Iowa football postgame mailbag: What will it take to see change on offense?

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

Iowa's football team entered Saturday evening with a chance to play for a share of first place in the Big Ten West, but a disappointing 9-6 road loss at Illinois will send the Hawkeyes into the bye week with many questions and not many answers.

Afterward, quarterback Spencer Petras other several other players described the general locker-room vibe after a second straight loss.

"It's about what you would expect," Petras said. "It sucks."

Which brings us to this week's postgame mailbag. One question grabbed my attention and I felt like it was a good way to set the tone for the rest of this story. It read: "Is it possible that Illinois is actually decent this year? Don't they deserve some credit too?" The answer to that is "yes" on both fronts, but that doesn't excuse what Iowa's offense has displayed during the first half of this season.

Iowa has scored just seven offensive touchdowns in six games. The Hawkeyes have played opponents on every part of the difficulty spectrum, from FCS opponent South Dakota State, a low-level FBS team in Nevada, two .500 FBS teams in Iowa State and Rutgers, a top-5 opponent in Michigan and a now 5-1 Illinois team. Entering Saturday, Iowa's offense ranked last nationally in yards per game (242.2) and 123rd in total points with 82 (it's worth noting that 16 of those have come from the defense).

In the last calendar year Iowa has scored seven points or less six times. This time last year, Iowa was the No. 2-ranked team in the country. Since then its record is 7-7. What a difference a year makes.

To no surprise, this week's mailbag centers on Iowa's offense in the present and future. Saturday's result places even more heat on Kirk Ferentz's program, and questions will loom large as the bye week is here and a matchup at Ohio State is around the corner.

Where was the offensive improvement vs. Illinois?

Ferentz and players raised eyebrows last Saturday when they said they saw offensive progress in the loss to Michigan. The first drive on Saturday felt like a continuation of the fourth quarter vs. Michigan: a 10-play, 59-yard drive that resulted in a field goal. After that drive? Eight punts, one turnover, one missed field goal and just three points total.

What happened?

"It's a matter of execution over a period of time," tight end Sam LaPorta said. "One play or one drive doesn't make or break a man or a team. Consistency was our problem tonight. It felt like we had a lot of things going early on and it kind of withered away. The consistency of the things that we were doing were falling apart so we have to do better there."

There are a number of things that went wrong for Iowa's offense. I believe the three most significant were negative plays or penalties that hurt scoring chances, poor performance in the offensive line, and breaking down in the red zone.

Nearly half (5-of-13) of Iowa's drives had a negative play or penalty on first or second down, and two other times there were costly penalties on third down; all put one resulted in a punt. The most frustrating instances:

  • On the first drive Iowa had a 3rd and goal from the 9 but a false start pushed the offense back to the 14-yard line. Iowa ran conservatively and kicked a field goal.
  • The three straight second-quarter possessions in which Iowa had the ball inside the Illinois 35-yard line (twice in the red zone) and scored only three points total.

Iowa's offense ran seven plays inside the red zone on Saturday. Four plays went for negative yards, the other three plays went for no gain, and there were 20 yards in penalties. Seven of Iowa's eight penalties on Saturday were on the offensive side.

And it was a particularly tough day for the offensive line. Sophomore running back Leshon Williams noted early in the week that the Illini defense would stuff the box and apply pressure, and that game plan was executed perfectly to the tune of five sacks, 11 tackles for loss and just 52 rushing yards allowed (1.7 yards per carry).

"That's disappointing, I'm not sure we took a step forward tonight," Ferentz said. "I felt like we did last week with the offense, tonight not the case."

When will Kirk Ferentz make changes on offense?

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras (7) scrambles during the first half against Illinois on Saturday night.

Before answering, let's refer back to this week's Tuesday news conference. When asked about the in-season coaching changes at Nebraska and Wisconsin, Ferentz was asked if he would ever consider a mid-season coaching change. Here was his response:

"Yeah, if you thought it was going to serve an end, yeah, absolutely," Ferentz said. "But I've never been in that situation as an assistant or a head coach."

Following Saturday's loss Ferentz was asked again if he would consider staff changes of any type during the bye week, and he quickly shut down that notion.

"No, no, no," Ferentz said. "We won 10 games last year, I don't know if you're aware of that. So I look at that and we've won a lot of games since 2015, we're not doing well enough right now that's fairly obvious and we're going to work on solutions and figure out what we need to do to get better."

Brian Ferentz, offensive coordinator and Ferentz's son, was in the spotlight again after Saturday's poor showing. Kirk Ferentz defended Brian postgame, saying his tenure hasn't been marked by pointing fingers at assistants.

"I think he's a good football coach," Ferentz said. "We have to do what we can to help our players as coaches. We have to do better, try to help them and we'll try to move forward. You know, it's easy to point fingers and just call people out I don't think I've ever operated that way in 23 years and don't intend to right now."

As far as any real, tangible changes, it will have to wait until after the season. The time for change was at the end of last season. Former quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe stepped down and there was an opportunity to bring in outside help. Kirk Ferentz opted to move Brian Ferentz to quarterbacks coach and hire Abdul Hodge as tight ends coach. Iowa also brought in Jon Budmayr as an analyst. The moves have done little to cure the offense's woes.

Perhaps the most frustrating part for fans is that there's no real answer for what it's going to take for an offensive overhaul. A .500 record or a losing record this year? Consecutive subpar seasons? Whatever the answer is, it won't be in the present. It's mid-season, and even a coaching change wouldn't signal an offensive overhaul; it will take an entire off-season to re-tool this offense. The Hawkeyes will have to make do with the scheme in place and just execute it better. Kirk Ferentz said as much himself postgame.

"We are who we are right now," the head coach said. "We can't change dramatically, but hopefully we can find some ways to be more effective. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand we need to score more points."

How can Iowa's defense not be frustrated by the offense's struggles?

Iowa's defense entered Saturday allowing an average of 10 points per game, third-best in the country. The unit allowed just nine points to Illinois, lowering the season average, but the team still lost. To take it a step further, Iowa has given up 10 points or less in five of six games this year but the team holds a 3-3 record. Think about that.

The Hawkeye defense surrendered a 25% third-down rate (4-for-16), forced three turnovers and kept Illinois out of the end zone. By all accounts, it was a stellar performance wasted by the offense, but the Iowa defenders were just as critical of themselves as their teammates on offense.

"There's a lot of things we can improve on still," defensive back Cooper DeJean said. "Yeah we gave up nine points but how can we only give up six points, or three or give up no points? We're always trying to be perfect so we'll look at the tape, look at what we can do better and get back at it."

Defensive lineman Noah Shannon offered a specific critique. He noted afterward that Illinois ran for 200 yards (4.4 yards per rush), 146 to the nation's leading rusher Chase Brown. It marks the second straight week with a large number of rushing yards allowed (after Michigan totaled 172 yards last week). Additionally, Iowa went without a sack on Saturday, and Illinois was 3-for-3 on fourth down. Those are stats that Iowa's defense will harp on, but clearly its performance was good enough to win a game.

Looking ahead, perfection is needed against Iowa's next opponent (Oct. 22). Ohio State scored as many offensive touchdowns (7) on Saturday as Iowa has all season, and the starting offense has scored touchdowns on 30 of its last 38 possessions.

Will Kirk Ferentz's refusal to make changes to the offense ruin his legacy?

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz reacts during the first half of Saturday's 9-6 loss at Illinois.

This question coincides with another that I received that essentially made the point that as college football is modernizing (offensive creativity, transfer portal usage, NIL, etc.), Iowa is falling behind. My colleague Chad Leistikow wrote about this very topic this week. The game is changing and schools are growing less patient with fading programs.

I believe that no matter what, Kirk Ferentz's overall legacy is cemented. He's the school's all-time winningest coach and will retire within the top three all-time winningest Big Ten coaches, a resume that's worthy of hall of fame induction. But how the last several years of his tenure will play out is very much in question.

The Big Ten Conference is changing. In addition to new teams coming in, it's likely the league goes away from divisions. If that happens, Iowa's path to the Big Ten championship becomes much more difficult. Ferentz built his program on complementary football, and in this new era it's more important than ever that all three phases are contributing.

Iowa has had strong defenses throughout Ferentz's tenure but over the last several years the unit has elevated into top 10-15 nationally and shows no signs of regression under defensive coordinator Phil Parker. It seems likely that special teams coordinator LeVar Woods would pursue other opportunities later on, but while he's at Iowa the special teams unit will be strong. The only thing holding Iowa back from consistently competing for New Year's Six bowl bids is the offense.

Iowa is recruiting at a high clip right now, highlighted by a pair of five-stars within the 2022 and 2023 classes. But there's a growing challenge there. If the offense continues sliding backwards, it'll be harder to bring true game-changers to Iowa City, both out of high school or the transfer portal.

There's opportunity for Ferentz's last years to be marked by strong recruiting classes, double-digit win seasons and high-level bowl bids. It could just as easily snowball into .500 or worse seasons. Which way will it go? The real test will come once the season ends and hard decisions loom.