The Aftermath: Nevada

By BenSewardLewis on September 19, 2022 at 11:27 am
go kaleb go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If you found out something useful about the Hawkeyes in the midst of this goofy, rain-filled, lightning-infested fever dream of a game, good on you. I don't think I did, but I will say this: despite its seven-hour length, this game was nice. A fun little reprieve from the usual slop-filled slogs that we usually get. The real storm is coming in a tsunami of very good-to-great Big Ten defenses in the weeks to come. But hey, I’m going to try and live in the present here.

I know we are all desperate for some sign of life from the offensive side of the ball. Like a spouse sitting in a hospital room, we are staring at the lifeless body of our offense, hoping to hear a beep on the heart monitor, however faint. While I look at Kirk the way I would look at some “alternative medicine” guru claiming to be able to resuscitate someone with a concoction of turmeric and the bone marrow of raccoon, if I put on my homer glasses and squint, I can catch a glimpse of a possible way forward for the offense. Maybe.

Things started out bleak. Iowa got the ball first and lost five yards before even taking a snap. While Petras flung a duck past a diving wolf to Arland Bruce for a 21-yard gain on a third-and-long, six plays ultimately netted a mere 13 yards and Iowa Iowa’d their first drive of the day. Iowa sandwiched a 20-yard drive between two Nevada three-and-outs before a nice punt return by Bruce set Iowa up at the Nevada 40-yard line. After an incomplete pass, on 2nd-and-10 Iowa got their first genuinely electric offensive play of the year. Kaleb Johnson got the carry, churned his legs and tilted downfield with the momentum of a greased pinball, bumping off of tacklers and finding himself past the second level of defense before cutting to the open space along the right sideline, rolling into the right pylon just before the tacklers could get him out of bounds. If I’m to actually take away anything positive from this game, it is the hope for a recurring appearance from the big-play ability of Johnson in an offense in dire need of someone who can make something happen mostly on their own.

On the ensuing Nevada drive, Cooper DeJean said, “Pardon me sir, do you have any errant passes?” Nevada quarterback Shane Illingsworth obliged, chucking a ball towards the sideline which DeJean hauled in while falling out-of-bounds. It looked like he successfully dragged his feet to me, and with them calling it an interception on the field, there was nothing to overturn it,  continuing DeJean’s rapid ascent as a vital playmaker in a defense filled with them and setting the offense right back on the Nevada 41-yard line.

After working the ball down to the Nevada 21, on third-and-one Bruce drifted off to the flat before turning upfield on a wheel route. The Nevada defender, having spent all week studying Iowa’s offense, assumed this was actually just a bit and didn’t want to look silly trying to cover a fake route. With his most wide open receiver of the year, Petras flirted with maybe overthrowing Bruce on a lark, but he hung the ball up just long enough for Bruce to lay out in order to haul in Iowa’s first passing touchdown of the year.

At this point, the drama about who was winning the game was pretty much over. The Hawkeye defense was simply too good. Nevada’s miserable offensive numbers speak for themselves, but to put it in the form of an anecdote, the closest Nevada got to scoring was a 57-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. Nevada just had no options for moving the ball consistently. The offense meanwhile had a big boy drive in the second quarter that started at their own 9-yard line, using a steady diet of runs and a wheel route to an uncovered Gavin Williams for 31 yards to get the ball to the Nevada 25 before Drew Stevens nailed the 43-yard field goal.

After some putzing around into the 3rd quarter, lightning struck, literally, within 8 miles of Kinnick, pausing the action. The storm caused starts and stops and loads of delays. Once things finally got started in earnest at almost 1:00 A.M., we got some cool plays -- Nico Ragaini swiping the ball from a Nevada defender like your butthead of an older brother for a 46-yard gain, Johnson running past the entire Wolf Pack defense for another long touchdown, and Aaron Graves recording his first of hopefully hundreds of sacks by forcefully escorting a lineman back into the quarterback. But it is especially tough to glean anything from the end of the game when the vibes on the field in the fourth quarter were that of a bored teenager at church waiting to hear the words “Go now in peace” so they can sprint off to a kegger.

Despite a mostly pleasant, if kinda dull game, let me attach some clouds to that silver lining, because whatever we saw on offense comes with the huge caveat that Nevada is straight-up awful at football. This was the football equivalent of a kid riding a bike with training wheels while both parents are holding the handlebars and shouting encouragement. Maybe they’ll be fine without the wheels, but truth be told, they looked pretty wobbly even with the training wheels.

The wobbles mostly came from the offensive line. Kaleb Johnson’s two runs were incredible and definitely count, but take them away and the team is left with 33 carries for 67 yards, barely two yards-per-carry. There were also protection problems in the passing game and the 14/26 for 175 yards and a touchdown isn’t something Hallmark would ever commemorate, but of those 12 incomplete passes, maybe half of them were deep shots that didn’t hit to dudes that were reaaaallllyyy open. If I’m weighing in on the, “Was it Petras or the receiver’s fault?” for most of those missed passes, I probably put more of it on the receivers, but I really don’t care, because whatever the issue was looks correctable. (Probably. Hopefully.) I complained about how few deep shots Iowa took last week. Seeing this many deep pass attempts was incredible.

When I mentioned a possible way forward, this is it. Nothing about this game against Nevada suggested Iowa is going to be able to consistently move the ball against anybody, let alone the elite defenses of the Big Ten. Of course it won’t be nearly as easy against actual defenses, but a willingness to attack downfield is Iowa’s best hope to eke out just enough points to put this defense in a chance to get some wins. Iowa had six plays that generated 210 yards of offense. The other 55 plays generated 127. That’s right, Iowa is now a big play offense, folks.

We know enough about Kirk to guess that he probably doesn't see his offense that way, but he should. Iowa has five games on their schedule with defenses in the top 25 according to SP+, two more in the top 50, and the other two are Northwestern and Nebraska. With this murderer's row of sadistic front-sevens, points are going to be scarce. With basically 11 players at the line of scrimmage, teams are gonna double-dog dare Kirk to throw it deep. His best chance at a bowl game is to look those defenses square in the eye and say "You're goddamn right we're gonna throw it deep."

Hawkeye Droppings

* I don’t know if this is Stockholm Syndrome from having Kirk as the Hawkeye coach for so long, but watching Tory Taylor punt and bounce the ball down to the coverage team at the opponent’s one-yard line is almost as fun as watching Iowa score touchdowns.

* Did Drew Stevens win the starting placekicker job? It probably depends on how well each kicker does in practice, but he looked good in difficult conditions in this game.

* There was some debate last year about Tyler Goodson costing Iowa small bits of yards by being too interested in making the big play. While I would trade some dancing in the backfield for a loss in exchange for the occasional explosive run, with Kaleb Johnson maybe it isn’t an either/or proposition, because the first touchdown run was almost all him and I didn’t see any hesitation from him despite the small amount of space he typically had in his others.

* This defense is worth waiting seven hours for. I love it when they drain the life from an offense and seeing the look of utter helplessness on the faces of opposing players.

* Pretty much every unit on the defense is incredible, but this defensive line is the nastiest they have been in a very long time. There might be some that have been better at the top, but has Kirk ever had a d-line with this much depth?

* I keep forgetting that Jestin Jacobs hasn’t played since South Dakota State. That the defense is this awesome without him is actually kind of nuts. 

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