Woah, We’re Halfway There: Iowa Football’s Midseason Grades

Six games into the 2019 Iowa football season, the Hawkeyes are 4-2 (1-2), putting them right on pace for yet another eight-win season. While many programs (including at least one in the state of Iowa) deify head coaches who consistently win eight games, one can’t help but be disappointed to see a team that some thought could compete for a Big Ten championship once again struggle to break through against the conference’s blue bloods. Still, with half of the season yet to play, this Hawkeye team has plenty of opportunities left to distinguish itself, including three trophy games (two of which are against opponents who are currently 6-0), revenge spots against Purdue and Northwestern, an outside shot at the Big Ten West crown, and a chance to win three consecutive bowl games for only the second time in program history.

Before looking ahead to the rest of the season, let’s first look back at how each of Iowa’s units have played through the first six games.

Quarterback: Nate Stanley looked like he might have turned a corner accuracy-wise through his first four games, but quickly plummeted back to earth after two rough outings against Michigan and Penn State. Stanley has managed to connect on the deep pass somewhat more frequently this season and has the arm talent to fit the ball through incredibly small windows at times.

Still, Stanley struggled in Iowa’s two most important games this season, throwing only one touchdown to four interceptions against Michigan and Penn State. Poor offensive line play and the absence of a running game have been significant contributor to Stanley’s struggles, and his lack of mobility and tendency to hold onto the ball for too long has made it difficult for him to adjust to his lack of protection in the pocket. He also continues to suffer from bouts of poor ball placement, which was evident on his miss of Brandon Smith on the slant route in the endzone against the Nittany Lions.

Still, Stanley made gutsy plays against Iowa State and has proven that he’s the engine that makes this offense go (or not go). And just as Stanley has to take the blame for his poor throw to Smith against Penn State, he also deserves credit for making an NFL-caliber throw to him two weeks earlier (at the 19 second mark of this video.

Midseason Grade: B

Running Back:

At times it’s looked like Iowa has multiple players capable of being feature backs. Toren Young is an absolute bulldozer who rarely if ever goes down at first contact, and Mekhi Sargent is versatile enough to be a true three-down back, and Tyler Goodson is one of the most exciting offensive players Iowa’s had in a long time. I mean, just LOOK at this kid!

Assuming Iowa plays thirteen games this year, they’re actually on pace to crack 2,000 rushing yards on the season, something the Hawkeyes haven’t done since they had two backs run for over 1,000 yards a piece in 2016. Sargent and Goodson have also established themselves as legitimate threats to make plays catching the ball out of the backfield and have served as safety valves to help the offense make plays when the pass protection breaks down. Brady Ross has also been an effective battering ram at fullback and Iowa’s halfbacks have thrown some noteworthy blocks in pass protection this season.

Still, Iowa’s running backs have nearly as many fumbles lost (three) as touchdowns scored (four) and have struggled to run the ball with any consistency against the better defenses they’ve faced. Iowa’s offense isn’t built around Nate Stanley having to throw the ball 40-50 times per game, but the Hawkeyes’ inability to generate a consistent run game has forced the coaching staff’s hand. Perhaps Goodson will break out as the feature back once he improves his pass protection skills and becomes more established in the offense, or perhaps Sargent or Young will establish greater consistency in the games to come. Either way, Iowa will need to run the ball more effectively against non-Group of Five competition if it hopes to make some noise in the West.

Midseason Grade: C+

Wide Receivers: Make no mistake, the talent is here for this unit to be great. Ihmir Smith-Marsette has developed better consistency to go along with his field-stretching ability, Nico Ragaini is a dependable option in the slot, and Brandon Smith is an athletic freak and one of the few players in college football capable of making catches like this one:

The unit still struggles with consistency, however, and Iowa’s receivers have difficulty getting separation when matched up against more athletic defenders. Drops continue to be a source of frustration, and it’s bizarre to watch players drop routine passes only to turn around and make spectacular catches look routine (Tyrone Tracy might be the biggest culprit here). For all the hype surrounding him during the offseason, Oliver Martin has failed to make much of an impact through six games, though some of that certainly has to do with the talent and depth in front of him.

The receiving corps has been solid so far, but one can’t help but think they have the potential to elevate their game further if the passing game can get back on track.

Midseason Grade: B

Tight Ends: Iowa’s recent history of producing superstar tight ends makes it difficult to grade this position in a vacuum. On one hand, Nate Wieting has been solid as a run blocker, and it was nice to see him finally get more involved in the passing game against Penn State. On the other hand, the tight ends have often been nonfactors as receivers, and considering Stanley’s historic tendency to target that position, that’s probably says more about the tight ends than it does the quarterback. Michigan was a particularly rough game for this unit, as they managed zero catches and had only a negligible impact as blockers. There is definitely no Hockenson or Fant in this unit, but hopefully they can produce more during the second half of the season than they have during the first.

Midseason Grade: C

Offensive Line: This has been the surprise of the season, and not in a good way. For all the talk abut having two first-round offensive tackles, this unit has been the Achilles’ heel of the Hawkeye offense. Tristan Wirfs has mostly performed up to expectations, but Alaric Jackson has struggled with injuries and had arguably the roughest outing of his career against Michigan. The Hawkeyes have tried basically every player available at guard, but nobody seems to be a consistent run or pass blocker. Cole Banwart is expected to miss the rest of the season due to injury, and unless true freshman Justin Britt is a truly generational talent, it’s unlikely that the cavalry is coming to strengthen this position any time soon.

If you want to know where Iowa’s offensive line is right now, consider that the Hawkeyes had to call a timeout in the first quarter against Penn State because their freshman starting center Tyler Linderbaum lost his helmet on the previous play and would otherwise have to go to the sideline for one snap. As much as Linderbaum has struggled over the past two games, the fact that Iowa would rather burn a timeout than run ONE PLAY without Linderbaum should speak volumes about how tenuous this unit is at the moment.

The line gets credit for being road graters against their early competition and for Linderbaum’s strong performance against Iowa State’s Ray Lima, a future NFL player. However, much of Iowa’s struggles in both the run and pass game can be traced back to the poor performance of the line. Kirk Ferentz made his name developing talent at this unit, and Iowa’s season may rest on his ability to bring some stability to the front five in the coming games.

Midseason Grade: D

Defensive Line: The Hawkeye front four has been good so far, but not in the way most fans expected. Iowa’s sack numbers are way down this season, and the Hawkeyes are on pace to record fourteen fewer sacks than they did in 2018 (the Iowa State game was a particularly rough outing for the Hawkeye pass rush). However, the line has been very impactful in all three of Iowa’s conference games. The Hawkeyes totaled three sacks with an additional four hurries against Penn State, but those numbers don’t do justice to the fantastic job the defensive line did in pressuring Nittany Lion quarterback Sean Clifford and preventing him from getting in rhythm.

On top of that, Iowa’s opponents commit nearly seven penalties per game against the Hawkeyes, with the biggest source of these penalties coming from opposing offensive lines. Penn State wasn’t repeatedly being called for holding against the Hawkeyes because their linemen are bad or have poor technique, but because A.J. Epenesa and crew were simply too disruptive for them to block. Iowa’s defensive tackles also deserve special mention, as Daviyon Nixon and Cedric Lattimore have both been pleasant surprises in the middle of the Hawkeye defense.

Midseason Grade: B+/A-

Linebackers: It’s not clear that Iowa has any stars at this position, but what they do have is a group of solid players who excel in run support and play smart, disciplined football. Like most Hawkeye linebacking corps in years past, this unit struggles when asked to cover athletic pass catchers and running backs in space, something which became apparent on both of Penn State’s touchdown plays on Saturday. However, Kristian Welch, Djimon Colbert, and Nick Niemann are all putting together strong seasons, and Welch’s importance to the defense became particularly clear when Penn State started to run the ball effectively during the 4th quarter after he was pulled from the game due to injury. Iowa also has a lot of promising young talent at this position which as acquitted itself well in special teams play.

Midseason Grade: B-

Defensive Backs: This was the hardest unit to grade. At various points this season Iowa’s defensive backs have appeared to be both the strength and weakness of the defense. Some of Iowa’s early struggles in pass coverage can be attributed to injuries and inexperience, as young players were forced to play major roles due to a severe injury bug plaguing the position. Hawkeye players were beat deep against both Iowa State and Michigan, and Iowa gave up two passing touchdowns to Miami (OH) due to blown assignments and poor coverage in the secondary.

Still, you can’t argue with the numbers. In the era of wide open, pass-happy offenses, Iowa has held its opponents to 160 passing yards per game, the 7th-lowest total in the nation. Geno Stone has been a star at strong safety, Jack Koerner has been a revelation next to him, and Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins have the makings of one of Iowa’s best shutdown corner duos. The one knock against this group would be their inability to force turnovers at the rate that Iowa secondaries have done in the past, but it’s tough to fault a unit that has held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 110.93 through six games.

With Iowa’s injured D-Backs finally returning to action, this unit has nowhere to go but up. The secondary seems to have weathered its early-season struggles, and could be poised for a big second half of the year.

Midseason Grade: B+/A-

Special Teams: Keith Duncan has regained his form as Iowa’s starting placekicker, going 13/15 on field goals and 14/14 on PATs (side note: it’s VERY concerning that Iowa has attempted more field goals on the season that extra points). Caleb Shudak has been solid on kickoffs, and Michael Sleep-Dalton has certainly been an upgrade at punter.

The bigger concern comes in the return game. Smith-Marsette is as dangerous as any return man in the Big Ten, but opponents have taken notice and avoided kicking to him as frequently this season. Watching Iowa field punts (or in many cases, not field them) has been a real adventure so far, and I’d love to see the coaches give someone else a shot at this position (Oliver Martin, maybe?).

Midseason Grade: B-

Overall Assessment: Iowa is about what I thought they’d be at this point in the season, though the defense has exceeded my expectations even as it’s worked through some significant injuries, while the past two games has left me more concerned about the offense than I had anticipated. The “glass half empty” take on the first six games is that Iowa is weakest at the areas which have traditionally been its strengths, and that Michigan and Penn State exposed fatal flaws which future opponents will be able to exploit. However, a “glass half full” fan might point out that Iowa is 4-2 after having already played three of its four (or maybe five depending—the jury is still out on Minnesota) toughest opponents, that Iowa’s win over the Cyclones will look much better as the season goes on, and that Iowa’s only losses were by one touchdown apiece against a top-10 Penn State team and a top-20 Michigan squad in one of the toughest road environments in the sport. Iowa’s next six games will ultimately reveal which of these perspectives is the right one, but as of now it’s anybody’s guess.

Overall Midseason Grade: B-

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MattReisener