Can Iowa football's offense continue its momentum at Purdue? Here are keys to success.

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz thought his offense took a step forward in last week's win over Northwestern. He hadn't felt that way in several weeks.

The previous sign of progress came in early October in the late stages of a loss against Michigan. Since then, there had been weekly setbacks.

Then, last Saturday vs. Northwestern: The offense's best performance of the season. The Hawkeyes compiled 398 total yards and scored on seven of eight possessions. Enough to provide optimism that the Hawkeyes could have a strong final month of the season.

There's still skepticism about Iowa's offense. The Northwestern defense is one of the worst nationally (94th in total defense) and Iowa's offensive numbers nearly matched what the Wildcats have been giving up on average this season. Ferentz pushed back on that notion this week, citing respect for Northwestern's program and focusing on the success of his own team.

"When all phases are contributing, it sure makes it easier," Ferentz said. "Some players can win games on their own, I suppose. But it makes it a lot easier if you got some help in all phases. Starting up front is a great place. Someone has to run routes, catch the ball. Somebody has to be able to run it. It still takes a team to get things done."

Statistically, Iowa faces a much stiffer opponent on Saturday at Purdue. The Boilermakers rank 43rd nationally in total defense (352.8 yards per game). Another step forward would validate the progress shown vs. Northwestern. That's the challenge for Iowa's offense − was last week's performance a true sign of progress or will the Hawkeyes take another step back against tougher competition?

Last week was an obvious confidence booster for a mostly young offense, but quarterback Spencer Petras emphasized the importance of maintaining a certain level of urgency.

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"The key is that we have we have no room for complacency at all," Petras said. "Which I don't sense, but it's the only thing you worry about. You get a taste of success and think that 'OK, now we're good.' That's not how it works. Every week is new. I think we're all working hard to make sure we can sustain the success we had last week."

Success for Iowa's offense begins up front with the offensive line. The Hawkeyes will have to show they can run the ball. The weather forecast on Saturday in West Lafayette includes an 80% chance of rain and consistent wind speed around 20-plus mph, with gusts up to 50 mph. On Friday, Purdue athletics released a statement prohibiting tailgate tents and other temporary structures.

Bottom line: Throwing the ball will be a challenge, so establishing consistency on the ground will be key. Iowa must avoid negative-yardage plays on first and second downs as it did last week. The new-look offensive line of (left to right) Mason Richman, Connor Colby, Logan Jones, Beau Stephens and Jack Plumb will start again on Saturday with a few reserves in the mix.

"I think we made strides," Ferentz said. "Last year at this time we really started to gain some ground. I'm hoping that's going to happen this year, too. ... They're getting excellent coaching. That's one thing I do know a little something about. George (Barnett) is an outstanding coach. They're good, young guys. Those guys are working hard, trying their tails off. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, too. That's called education."

Iowa running back Kaleb Johnson carries the ball against Northwestern on Oct. 29. The Hawkeyes will need a consistent running game Saturday at Purdue, where rain and strong wind will make it difficult to pass the ball.

And while the weather could have a significant impact, there's no question that Iowa will have to pick its spots and make plays through the air to win. There are a few factors potentially working in Iowa's favor. To start, Purdue's secondary is susceptible to big plays; the Boilermakers have surrendered 15 plays of 20-plus yards through the air over their last four games. Additionally, starting cornerbacks Cory Trice and Jamari Brown are returning on Saturday from injuries but were limited in practice this week. If there's an opportunity, the Hawkeyes must attack.

Last Saturday's game instilled confidence in Iowa's pass catchers, with eight different players recording a reception. This is by far the healthiest the group has been all season, with four scholarship receivers to pair with tight ends Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey.

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"I feel like (against Northwestern) we had more receivers involved," wide receiver Nico Ragaini said. "I feel like we have a lot of people, not just receivers, but a lot of running backs and tight ends. All of us were getting involved in the offense that I felt like we all got to step up and it made the offense better."

November has been particularly good to Iowa recently. The Hawkeyes hold the third-longest November win streak nationally with 11 straight in the regular season's final month. That signifies a program that improves down the stretch. Will that be the case for the 2022 offense? Saturday's contest will likely set the tone for the rest of the month.

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"Just offensively we got a taste of what really good execution across the board looks like," Petras said. "The key is just to build on that. That's the new standard, and to continue to raise that. Just continue to improve and to continue to have a sense of urgency about us that one game of successes is nothing to stop our our continued desire for success."