to watch for in the off-season?
I went back and forth on this one but my choice is primary pass catchers, both tight ends and wide receivers. Iowa passed for 211 yards and no wide receiver had more than 25 yards. They were without their No. 1 receiver Keagan Johnson but outside of a missed opportunity to a wide-open Nico Ragaini early in the fourth quarter, receivers struggled to get separation.
But I didn't choose them because of what happened Saturday, it's what can happen next.
Senior receiver Charlie Jones and junior tight end Sam LaPorta have decisions to make concerning the NFL Draft. LaPorta said after the game that he was focused on the game and will think about it in the coming days. If he declares then Iowa's tight end list becomes very inexperienced. A Charlie Jones departure leaves only five scholarship receivers on the team. That's a few untimely injuries away from major problems. Those positions were also hit hardest by the transfer portal. The Hawkeyes lost three receivers and one tight end through the course of the season.
Iowa welcomes in one receiver and two tight ends as a part of their 2022 class. If it appears that neither of the three are ready to contribute, there's another reason to explore the transfer portal.
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.