It's time for Iowa football to simply 'do better'

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

It's time for Iowa football to simply 'do better'

Something is going terribly wrong for Iowa. It isn’t supposed to be like this. Check the script.

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The Hawkeyes are supposed to be 3-0, riding high as they head to Pitt for their biggest non-conference game yet. Dominating wins over Northern Iowa, Ball State and Iowa State are supposed to be in Iowa’s review mirror as Iowa chugs toward the Big Ten West title behind a veteran roster and user-friendly schedule.

Instead, the Hawkeyes are 2-1 and filled with doubt. How good is this team? Truth be told, it easily could be 1-2. Questions persist in Iowa City for a season that isn’t on the brink but appears to be pointed that way. Kirk Ferentz remains unfazed. But, that’s just Kirk Ferentz, who is in his 16th season with Iowa. It seems fans either want to cast him in bronze—or cast him out of town. It’s a fascinating and frustrating relationship.

“Do this enough,” Ferentz said earlier this week as he dealt with the aftermath of a home loss to the Cyclones that made him 7-9 vs. ISU, “and you’re going to get your tail kicked.”

Iowa didn’t exactly get its tail kicked in the 20-17 loss last Saturday in Kinnick. But losses to Iowa State aren’t supposed to happen. The thinking along Melrose Avenue goes something like this: Iowa has better players, facilities, tradition … better everything … than Iowa State. It shouldn’t lose to the Cyclones. Ah, if football—and life—were only so cut-and dried.

The finger of blame and frustration is poking offensive coordinator Greg Davis squarely in the chest. It was thought the attack would be built around a physical rushing game led by one of the Big Ten’s best offensive lines anchored by arguably the top tackle in the nation in Brandon Scherff. And there also is a fleet of good backs, led by Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock.

Just line ‘em up and knock ‘em down, while sprinkling in some play-action passes from Jake Rudock. This is gonna be simple. Nope.

Alas, Iowa hasn’t gotten on track. The Hawkeyes struggled to put away FCS Northern Iowa in the opener, winning 31-23. Then, the Hawkeyes needed a miraculous late fourth-quarter rally to slip by Ball State, 17-13.

Exciting? Yes. Confidence-inducing? No? Iowa was one of the shakiest 2-0 teams in the galaxy.

Iowa’s luck ran out last week when it fell at home to an 0-2 Iowa State club. It was the Cyclones’ third win in four seasons vs. Iowa. Iowa State had allowed an average of 267 yards rushing entering the game. But Iowa mustered just 129 yards on the ground, averaging a scant 2.9 yards per carry.

“They came out in the second half and they played better than us,” Scherff said after Saturday’s loss. “We need to learn how to finish like we did in the last two weeks. We have to put this one behind us and move on.”

Will things really get better? (I’m shrugging my shoulders.) This offense may be what it is at this point three games into the season: predictable, pedestrian and largely non-productive.

I guess the Iowa coaches could change quarterbacks, subbing out Rudock for C.J. Beathard. That’s always a popular move with the talk-radio crowd. But is it the panacea?

Rudock is reluctant to stretch defenses with downfield throws. When you blend that reticence with a ground game that lacks punch, it’s easy to see why the Iowa offense has had issues this season. My dear 72-year-old mother can predict plays from this offense. And that’s not good. A fleet of promising receivers needs to be utilized more. Get the ball to wideouts like Damond Powell and Derrick Willies. Ferentz says there is opportunity for Powell and Willies to play bigger roles but …

“Nothing against either of those guys,” Ferentz said this week. “It’s just where they’re at right now. They’ve got growth to make.”

Here’s hoping they grow before it’s too late.

“Sometimes, that’s the way it goes in games,” offensive tackle Andrew Donnal said. “Everyone is trying to stop our run game. Everyone knows that’s what we’re trying to do, so they’re doing everything they can to stop it. Sometimes, you have to do other things. You have to throw the ball, you have to open things up.”

What happens if Iowa loses at Pitt this Saturday? What will be the team’s emotional state? How will its confidence be like heading into Big Ten action?

This is a veteran Iowa team that purportedly has line play that’s among the best in the Big Ten. The defense has done reasonably well. The scoring defense is No. 6 in the Big Ten (18.7 ppg); the total defense is No. 6 (320.3 ypg); the rushing defense is No. 1 (65.7 ypg); the pass defense is No. 9 (254.7 ypg).

But the offensive numbers pale, as Iowa has the No. 11 overall offense in the conference (377.0 ypg); the No. 11 rushing offense (131.0 ypg); the No. 8 passing attack (246.0 ypg). Worst of all: The Hawkeyes are No. 12 in scoring (21.7 ppg).

This season still can be special in Iowa City—even with a loss at Pitt. But the proverbial sense of urgency hangs over this team. The Hawkeyes still have a cushy schedule. There is no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State on the menu, as the cross-division foes are Indiana and Maryland. And check out the six games after this Saturday’s trip to Pittsburgh:

At Purdue

Indiana

At Maryland

Northwestern

At Minnesota

At Illinois

Iowa probably will be favored in all six tilts.

Then, the campaign finishes with what figures to be season-defining home games vs. Wisconsin and Nebraska, the schools perceived to be Iowa’s biggest challengers for the West crown. And each is trending the opposite direction of Iowa.

A win vs. a 3-0 Pitt team would do wonders for Iowa’s sagging confidence. But, the Hawkeyes are hurting now.

“If you’re not doing as well as you would like to do, typically there’s going to be scrutiny, introspection, whatever,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “Usually it’s a pretty intricate deal. If it’s just one area or one point, then usually you see coaching staffs trying to address that, change personnel, et cetera, but I don’t think that’s the case right now. We just have to do better.”

Just “do better”? It’s vague answers like that which make fans anxious. We all want plans of action that offer specifics on how things will improve.

How Iowa responds will be the key. Three games into this season, and things already may be at a tipping point this Saturday. The glow of last year’s 8-5 season that fueled expectations is dimming. This offense can’t afford to blow another flat with Big Ten play on the horizon. This Iowa team can’t “win ugly” all the way to the West Division title. It’s time to open things up on offense and try something different.

It’s time to “do better.”

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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