Iowa postgame mailbag: The regular season is over ... now what?

Kennington Lloyd Smith III
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY − Iowa football's late-season resurgence fell just short of its goal of back-to-back Big Ten West division titles. Several key statistics didn't swing Iowa's way in the team's final regular-season game, a 24-17 home loss to Nebraska. The Hawkeyes lost the turnover battle by a decisive margin (-3), surrendered 13.9 yards per completion and racked up 65 penalty yards.

Outside of losing to a rival that Iowa had beaten seven straight times, what stung most about Friday's defeat is that a win would've solidified a return trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. Instead, a 14-game November winning streak was snapped.

"We told our team all along we win as a team and we lose as a team, (Friday) was no different," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Just a really tough loss for everybody involved. The bottom line is we just didn't do the things you have to do to be successful and credit our opponent, they did."

Friday's game was a bitter end for the 20-plus seniors who were honored for senior day, many of whom have left lasting imprints on the program, such as linebacker Jack Campbell. The Butkus Award finalist tried to remain optimistic postgame, saying the focus now is ending on a high note.

"It hurts a little bit and it's going (to keep hurting)," Campbell said. "But no one's going to hang their head again. We're just going to keep going, keep going and we have one more together. There's really not much more to it."

Iowa's loss re-emphasized core issues that have plagued the team throughout the year. That's what the final mailbag of the regular season focuses on.

There are a lot of injuries to keep up with. What are the updates?

Undeniably one of the biggest reasons why Iowa struggled on Friday was key injuries that left too many holes to plug. It started pregame when linebacker Jay Higgins, whose played admirably in Jestin Jacobs' place, was ruled out due to a hip injury sustained this week. Then in-game, the Hawkeyes lost star defensive back Cooper DeJean and starting quarterback Spencer Petras.

Ferentz's said after the game: "(I) just got a pretty optimistic report (on DeJean) in the locker room a while ago so that's encouraging," Ferentz said. "It's (Spencer's) upper-body, shoulder. We probably won't know until Monday ... We thought (Higgins) would have a chance, then this morning they ruled him out. I would imagine he'll be back sometime next week."

Fifth-year senior Logan Klemp made one of the biggest plays of the game in Higgins' place, a forced fumble late in the fourth quarter that gave Iowa's offense the opportunity to cut the deficit to 24-17. However, DeJean's absence in the secondary was too much to overcome. In his place were true freshman TJ Hall and sophomore Jamison Heinz, who collectively surrendered all three of Nebraska's passing touchdowns and other big plays through the air. Without DeJean, Iowa was without three veteran cornerbacks: DeJean, Jermari Harris and Terry Roberts. And Nebraska took advantage.

Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla (8) drops back to pass as Logan Jones, left, and Connor Colby block during Friday's game vs. Nebraska.

Offensively, it was a rocky start with Petras and two turnovers by Padilla didn't help the cause. The backup was 16-for-33 for 141 passing yards, one touchdown and two turnovers. A mixed bag. There were costly mistakes, but several plays that got Iowa back into the game and a near-miss to Arland Bruce IV that could've given the team a chance to tie the score in the fourth quarter.

"I thought he did a lot of good things and gave us a chance," Ferentz said. "We didn't get that replay to go our way (on the missed pass to Bruce), heck of an effort by both guys. You never know what's going to happen after that had we gotten that (third-down) conversion.

And at long last, sophomore wide receiver Keagan Johnson returned to the field. His injuries since last season have been well-documented but Ferentz said he practiced fully for the first time this week. The short week limited him a bit but Ferentz said he exited Friday's game in good health. That will be something to watch during bowl season.

How does a year like this impact recruiting, especially offensive talent?

The first big-picture question of the mailbag centers in on the team's biggest topic: the offense and its effect on recruiting. Iowa's 274-yard output on Friday will do little to move its season totals in yards per game (130th nationally at 253.7 yards per game) and its 17 points is on par with the 17.5 season average (123rd nationally).

It's a fair question given that explosive offenses dominate the sport and Iowa's offense has become a national punchline, and I'd argue that it's already affected the program on the recruiting trail. The biggest position that I can point to is wide receiver. Position coach Kelton Copeland spoke to this during his Zoom press conference a few weeks ago, that he's constantly fighting the perception of how receivers are used in Iowa's system. They've added a pair of receivers recently into the 2023 class but up until then they'd only had one committed and that's a huge position of need for next year.

But beyond this season, a cumulative effect of underperforming offenses and the style of play are hurting Iowa's ability to recruit skill positions. Iowa seemingly has its quarterbacks of the future in the 2023 and 2024 classes. The offensive line and tight end pedigrees are strong, and recent running back recruiting has been successful. But it's hard to imagine offensive recruiting reaching a championship level if changes aren't made.

There is a silver lining, though. I believe the opportunity for early playing time on offense is a huge selling point. Between this season and last, Iowa has put a lot of freshmen on the field in big roles and with positions like offensive line and wide receiver needing depth, the coaching staff can pitch recruits on making an immediate impact, which is what all young players want.

Past high school, the transfer portal can also be a huge asset for Iowa. Many of their recruits by nature are high-ceiling, developmental pieces; bringing in college-level weapons to supplement that will go a long way. I think that component is inevitable this off-season.

Will there be changes this off-season?

Is this season's offensive output and particularly the performance with the division title on the line enough to sway Kirk Ferentz to make significant changes? Ferentz was asked about the off-season postgame.

"That's something I'll do down the road," Ferentz said when asked how he views this year's team. "My thought right now is just about today's game and mostly how our seniors feel but everybody, everybody involved in our team."

Understandably Ferentz's focus is on the team as constructed and what's ahead for the rest of this season but that won't stop us from speculating. I understand that many believe significant changes aren't coming, but I disagree. My colleague Chad Leistkow referenced the last time Iowa lost to Nebraska in 2014 and how that sparked change within the program. I believe a similar off-season awaits the Hawkeyes.

Much of the focus will be on the future of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and potentially other assistants. I'm not sure what a staff shakeup would look like, but I think Kirk Ferentz pivots in some way to try to inject some juice into the offense. I think changes could come in a few ways, including coaching re-shuffles, a change in philosophy offensively and/or a change in philosophy with regard to the transfer portal. I don't think anything should be off the table.

Iowa has won 17 games over the last two seasons and nearly captured back-to-back division titles in spite of the offense. But I don't see it as sustainable, especially as the conference adds USC and UCLA and moves away from divisions. The Hawkeyes are in for an interesting off-season.