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Behind Enemy Lines: Iowa Hawkeyes

Max Brekke joined me to preview Illinois v. Iowa. Spoiler alert: Iowa fans are miserable just like us.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Black Heart Gold Pants is probably the best Iowa blog out there. Even as someone who writes for TCR, Iowa’s Black Heart Gold Pants has some of the smartest writers on SBN.

That holds true for Max Brekke, who sat down with us to discuss this weekend’s matchup. What followed was, by his own admission, the most depressing and angry response I’ll get from a team with a 6-4 record .

TCR: I have long railed on Iowa. Ever since I was a kid, Iowa deserved a good mocking. Now, however, since 2001, Iowa has seen one losing season and have seen great success under Ferentz. How do fans perceive this season as it stands at 6-4?

BHGP: We’re angry. It feels incredibly selfish to say that, particularly to a bunch of Illinois fans who have suffered through bad football for so long now, but it’s the truth. Iowa started the season 6-1 and a lot of fans thought this might actually be their best team since 2009, when they won the Orange Bowl. The defense was phenomenal, the offense was wheeling and dealing, and it looked like offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz picked up a few new tricks and learned how to call a more cohesive game this season.

Boy, did they have us fooled, as they have thoroughly shit the bed since. They’ve lost three straight one-possession games in infuriating fashion — Nate Stanley has lost all his moxie (if he ever had any), our preseason All-American tight end and potential first-round draft pick Noah Fant is being phased out of the offense for god knows what reason, and it turns out that our coaches have absolutely no clue what they’re actually doing on offense.

To close out a long-winded answer and cut myself before I really rant, we’ve got a major schism reoccurring in Iowa country - one where there are plenty of people calling for Kirk Ferentz to be fired. This season, which looked like it would end with 10 wins and a potential berth in the Big Ten Championship game, feels like a failure. A perfectly Ferentzian 7-5/8-4 failure.

TCR: Nate Stanley has quietly become one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten with limited weapons around him. How has his junior year progressed? Is he about where you would expect him?

BHGP: If you were to catch me with this question about four weeks ago, I would have been raving about Nate Stanley. His completion percentage was up about five points from where it was in 2017, and while he was on pace to throw more interceptions this season, it wasn’t unexpected after he threw just five last year. It looked like he was taking a huge leap as a junior and Todd McShay had him as one of his top five quarterbacks entering the 2019 NFL Draft, comparing him with a young Ben Roethlisberger. With two legitimate pass-catching tight ends and a receiving corps he had developed a lot of chemistry with, as well as a finely tuned deep ball, it seemed like he was primed to put his name in the Iowa record books.

His stats still look fine on the surface (58% completion percentage, 18:8 TD:INT ratio), but he’s looked absolutely abysmal in three of Iowa’s last four games despite putting up pretty deceiving stat lines. He had a bad game in 40 mph winds against Maryland (which was excusable!), but followed that up by completing 36% of his passes against Penn State and it’s clearly shaken his confidence. He looks very uncomfortable in the pocket, his internal clock is off, and he’s stopped going through his progressions, staring down his first read and finding his second, if we’re lucky. He completed 66% of his passes against Northwestern for 270 yards, but 12 of his 41 passes were thrown behind the line of scrimmage and a number of his passes were dump offs just ahead of the LOS. He did injure his thumb against the Nittany Lions, but Ferentz has reiterated that it’s providing him with no issues now. It’s absolutely mind-numbing to watch someone with so much talent develop such a serious case of the yips.

TCR: Iowa has lost its last three games by a combined 12 points. Which game was the hardest to lose as a fan?

BHGP: That’s a tough question. Is it the one where Iowa scored 24 points against PSU despite the offense accounting for zero touchdowns, and they threw a fourth quarter interception at the PSU three-yard line because the players weren’t ready for the snap (with three timeouts in hand!)? Or maybe the loss to Purdue, where they lost by two and also failed to convert on two separate two-point conversions? Or the Northwestern loss, where they were driving on their last two possessions of the game, then lost fumbles on both drives, all while Noah Fant played nine total second half snaps?

I’ll pick the Northwestern loss. While the PSU and Purdue losses were painful, the Northwestern loss was soul crushing because it showed that maybe Iowa just stinks.

TCR: Much has been made of the Iowa special teams play this season, particularly the punt game. For a guy averaging just 35 yards per punt, is your preference for the Hawkeyes to be more aggressive on fourth down plays, especially when in opposing territory?

BHGP: I’m going to be honest - I knew that Iowa’s punter wasn’t very good, but I had no idea how bad his average was this season until I read this question. His deficiencies were masked early in the season because Iowa’s offense was humming along and they often went for it on fourth down, but lately the offense has been so stagnant that there’s been no choice but to punt it away often. Teams have taken advantage of his rugby-style kicks, and rather than letting the ball hit the ground, they’ve been aggressive and run up to catch and return them, with great success.

Iowa’s gone for it a bunch when on the opponent’s side of the field, so this is actually a qualm that I do not have with this team right now! I’ve really enjoyed that the Hawks have been aggressive on fourth downs and if they can get the ball across the 50-yard line against the Illini, I’d like to see that trend continue.

TCR: Vegas gave now 3-7 Nebraska better odds (-18) to beat Illinois than they have Iowa (-16). Is this more of an indictment on the offense, defense, or coaching?

BHGP: You can probably guess at this point, but it’s definitely an indictment on the offense and offensive coaching. In Iowa’s last four games, they’ve scored seven offensive touchdowns, and that total is buoyed by the five they scored against Purdue. Playing against an Illinois team that is at the very bottom of the conference in just about every defensive category should help, but I’m not super optimistic. I think Iowa could score in the 30s, but wouldn’t expect much more, and wouldn’t bet my money on it.

TCR: Who wins, and why?

BHGP: I’m going to pick Iowa in this one, but I honestly don’t have a lot of faith in that decision right now. Illinois has an explosive running game, and if AJ Bush can get anything going through the air, I think they’ll give the Iowa defense fits, despite the fact that they’re second in the conference in most defensive categories.

My reasoning for picking the Hawkeyes is that Illinois is so bad on defense that I can’t imagine Iowa struggling as much as they have recently. Whichever Iowa running back they choose to feature should be their first 100-yard rusher of the season, and the other two should have productive days as well, while Nate Stanley should be comfortable enough to get at least 200 yards in the air.

Illinois covers. Hawkeyes 34, Illini 21.

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