Aftermath: South Dakota State

By BenSewardLewis on September 5, 2022 at 8:00 am
All of us watching Iowa's offense on Saturday.
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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Excuse Me, I Think Your Eyes Are Bleeding

If I were not a fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes, I might find myself morbidly fascinated by Kirk Ferentz’s absurd attempt to play football without an offense. (And don’t let the “sure, the offense has some work to do but they’re working hard!” crowd fool you, what Iowa put out there on offense against South Dakota State was as close as you can get to fielding a team full of coached and trained Power 5 football players and yet not having an actual offense.) It is like the experts in the college football world all got together without Kirk and agreed that every football needs an offense that can move the football and score points to win football games and Kirk has single-handedly put it on himself to disprove them out of spite.

Of course, I am a fan of the Hawkeyes, so instead of fascination, I find myself cursing whichever person (Kirk) wished on a monkey paw for Iowa to have elite defense and special teams units, a wish which was granted, but at the expense of the entire offense being at all functional. And this game? The crème de la creme of ugly, the coup de grâce of gross, a 7-3 (the hard way) game doomed to live in infamy like the 6-4 game in Happy Valley in 2004? Watching this was like being strapped to a chair in a dark room with an I.V. of adrenaline in one arm and an I.V. of Xanax in the other, my body twisting and convulsing into a ball between intermittent, flailing screams.

The Hawks won the toss and Kirk, not without a sense of humor, elected to receive the kickoff. Iowa went two-yard run, completed six-yard out, three-yard run for a first down, and that was the smoothest and most in-rhythm the offense would look all half. Despite starting damn near every drive from mid-field, including drives that began on South Dakota State’s 27 and 33, Iowa managed only two more first downs and did not make it into the red zone in the first half. All told, Iowa had 56 yards of total offense on 33 plays heading into the locker room, not even two yards a play.

With the bar for the Iowa offense set all the way at the Earth’s core, they did manage to marginally exceed it, but only by the slimmest of margins. They netted a gaudy total of five first downs this half, including a 57-yard drive in which Iowa’s offense almost scored some points entirely on their own before Leshon Williams had the football ripped from his arms in Iowa’s only trip to the red zone all game, an impressive 110 yards of offense, all in one half, bumping Iowa’s yards-per-play average to almost 2.5/yards per play and a game total to 166 yards. As to points, I don’t think you can rightfully attribute any points to Iowa’s offense, unless you want to go -3 points for the interception that led directly to South Dakota State’s only points of the game.

I’m at a loss with this offense, folks. Somehow this unit, despite expectations that scrapped the absolute bottom of the barrel heading into this season, found some space to burrow even lower. The yardage total of 166 yards, basically the same total Iowa mustered last season against the second best defense in college football in Madison, only this game was at home against an FCS school however good, is damning enough on its own. The Jackrabbits had at least one unblocked dude, and 2-3 other mostly unblocked dudes, every play. With a two-defender minimum at the line of scrimmage, the running game was the same slog it was last year, but it actually makes me impressed with Leshon Williams’ 24 carries for 72 yards stat line. (The fumble looked more "insane play by South Dakota State" than "Leshon being cavalier with the football.")

 As to the passing game, fucking yikes. Petras rarely had time to throw, rarely had dudes open, and when he did, rarely threw them within his receiver’s catch radius. I genuinely don’t want to pile on what appears to be a very great human being, but his best passes were actually terrible decisions and bad reads throwing into tight windows in double coverage. It doesn’t look like he sees the field well, or effectively goes through his progressions, or makes sound decisions or is otherwise capable of generating any positive plays however small, when things go awry, which with this offense happens all the time. He looks to me like what would happen if the yips wished upon a star to be a real boy.

In an attempt at fairness, even mediocrity by the offensive line substantially increases the quality of Petras’ play. If Nico Ragaini and Keagan Johnson play, the Jackrabbits can’t quadruple team Sam LaPorta and Petras’ numbers probably get better. And sure, we can give some credit to the stellar play of the Jackrabbit defense, though being generous they are probably the 8th or 9th best defense Iowa will play all year. Add all those caveats and whatever other qualifiers you like. Fine, but the numbers, 11-for-25 for 109 yards and a pick, don’t bear out a quarterback that is capable of playing at this level. I think the case against Petras being the quarterback that gives Iowa the best chance to win comes down to three plays:

1) Still pretty early in the first half, the Hawkeyes have a third-and-five at midfield. Brian calls his absolute best play of the game, a screen to Leshon. The play is set-up perfectly, with only a blocked corner downfield on the left-side of the field between Leshon and the end zone. The pressure, which as a reminder is part of the play design of a screen, causes Petras to rush and put too much on one of the easiest passes in football and it falls incomplete. A play that likely would have led to a touchdown and a two-score margin is squandered

2) Late in the first half, with pressure in his face, Petras throws it to a guy who is double-covered, but with the throw two yards behind his target the ball goes right to the SDSU defender, setting up the Jackrabbits for their only points of the game.

3) In the fourth quarter, with a very meager 5-3 lead, Iowa faced another third-and-five. Pressure forces Petras out of the pocket and he goes to run for it. A defender closes the space and meets Petras three yards shy of the first down.

Those three plays signify to me why this quarterback situation is so infuriating. Petras misses too many of the scarce opportunities to make plays for an offense that only needs a modicum of productivity to give the team a chance, he doesn’t take care of the football despite having a coach that claims to care about that, and with any kind of pressure, which he gets a lot of, he loses his ability to play the position entirely. If it sounds like I’m mad, I’m not. I’m a little bit incredulous but mostly just feel bad for a guy who appears to be rattled by default, doesn’t look capable of playing at this level and does not have coaching that is able to get him to that level of play. 

But enough about the offense. I have already bored myself talking about them. Add that to list of reasons they are frustrating, because the offense is like an annoying drunk relative at a wedding reception whose belligerent behavior is a huge distraction from what should be a raucous celebration of the blessed union between Iowa’s special teams and defense. To call both of these outstanding in the game is somehow to undersell it.

Let’s start with the defense. Here is extreme praise for Iowa’s defense using some faint criticism. In what would turn out to be SDSU’s first, best, last, and only chance to score a touchdown, SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski actually had some time to pass. The SDSU receiver ran downfield, faked Kaevon Merriweather with an inside move, and sprinted downfield all by his lonesome. Gronowski let ‘er rip, but missed his target. And the sliver of light coming through SDSU’s window of opportunity to pull the upset was slammed shut, because they would never get closer to pay dirt than that.

Outside of that play, Iowa rained down hellfire on the Jackrabbits all game long. Gronowski usually had about two seconds to pass, an entire legion of Phil Parker’s best men in his face constantly, and even when Gronowsi could get the ball out, there was usually a Hawkeye defender there to rudely dislodge it. And even when his receivers were able to catch it, they were smothered by Iowa defenders for zero extra yards. And SDSU’s running game? They had less success running than a calf doomed to become veal.

And special teams was every bit as wonderful, playing complementary football by forcing SDSU to start every drive in the shadow of their own goalpost and letting the defense keep them there. Tory Taylor wasn’t so much punting as using the Force to make the football go exactly where he wanted it to. Bruce and Moss handled return duties well in Charlie Jones’ stead and Aaron Blum, after whiffing on an early field goal (the only meaningful special teams mistake all game) redeemed himself by nailing a 46-yarder.

And the best part was watching the beautiful duet between both these units, as I think we have to award all seven points to their immaculate play. (Along with keeping SDSU to only three points.) Defensive stops led to a shanked punt and a quality return to set up Iowa’s two field goal tries. Iowa’s next score came about after Tory Taylor hit a slow-rolling grinder that Cooper DeJean fielded at SDSU’s half-yard line, allowing Jack Campbell to thunder into the backfield on the next play and drag Isaiah Davis further back through his own end-zone, like a parent yanking a toddler through a candy aisle, for a safety and a two-point lead. Iowa’s final safety came on a drive that SDSU started on their own 8-yard line after the punt returner fair caught it going backwards, which was probably the smart move. Two plays later, with Joe Evans bearing down on him, Mark Gronowski threw the ball away inside the tackle box for another safety and eliminating the possibility of a late field goal winning it for SDSU. Both the defense and special teams managed to smash their already Milky Way-high expectations and it was incredible to watch.

So here we are in a weird spot. Whatever optimism I had for the upcoming season has now waned, as a parade of Eldritch Horrors await Iowa’s offense in the coming weeks. It is tough to envision where seven more wins come from with an offense that will be outmatched against even bad defenses. I certainly hope this is an overreaction on my part, but even if not, I’m trying not to think about it. It just isn’t fair to what might be the best defense/special teams tandem that Kirk has ever fielded. I’m just going to make like Kirk and try and ignore the offense altogether.

 

Hawkeye Droppings

* God bless ya Arland Bruce. Iowa had eight first downs in the game, and four were results of explosive plays on his part. Without him, the offense would probably have been even worse.

* The other four first down conversions came from Leshon, two grinding out short gains, one uncovered on a check down and the last on the most obvious halfback draw on third-and-eight to almost ice the game. I wasn’t kidding when I said his stat-line of 24 carries for 72 yards was impressive. He squeezed every ounce of juice in Iowa’s running game despite zero help from his offensive line.

* Speaking of which, I know that I am flailing blindly in the dark for straws, the offensive line looked to me like they missed their assignments a lot, which is hopefully fixable. Maybe?

* Pretty much everybody on defense deserves kudos, but Quinn Schulte was easily the biggest surprise. He was an enforcer out there and had four pass break-ups.

* Gavin, Keagan, and Nico, get well soon boyos.

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