Well, hey, about that Iowa football
marathon game last night, huh? It was one of the longest, and weirdest, Iowa games in recent memory, thanks to three different lightning delays that resulted in the Hawkeyes and Wolf Pack playing approximately 15 minutes of football in a four-hour (most ludicrous was the "action" between second and third stoppages, when all of one play happened before the teams were ushered off the field and hustled back to their locker rooms). But Iowa did prevail over Nevada in the end, 27-0. It was Iowa's first shutout victory since blanking Rutgers (30-0) and Northwestern (20-0) in 2019.
Victory for Iowa was never really in doubt and, of course, it shouldn't have been in doubt -- Nevada is not a very good team, as evidenced by Iowa being a 23.5-point favorite in the betting markets before the game. This was the easiest game on Iowa's schedule; it was supposed to be a layup and it was (mostly) a layup. Of course, given such competition, how much can we really take away from this result? I felt like the answer was "not much" and that was before the lightning delays turned the last quarter-and-a-half of the game into some bizarre zombie football display fit only for the sickest of sickos. But let's take a peek under the hood of this victory anyway...
The defense was excellent, as expected. In addition to pitching a shutout, they held Nevada to 151 yards of offense, including 82 through the air (on a dismal 2.9 ypa) and 69 on the ground (on an also-dismal 1.9 ypc). They crossed midfield just twice and ran a total of 16 plays in Iowa territory, with almost all of those happening on an odd stop-start drive in the third quarter that resulted in the Wolf Pack attempting (and missing) a 57-yard field goal. Iowa even got back to their ballhawking ways a bit with a toe-tapping interception from Cooper DeJean (his second in as many games). They even would have contributed to the scoreline with a Terry Roberts pick-six had it not been wiped out by an offsides penalty. No complaints about the defense.
The depth of the defensive line showed, as they harassed Nevada quarterback Shane Illingsworth all night and bottled up the Wolf Pack running game, even without stalwart defensive tackle Noah Shannon. Lukas Van Ness was pretty much unblockable, racking up eight tackles (2.5 TFL) and a pair of sacks, while John Waggoner had six tackles (2.0 TFL). True freshman Aaron Graves looked very promising, with four tackles (1.5 TFL) and a sack -- the first of many, no doubt. Another young defensive lineman, Max Llewellyn, had two tackles and a QB hurry as well. While the defensive line was creating havoc, the secondary was smothering Nevada's passing game; there was simply no one for Illingsworth to even try throwing the ball to on most plays.
Iowa made a change at placekicker for this game -- and it paid immediate dividends. Drew Stevens made both of his field goal tries (from 43 yards and 33 yards), as well as all three extra point attempts, and consistently boomed the ball through the end zone on kickoffs. No complaints about anything there. Arland Bruce IV had an effective outing as a punt returner as well, with three returns for 41 yards (13.7 yards per return). His 13-yard return to the Nevada 40 helped set up Iowa's first touchdown of the game two plays later. (His best return of the night, a 25-yard return in the second quarter, led to nothing, alas.)
Tory Taylor was also very good, of course -- he averaged 46.7 yards per punt and he was a consistent field position weapon for Iowa, pinning Nevada deep and helping the Hawkeyes flip the field. Four of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line, including two inside the 3-yard line. Our only real complaint is that he punted seven times. That's way too many punts, especially against a lousy team like Nevada. Taylor is currently on pace to attempt 92 punts this season, which would be a truly insane number of punts. No team has punted that much since Central Michigan attempted 92 punts in 2018. 83 (New Mexico) was the top mark for punts last season. Of course, the amount of work Taylor is getting is not down to him, it's down to...
It was a mixed bag performance for the offense, all things considered. They quadrupled their season touchdown total (from one to four), finally got some big plays to pop, and generally looked a bit more like a competent offense than they had during the first two grindfests. How much of that was the opponent and how much was genuine internal improvement? TBD. Let's focus on the positives first.
* Kaleb Johnson was a genuine sparkplug at running back. He saw more action with Leshon Williams nursing an injury and definitely made the most of his opportunity, with two touchdown runs that were two of Iowa's longest plays of the season. His first scoring run was the more impressive of the two, with Johnson showing some good quick-twitch movement to get through holes, as well as the ability to bounce off tackles and enough speed to do damage in the open field.
His second run was one of the easier runs he'll probably ever have in college. Monte Pottebaum hit a key block that freed him to get the corner and from there it was smooth sailing into the Kinnick Stadium end zone.
Johnson finished with 103 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries, which is a very fine showing indeed, especially for a true freshman in his first extended appearance. There's a lot to like about Johnson -- his running stride is smooth and powerful and he has a nice mix of power and toughness with some shiftiness and quickness, too. The potential for him seems very high, which is an exciting prospect.
* Welcome back, Nico Ragaini and Keagan Johnson. Iowa's massively depleted wide receiver corps got some welcome returns in this game, with both Ragaini and Johnson making their season debuts. Johnson caught two balls for 11 yards, while Ragaini had two grabs for 56 yards -- including an unreal 46-yard reception that set up an Iowa field goal.
He also nearly hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. All told, it was just very nice to see that the Iowa receiving corps wasn't just Arland Bruce and ???
* Welcome back, deep passes! One of the most frustrating aspects of Iowa's first two offensive performances (well, one of many many frustrating aspects) was the lack of deep pass plays -- not just deep pass completions, but even any attempts. Obviously, there were certain factors that contributed to that -- a lack of options at receiver, an offensive line that wasn't handling pass protection duties well -- but it further crippled Iowa's already very limited offense. As we saw last night, even the threat of some deep passes -- by, you know, actually throwing a few -- can be effective in creating a bit more breathing room for the offense and preventing the defense from loading up the box quite as much. Iowa's offense is never going to do anything if opponents can consistently load 9-10 guys in the box on most plays.
* Spencer Petras was... mostly OK? His final stat line was nothing to scream about -- 14/26 for 175 yards, a touchdown, and no turnovers -- but it was... fine. And while it should have been better, that's more on his teammates (he was hurt by a few drops and miscommunication/mis-timed efforts by his receivers on a few occasions, particularly on deep balls.) He was very close to being 16/26 for 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns, which is a stat line we could certainly live with. But his mechanics looked a bit better, his decision-making seemed a bit stronger (he wasn't missing open receivers or trying to force the ball into barely-there windows very often), and he seemed more confident in a gameplan that featured more deep passes. The timing with his receivers needs to improve in a hurry, of course, and there were still a few overthrows, but... some positive signs, which were few and far between in the first two weeks of the season. On the other hand: it was Nevada. How will he fare against literally every other defense on the schedule, which is more capable than the Wolf Pack?
* The running game still lacks consistency. Iowa's running backs totaled 180 yards and 6.2 yards per carry in this game, which are solid totals. But those figures are also juiced by Johnson's two long touchdown runs; without those splash plays, Iowa's running backs racked up just 85 yards and 3.1 yards per carry, which are... not solid totals. It's great to see some big plays in the running game and we'll need to see more of those as the season progresses -- but there needs to be more consistent production beyond that, too. Three yards a pop isn't going to go very far in Big Ten play. But many of the issues with the running game stem from the fact that...
* The offensive line really lacks consistency. Offensive line play has been arguably the most consistent "bad" for Iowa on that side of the ball this season (which is a big problem, since everything starts there on offense) and the Nevada game didn't suggest that all had been fixed for that unit. It was a very mixed bag for them. There were some very good moments -- the blocking that set up several of those big plays (and a few near-misses on big plays) was strong and they got a better push on many plays than they had for most of the season. The pass protection was, generally, pretty solid -- Petras didn't seem overly rushed or hurried on too many throws, though there were a few plays where unblocked defenders got through and killed a play before it could even start. Unsurprisingly, plays like that also killed more than a few Iowa drives, too. The run blocking was... up and down. The biggest issue was that the consistency just wasn't there -- they were not able to regularly push back Nevada's defense and open holes for the running game. Again: Nevada was probably the worst defensive line Iowa will see this season.
That lack of consistency really shows in Iowa's inability to maintain drives. Iowa's three touchdown drives against Nevada were all on short (or relatively short) fields: 40 yards, 41 yards, 55 yards. Two of the "drives" were effectively one-play drives and the longest touchdown drive took all of four plays. In terms of actually covering ground and sustaining a drive, Iowa's best effort of the night was probably an 11-play, 69-yard (nice) drive in the second quarter that resulted in a field goal. The only way a boom-bust offense can work is if you can generate a lot of booms, or convert those opportunities into touchdowns with a lot of efficiency. Iowa's offense is unlikely to generate a lot of "boom" opportunities and they haven't been terribly efficient (last night aside) from converting those opportunities into points, either. If they also can't manage to sustain longer, more methodical drives... well, then we're back to a lot of three downs and a punt. And that's not a recipe for much success.