When Illinois kicked a field goal in the first quarter last Saturday to go up 3-0 they continued a surprising trend: they became the sixth straight Iowa opponent this year to score first. Iowa has trailed at the beginning of every game this season as a result.This follows up on a point that Mike made in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly earlier this week, but I wanted to dig into it a little bit more.
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Not only have opponents scored before Iowa in every first quarter this year (except Wyoming, which was 0-0 after one quarter); they've also outscored Iowa in total in the first quarter, by a margin of almost two touchdowns, 34-21. Not every early deficit has been that big -- they were only down 3-0 early to Wyoming, North Texas, and Penn State thanks to the Iowa defense holding those teams out of the end zone. And when they did give up touchdowns, it often seemed to light a fire under the Iowa offense; the offense responded with immediate touchdowns after going down 7-0 against North Texas and Iowa State. The only significant deficit was 14-0 against Michigan State, which unfortunately proved insurmountable.
There have also been somewhat fluky circumstances that have contributed to the streak of Iowa's opponent scoring first in every game. On Saturday, against Illinois, Iowa likely should have scored first after recovering a Jeff George Jr. fumble at the Illinois 27-yard line on the first play from scrimmage. Unfortunately, Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled the ball right back to Illinois three plays later; Illinois promptly went on a 10-play, 59 yard drive to go up 3-0. Similarly, against North Texas, Iowa put together a methodical, 12-play, 76-yard drive on the opening possession of the game, but came away with no points when video replay ruled that Nick Easley had fumbled the ball on the goal line and the ball had gone out of the end zone for a touchback. (I still don't think there was a camera angle showing indisputable video evidence that he had lost the ball prior to crossing the goal line, but so it goes.) Had those drives not ended in fumbles, Iowa would have scored points (for sure against North Texas, highly likely against Illinois) and this streak wouldn't exist.
But the overall trend of Iowa starting slowly in the first quarter of games would still be true. And, as the table above points out, they're also getting off to some slow starts after halftime; they're outscoring opponents just 28-27 in the third quarter so far this year. Saturday's game provided a case in point: Iowa went three-and-out on their first two possessions of the second half, despite seeming to have "momentum" after the successful fake punt and touchdown right before halftime. It was only Brandon Snyder's galvanizing pick-six that seemed to shake Iowa out of its torpor in the second half and cruise to an easy victory.
Meanwhile, Iowa is soundly outscoring opponents in the second quarter, which is a big reason they've led at half in four of their six games this year, and absolutely trouncing opponents in the fourth quarter of games this year. Iowa has shut out four opponents in the fourth quarter this year (Wyoming, North Texas, Michigan State, and Illinois) and they've only conceded six points in Big Ten play in the fourth quarter so far (although those were six very costly points against Penn State, sadly).
So what's it all mean? Let's see:
- The Iowa defense really does seem to improve as the game goes on. In addition to posting multiple fourth quarter shutouts, the defense has also made some of its biggest plays in that period. They grabbed four interceptions against North Texas, Wyoming, and Illinois to ice those wins, and the interception against Iowa State was even more pivotal, as that enabled Iowa to tie the game. They also had a huge blocked field goal against Penn State to keep Iowa's comeback bid alive and forced two punts (and another missed field goal) against Michigan State, to give Iowa a chance to tie that game. In some years we've seen Iowa's defense break late in games (2010 and 2014 spring to mind as two particularly painful examples), but that hasn't been the case so far this season.
- Iowa's scripted offense to start games hasn't led to many fast starts. Iowa has punted on its first possession in four of six games this year (Wyoming, Iowa State, Penn State, Michigan State). They picked up a total of one first down on those opening possessions. On the other hand, they did march down the field against North Texas on their opening possession (prior to the fumble) and their first real possession of the Illinois game (after the opening fumblepalooza) was a methodical scoring drive. And after game-opening punts, Iowa also managed to post early scoring drives against Iowa State (second drive) and Michigan State (third drive). So the early, more scripted portions of the offense haven't been totally ineffective, but the results there have definitely been mixed.
- Halftime adjustments have been a mixed bag for Iowa as well. The offense went three and out on their first drives of the third quarter against Wyoming, Iowa State, Penn State, and Illinois, but they did mount a touchdown drive against North Texas and put together a very good drive out of halftime against Michigan State that unfortunately ended with Nate Stanley's fumble inside the MSU 10-yard line. And even if the initial drive out of halftime was ineffective, Iowa has often managed to break out of that third quarter malaise: their second drives of the third quarter against Iowa State and Wyoming resulted in touchdowns, as well as one of their best drives of the game against Penn State (a 5-play, 52-yard drive that ended in an Akrum Wadley fumble).
- The offense has been effective in a lot of different ways in the fourth quarter that Iowa has dominated so far this year. They've put together explosive, big play drives to tie the game (Iowa State), take the lead (Penn State), or ice the game (Illinois). They've also put together methodical drives to grind out the game (North Texas). The fourth quarter offense has been padding leads on bad teams (North Texas, Illinois) and coming through against tougher opponents (Penn State, Iowa State*). That said, they've also had some ho-hum fourth quarter outings, like against Wyoming (didn't matter) and Michigan State (definitely did matter). If the defense could have held up versus Penn State, Stanley could have had two game-winning or game-tying drives on his resume in his first six games as a starter, which wouldn't be too shabby.
* Obviously Iowa State is not directly equivalent to Penn State in any way beyond being an annoying team whose name ends in State, but they are certainly an improved team this year and probably the third-best team that Iowa has played so far this year (behind PSU and MSU).
So is the story of Iowa football this year one of slow starts and fast finishes? Well, sort of. Some games fit that particular narrative a bit better than others, but there does seem to be something to that overall trend through the first half of the season for Iowa. So far slow starts have really only hurt Iowa against Michigan State (when that 14-0 hole was too much for a brutally ineffective offense to climb out of). That said, digging early holes is not a great trend, especially with difficult opponents like Ohio State and Wisconsin looming in November. It's one thing to overcome early struggles against the likes of Wyoming or Illinois, but as we've seen from Iowa's struggles against Penn State and Michigan State (when they were playing from behind for all or most of the game), getting out of those holes against good teams is much harder.