It was a weird season. With COVID-19 taking the non-conference portion of the schedule out of play, Iowa was immediately thrust into Big Ten play and started things off with a dud, losing 24-20 to a bad Purdue team.* Things didn’t improve the next week, as Iowa lost to Northwestern at home by one whole point. If it’s any consolation, at least that Northwestern team went on to win the West. Oh, who am I kidding? There’s never any consolation after losing to Northwestern.
With that, Iowa was 0-2 and we were starting to wonder what, exactly, was the strength of this team. Well, it turns out, the strength of this team is BREAKING NEWS: a nasty defense. Iowa went on a six-game winning streak, holding opponents to only seven (7!) points in three of those games. The Hawkeyes finished eighth in total defense, 10th in rushing defense, seventh in team passing efficiency defense and sixth in scoring defense. They were also first in the nation in yards per play allowed. This defensive charge was led by Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon, who anchored one of the most disruptive defensive lines of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure.
What else did we learn in this strange, lost season? Here are five things:
1. Goodson is great but he needs a complement
Statistically, Tyler Goodson had a better season than last, increasing his YPC from 4.8 to 5.3 and scoring a total of seven touchdowns. Yet, that average was still behind Mekhi Sargent, who averaged 5.7 YPC. Goodson looked a little apprehensive in his second season, as if he was always waiting to break the big one, which resulted in a lot of tackles at the LOS. The exceptions were against Wisconsin and Michigan State, when he finally did break off big runs. Sargent ran with a bit more certainty, getting the ball up the field, thus averaging more YPC. Goodson is a playmaker but he needs someone like Sargent to complement his style of running. He needs a stronger back to help wear down the defense before he hits them with the razzle dazzle.
With Sargent leaving for the NFL Draft, that doesn’t leave a lot of depth on the roster. Ivory Kelly-Martin suffered a non-contact knee injury at some point in December and required surgery. That only leaves two other scholarship players: LeShon and Gavin Williams (no relation). LeShon is a 5’10", 208 lb freshman that will likely get a redshirt after last season, as I don’t believe he saw any playing time. He had a long list of G5 offers, as well as an offer from Kansas State. Gavin is a 6’0", 213 lb freshman that will also likely redshirt. He should be familiar to central Iowans as he starred for Southeast Polk and, later, Dowling Catholic and was a first-team All-State selection. Gavin had offers from Iowa State, Michigan and Nebraska, and was ranked the best prospect in the state by Rivals.
Iowa has a few offers still out there for running backs in 2021 but it’s unclear if they'll be adding one this signing period. This means that IKM, LeShon and Gavin Williams will have to be the reliable power runner. Looking only at their respective sizes, Gavin Williams could be your clear #2 choice.
2. We’ll miss Ihmir Smith-Marsette
Very rarely is an Iowa receiver going to make national noise. Kirk Ferentz’s system isn’t high-flying and wide receivers are typically only role players to complement the power running game. The exception, of course, was Marvin McNutt. Ihmir Smith-Marsette never surpassed 1,000 yards in a season at Iowa. His best year came in 2019, when he amassed 722 yards, 16.4 per reception, and five touchdowns. He also rushed for 108 yards and three touchdowns.
But ISM could change the dynamic of a football game. When Iowa actually chose to throw the ball deep (y’know, the 1-3 times a game they do it), ISM could be counted on to: 1) Be there; and 2) Be ahead of his defender. This is saying nothing of his kick returning abilities, either, which are the best I’ve ever seen during the Kirk Ferentz tenure at Iowa. ISM could flip the field and score whenever he had the ball. Iowa might not have another player like that for a while.
3. Kelvin Bell and Jay Neimann know what they’re doing
When we lost A.J. Epenesa to the NFL and Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff to graduation, we were all “well, now what?” Daviyon Nixon looked like he had potential, but would he live up to his recruiting hype? Who would play opposite Golston? Would Golston turn into the leader of the line? How do you replace two starting veteran defensive tackles?
Well, Bell and Neimann answered all of those questions. Daviyon Nixon sure did live up to his billing, amassing 5.5 sacks, one interception (returned for a touchdown, if you recall) and a forced fumble. For this, he was named a unanimous First Team All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Golston was no slouch either, also amassing 5.5 sacks, one interception, and a forced fumble. He was named First Team All-Big Ten.
Now, here’s the issue: Nixon and Golston are both gone next year. As is tackle Jack Heflin. So, for the second year in a row, Bell and Neimann will have to replace three starters on the defensive line. The good news is that Zach VanValkenburg is staying. But who else is on deck? Joe Evans, the one-time linebacker and sack specialist, and John Waggoner, the best recruit in the state of Iowa from the class of 2018, should compete for the starting defensive end position opposite ZVV. Noah Shannon, a prized recruit with a host of Power 5 offers, as well as Logan Lee, a highly-recruited tight end that switched to the defensive side of the ball, should be your top candidates at DT. It’s a daunting task but Bell and Neimann have shown that they’re up to the challenge.
4. Spencer Petras can be The Guy
For the first four or five games of the season, Spencer Petras was bad. He never completed more than 60% of his passes and had thrown three touchdowns to four interceptions. And, actually, Petras was bad in the first half of the majority of the games to close out the season. Yet, somehow, during the second half he often managed to come out and play really well. In the final four games he completed 61% of his passes and threw six touchdowns to only one interception.
Petras has an arm. No one disputes this. He might have one of the strongest arms of the Ferentz era. Towards the end of the year, he showed his arm strength as well as some semblance of touch. The issue is that those moments when we saw that touch were few and far between. People remember John Elway for his back-to-back Super Bowl wins and The Helicopter dive in Super Bowl XXXII. They don’t remember that Elway’s receivers hated how he fired the ball like a cannon and bruised or broke their fingers. Petras has this same tendency, firing the ball on slants, ins, outs, and well, pretty much any short route. He is almost always amped up.
That said, he showed to close out the year that he can settle down and if he does that, he can be what Iowa needs. If he can continue to improve and be a calmer quarterback, he can be good. That said…
5. Boy, does the passing playbook stink
When he was bad, it wasn’t all on Petras. Exhibit A:
Hard to see why Iowa didnt have much of a chance at converting this 3rd and 15. pic.twitter.com/k9n4n2gpZx— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) October 31, 2020
Well at least one guy ran past the first down marker! pic.twitter.com/eQIVXyUw2I— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) November 27, 2020
Iowa’s route trees are, for lack of better words, absolutely terrible. We’re four years into the Brian Ferentz Era and we’ll do a deep dive into the numbers in another post but what I can tell you is that in those four years, Iowa's best passing season came in 2019, when they finished 68th in the nation. Their best completion percentage as a team came in 2018, when they finished 67th. This year, Iowa finished 101st in the nation in completion percentage and 97th in passing offense. Woof.
You might not believe me but Iowa’s offense, overall, just had its best year under Brian Ferentz. This was achieved despite having one of the worst passing seasons in, I don’t know, Iowa history? By looking at the examples above you can see why it’s hard for a quarterback to be successful in this offense. As a quarterback, you want to move the football down the field. The routes that you are given are not at all down the field and instead are bunched up like you only have seven yards. Every passing play Iowa draws up is written like the Hawkeyes are on their opponent's one-yard line and they only have the end zone to work with.
There were a few wrinkles last year that were appreciated. For instance, putting Goodson in the wildcat was a brilliant move by Brian, especially as he continued to diversify the plays out of that formation later in the season. But these passing plays are hot garbage and aren't putting Petras in a position to succeed…or even in a position to pick up first downs. Hopefully that’s a focus for the offseason.