Analyzing the Iowa Hawkeyes' Anemic Offense and What It Needs to Be Successful
After two games, one thing can safely be said about the 2012 Iowa Hawkeyes.
Their offense is not good.
It has averaged a paltry 12 points against two decidedly respectable defenses—Northern Illinois and Iowa State—but defenses that nobody is going to mistake for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Hawkeye fans are left to wonder what the problem is.
After 13 years of blaming erstwhile offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe for every offensive shortcoming under the sun, O'Keefe left Iowa City for the balmy weather of Miami.
This led to the hiring of new OC Greg Davis—the former OC at Texas—as well as the hiring of Brian Ferentz as the new offensive line coach.
Adjustments and growing pains were expected, but nobody expected this.
Quarterback James Vandenberg has been inaccurate, indecisive and jittery; the offensive line has been unable to block in space—six sacks allowed vs. NIU; and the pass-catchers have been downright dreadful.
So, what has the new offense tried to do, what has it failed to do, and what can it do to fix what has gone wrong?
Eddie Podolak kept mentioning this during the Hawkeye radio broadcast, but Iowa played some quality linebackers in ISU's Jake Knott and A.J. Klein.
They are not the only quality linebackers Iowa will face this year. Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan, Penn State and Purdue also feature solid linebackers.
And if a team allows solid linebackers to play downhill all game, then the running game will go nowhere unless it is led by a lights-out offensive line, which Iowa's isn't.
In effect, the Hawks can't let the linebackers slant in the direction of the run the whole game. Greg Davis has to keep them honest.
The best way to do this is via counters—running plays in which the offense fakes running one way, but instead goes the other. This forces the defense, and especially the linebackers, to stay honest.
By my count, Iowa ran one counter against Iowa State—a third-quarter run that picked up four yards. It is true that four yards is hardly a watershed, but it was also 1.2 yards more than Iowa averaged on the day.
Screen Is the Word
Texas blog Burnt Orange Nation warned Iowa that Davis' "random screen calls left much to be desired," and Hawkeye fans have gotten a taste of that in only two games.
Some of the screens have been successful—against Northern Illinois, there was one to Kevonte Martin-Manley that would have gone for a touchdown if KMM had waited for his blockers.
On the other hand, some have made no sense.
Still, it is a good weapon that O'Keefe made too little use of, but it has to be well-timed. Davis' screens, as Burnt Orange Nation noted, seem random.
James Vandenberg wasn't as bad as he looked against Iowa State, and he certainly wasn't as bad as his stats—20 COMP, 42 ATT, 236 YDS, 0 SACKS, 0 TD, 2 INT.
Nevertheless, the two interceptions, one of which iced the game for the Cyclones, were entirely his fault, and his accuracy left something to be desired.
Regardless, there are two key issues.
Firstly, coming into the year, Hawkeye fans knew that Vandenberg had the ability to take over games. Last year's Pitt game serves as the prime example. The problem was that he had been streaky. Iowa fans hoped that this year he would bring consistency to his game.
It doesn't appear that is the case, and that is especially worrisome.
Streakiness depends upon external factors. This is the case with quarterbacks, point guards in basketball, and carpenters, plumbers or anyone doing anything that requires precision. A person that is consistent stays within himself, while a person that is streaky depends upon external factors to spark him.
With Iowa's pass catchers playing the way they are—as detailed in the next two slides—it is hard to see anything sparking JVB.
Secondly, Greg Davis' West Coast passing scheme requires two things—pass-catchers that run precise routes and a quarterback that is deadly accurate within 15 yards.
The idea is that the receivers catch short passes while running at full speed. Thus, a catch three yards past the line of scrimmage will become at least a six-yard completion when the defense tries to stop the pass-catcher who is going at full steam.
On the other hand, if the quarterback can't hit the receiver in perfect stride—for example, the quarterback throws it to the receiver's back shoulder—then the three-yard completion will wind up exactly that—a three-yard completion.
How many of those have we seen this year?
It is no coincidence that all the quarterbacks that operated under Bill Walsh—considered the originator of the NFL version of the West Coast offense—were deadly accurate passers.
Vandenberg doesn't seem to have the necessary precision, and unless he learns it, those three-yard passes will continue to die as soon as the receiver catches the ball.
Receivers Need to Gain Separation
The ISU defense barely played any zone. The Cyclone cornerbacks sat on Iowa's receivers all game long. They barely gave any cushion, even with one and sometimes two safeties dropping into the box.
They paid no attention to deep coverage and didn't entertain the possibility of getting burned for a big play.
In short, there was no fear of Iowa's passing game—particularly its deep passing game.
The reason for this was because Iowa's receivers have had trouble getting off the line and getting any separation from the cornerbacks.
Drops, Drops and More Drops
There is nothing Ferentz, Davis, Vandenberg or anybody can do if the pass-catchers fail to catch balls that hit their hands.
College football doesn't keep stats for dropped balls, but my unofficial count against ISU was seven drops spread over six different pass-catchers.
That is a conservative number, and only includes drops that were unequivocally the pass-catcher in question's fault—as opposed to passes where the ball just grazed the player's fingers or the receiver got plugged as soon as he touched the ball.
As previously mentioned, Vandenberg's streakiness depends upon external factors. Those factors, more than anything else, are his receivers.
Iowa fans realized how good leading receiver Marvin McNutt was last year, but perhaps they minimized his galvanizing effect on Vandenberg.
After two games, JVB has been a man alone, and there doesn't seem to be any help forthcoming from the receiver group.
Throw to the Hat
Then again, maybe that galvanizing playmaker might be there in the form of 6'7" tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz.
All offseason Iowa fans heard about the junior tight end. Greg Davis himself said (per Hawk Central): "I’ve never had a tight end like C.J. with his size and ability to play at the line of scrimmage and also stretch the field."
And what has he done in two games?
Seven receptions for 82 yards and no touchdowns. Which, in some fairness, puts him third on the team in receptions and tied for second in yards, but he has hardly had the impact Hawk fans have been looking for.
At 6'7", 265 pounds, Fiedorowicz is a matchup nightmare. The Polish Hat should own third-and-medium and red-zone situations. Vandenberg—who stares down his receivers too much for a senior anyway—should be looking for nobody else when Iowa faces 3rd-and-5.
Fiedorowicz got more targets in the second half of the ISU game—I counted five targets in the second half, with seven on the whole game—but what was the reason for the wait?
Furthermore, why did three of his seven targets take place during the Hawks' one good drive on the day during which Fiedorowicz made two receptions for 38 yards? And why hasn't he once been targeted in the red zone?
Is Davis Too Accustomed to Texas-Level Talent?
The quick passes to the periphery that Iowa employed so excessively against NIU can be effective, but Iowa doesn't have the talent to do anything with them.
Those passes take advantage of fast, playmaking receivers that can beat tacklers and turn a two-yard out into a 60-yard touchdown.
It might have been more successful two years ago, when Iowa had Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, McNutt, Paul Chaney Jr. and Colin Sandeman—all experienced upperclassmen at the time.
Nevertheless, this year, the receivers seem like the offense's—and the team's—weakest link, and it is difficult enough envisioning them catching a two-yard out, let alone turning it into something substantial.
The Offense Needs Some Fireworks
When the offense was on the field, Kinnick Stadium was, at times, asleep.
That cannot happen, but outside of Damon Bullock's 24-yard touchdown run against NIU, what has the offense done that has been particularly worth cheering for?
Whether it's the scheme, the play-calling, a lack of talent, or a lack of execution on the part of the quarterback, the receivers or the line, the reality is this is a boring offense.
What Does the Rest of the Season Look Like?
It's hard to see much improvement in the future. There wasn't much out of the Iowa State game to feel encouraged about.
The scheme could use some tweaking, but the problem is not the scheme.
Greg Davis may not be Chip Kelly or Mike Gundy, but the plays have been there to move the ball—certainly enough to score the 10 points that would have given Iowa a win over ISU.
The issue has been, in the most Kirk Ferentzesque sense, execution. Whether that is the fault of the coaches of the players is debatable.
With time, the offensive line will get better and the running backs will gain much-needed experienced. Also, JVB and his receivers could get on same page. However, the dropped passes seem chronic and the overall underperformance of the receivers looks like a downward spiral. Moreover, JVB is unquestionably a limited quarterback.
The situation is reminiscent of 2006 and 2007. The ineptitude of the receivers in the former almost caused quarterback Drew Tate to have an aneurism, while 2007 saw Iowa's offense manage a paltry 18.5 points per game (110th in the country). Incidentally, 2007 was the last time Iowa had a glut of experienced running backs or even two experienced running backs.
And unlike in year's past, where it was easy to play armchair offensive coordinator, this year, the problem—whatever it is—isn't as cut and dry.