THE GOOD, BAD & UGLY 2018: NORTHWESTERN

By Mike Jones on November 12, 2018 at 1:28 pm
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The Good: The Pass Rush

Iowa’s defensive line wreaked havoc on Saturday, keeping Clayton Thorson off balance and forcing him to make bad decisions. Parker Hesse had five tackles and two QB hurries. Matt Nelson notched a QB hurry, as did his brother (FOX believed they were brothers), Anthony Nelson. AJ Epenesa never made it to the quarterback but he did do this:

Thorson only completed 50% of his passes for 122 yards, one TD and two interceptions. Iowa’s pressure led to a couple of interceptions that kept them in the game.

Honorable Mention: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker.

The Bad: A Long List of Personnel Decisions

I’d never subscribed to the “Noah Fant thing” until I watched Saturday’s game and yeah, now I’m sure there’s a “Noah Fant thing.” If you weren’t aware, Noah’s brother Chris tweeted this back in October:

Ferentz stans jumped all over Chris for such a rebellious tweet and the next week against Indiana, Noah “exploded” with four receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. Following the game, Kirk Ferentz, who is extremely petty, said:

Since that game, Fant’s stats have plummeted and he’s rarely seen the field on key drives. He only played eight snaps in the second half against Northwestern and statistically, he had the worst game of his career with ONE RECEPTION?! ONE?!  I remember on a crucial third down play, Fant wasn’t in the game but Iowa apparently thought their best shot at a score was a jump ball to Max Cooper. It went incomplete and Iowa missed the field goal on the next play.

So, what I’m saying is that yes, I believe Kirk Ferentz is actively punishing Noah Fant for something, likely his brother’s Tweet. If you don’t believe me, you can look at his usage over the course of the past three losses and how he has been out-snapped by T.J. Hockenson. Noah Fant has inexcusably not been on the field when Iowa has needed him and as you cannot rationalize why the Hawkeyes would keep their best offensive weapon on the sideline, you must come to the conclusion that something else is going on. In a month or so, Fant will announce his decision to go pro and Kirk Ferentz will have wasted the most talented tight end he’s ever recruited because he’s petty.

Stepping back from the Fant thing, let's talk about Iowa’s inability to run the football. Iowa, a team that prides itself on ground and pound, is currently ranked 11thin the Big Ten in rushing, with 147.5 yards per game. This can be attributed to a lot of things, including Brian Ferentz’s rushing packages, which are just Ken O’Keefe’s rushing packages with a cheap coat of paint.

But the real issue seems to be the personnel decision to continue to give Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent more playing time than Toren Young. During Iowa’s losing streak, IKM and Young have basically split rushing attempts with 18/19, but IKM sees the field more on passing downs. Sargent has blown them both out of the water, totaling 36 carries and seven receptions.

Statistically, IKM is Iowa’s worst running back, averaging 3.7 YPC. Sargent is a little better, at 4.2 YPC. Young is undoubtedly the best, at 4.8 YPC. Yet, he hasn’t seen more than 10 rushing attempts since the Indiana game, where he rushed for 96 yards on 19 attempts. Each running back has their strength but as it stands right now, the decision to split their carries is hurting Iowa’s running game. The old adage is that “if you have two quarterbacks, you have none.” For Iowa it should be “If you have three running backs, you have none.”

Ferentz wants to find Akrum Wadley in IKM. He will not find it. Toren Young is Iowa’s best rusher and should be leading the Hawkeyes out of the gate. IKM should be the change of pace. Sargent is excellent in the passing game. Every Iowa fan knows what these guys do best. Recognizing their strengths is apparently an issue for the coaches.

Oh, and did I mention that IKM fumbles? Because he does.

I’ve never been high on Jack Hockaday. Him nearly falling down in the middle of the field while pursuing a player from Northwestern University on a swing pass didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I don’t care what his issues are: put Amani Jones in the game.

It isn’t necessary to rag on Colten Rastetter anymore because the statistics do that for me. Objectively, his statistics against Northwestern weren’t all that bad, as he had three of his seven punts downed inside the 20. He should’ve had a fourth, but poor coverage allowed it to go into the end zone for a touchback. Of course, the reason why he had so many punts downed inside the 20 is that Iowa’s offense consistently stalled around midfield and as Rastetter averages around 30 yards per punt, he’s the perfect man for the job.

Let’s talk about when he didn’t have a short field to work with. In the first quarter, Rastetter punted from Iowa’s 36-yard line for…22 yards. In the fourth, he punted from Iowa’s 25-yard line for 35 yards…which was returned for 14 yards.

Iowa is ranked 100th in the nation in net punting, averaging only 35.69 net yards per punt. Punting hasn't been winning since 2015.

The Ugly: Another Wasted Season

You’d probably call me ugly names if I told you before the season that Northwestern would capture the Big Ten West at Kinnick Stadium. At one point, Iowa was 3-0 and had a chance to seize the West with a win over Wisconsin. They lost, but hey, let’s tally it up to a couple of unlucky plays. Then, they made it to 6-1 and had the West in their hands with a win over Penn State. They lost. Then they lost again. Then they lost again. To Northwestern, of all teams.

To say that you thought Iowa was an 8-4 team heading into the season and thinking the team going 8-4 is somehow acceptable is a lie that you’ve told to make yourself feel good. Preseason predictions are just that: predictions. When Iowa started playing football they looked far better than an 8-4 football team, at least in the first six or seven weeks of the season. This team has deficiencies, yes, but it also has insanely talented players that can change the course of a game in one play. Of course, those guys have to actually be in the game…

Since 2009, Kirk Ferentz has a 40-33 record in the Big Ten. Only three of those seasons, 2013, 2015, and 2016, carry winning conference records. Since 2009, Iowa is 1-6 against Wisconsin, 4-5 against Northwestern and 2-4 against Michigan State, a team that isn’t even in their division but is parallel in their style of play and talent. Also, since 2009, the Hawkeyes are 2-5 in bowl games.

The past two seasons have been particularly brutal, as Iowa has lost a number of close games that were important to the conference race. It’s the close game statistic that pains me the most. Since 2009, Iowa is 19-27 (.413) in games decided by seven points or less. In conference games, they’re 10-18 (.357). That close game statistic also includes non-conference losses to North Dakota State, NIU and Central Michigan.

This is yet another season where Iowa had potential to make noise in the conference but ended up falling flat on their face. You can file it away next to 2005, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016. You probably have warm and fuzzies about a few of those seasons, but you can absolutely look back at just a couple of games that Iowa could’ve or should’ve won that would’ve changed the conference/division race. Unfortunately, Iowa lost those games, explaining why they’ve only finished second or better in the conference/division race four times in the last 14 seasons. 

Iowa plays football on the razor's edge. We can often point to a handful of plays that won or lost Iowa a game. This is the type of football that Kirk Ferentz wants his program to play: keep it close until the end and hope that you come out on top. Sadly, as of late, the losses are becoming more abundant than the wins. 

Why? Well, you’re going to lose games when you don’t put your best players on the field. You’re going to lose games when you run a scheme that is dependent on college players executing perfectly. You’re going to lose games when you coach a brand of football that was outdated 10 years ago. You’re going to lose games when every coach in the Big Ten West not named PJ Fleck has you figured out. 

The good news, Iowa fans, is that there are only eight more years of this to go. 

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