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Know Your Enemy - Iowa Hawkeyes

Jonah Parker from Black Heart Gold Pants stopped by.

Western Michigan v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Know your enemy is back this week after the folks from Illinois bailed on us for the second consecutive year, but then again we continued to beat them and now their stadium is on fire? Talk about bad karma. Hope everyone is okay over there. What a strange situation.

Jonah Parker from Black Heart Gold Pants agreed to answer some questions and he provided some of the most substantive and thoughtful answers I’ve ever received for this segment. I really think these are worth a read because they will give you a much deeper understanding of who Iowa is and what they do. So give it a read.

I’m sending these questions just a few hours after it was announced that Iowa starting QB Cade McNamara has been ruled out for Saturday. How much does this change the offensive game plan for Saturday?

It’s taking a lot to keep me from just saying “what offensive game plan?” and moving on. But snark aside, the loss of Cade McNamara is both devastating and freeing. Through the first four weeks, we saw the playbook severely limited (no, really, there is more in there we’ve been told) due to McNamara’s injury sustained in fall camp. His lack of ability to move at all basically pulled pulled out every play-action pass from Brian Ferentz’s playbook.

Again, I’m training to restrain my urges to just lay on the snark here, but for 24 years we’ve seen the foundation of every Iowa offense be establishing the run to set up play-action passing. There has been no play-action passing this season. The result has been loaded boxes, an offensive line that has looked lost and even a reduction of run calls as McNamara was unable to reach the stretch play in outside zone.

So losing a player the caliber of McNamara hurts and it’s bad for morale and it cuts back the checks that we’ll see at the line. But it should actually open up some Iowa staples with outside zone back in the run game and more bootlegs and rollouts in the passing game.

The Iowa offense is getting all the stories this year due to the 25 point contract clause and the whole nepotism angle. Why have they struggled so much?

Do we have room for 8,000 words here? Maybe a video docuseries? There are myriad reasons why this offense has struggled. I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit, which is injuries. I mentioned above the injury to McNamara which has limited the playbook both in the run and pass game, but Iowa is also without Mackey candidate Luke Lachey after he broke his leg in week one. They’ve played the last three weeks without their top two RBs after Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson both sprained ankles. And this falls in line with what we saw a season ago, where the Hawkeyes played the season with essentially one scholarship receiver.

But injuries happen everywhere and the real underlying issue here is that Brian Ferentz just isn’t very good at adapting his playbook and playcalling to what he has to work with. The offensive line has struggled mightily over the last two years to protect Spencer Petras and then Cade McNamara. We’ve seen basically no effort to help them with quicker passes to receivers in space. Last week marked the first time we’ve seen Iowa throw a slant to a WR in two years (no, seriously)_and it came from backup Deacon Hill. It also marked the first time we’ve seen Iowa’s X receiver run an in-breaking route all season (again, seriously). Those are things that just can’t happen if you want to keep a defense accounting for the entire field.

With the passing game non-existent, defenses have been able to load the box to stop the run and as a result we’ve seen the struggling offensive line get absolutely no push for two straight years. That’s been compounded by predictable play calling with first down runs the vast majority of the time and second down runs every time there is an incompletion on a rare first down pass. Short yardage plays have been almost exclusively power runs with multiple tight ends and a fullback on the field, resulting in the worst 3rd down efficiency among power five teams nationally and one of the worst redzone efficiencies in the country.

But at the end of the day, Kirk Ferentz hired his son. Kirk has been the reason his son has not been fired. And for 24 years we’ve seen the Iowa offense be predictable and boring under every OC we’ve seen. So yeah, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

The Iowa defense and special teams seem to be carrying this team. Sometimes they even drag the offense kicking and screaming across to a victory. What is the strength of these two units?

On defense, this is oddly a step down from what we have seen in recent years. The secondary is very good, headlined by Cooper DeJean who is truly one of the best in the country. The linebackers have been very solid this year with Jay Higgins leading the conference in tackles. But the defensive line has been worked quite a bit by decent running teams and has gotten absolutely no pressure on opposing QBs with just three sacks in five games.

The defense is going to do what it always does under Phil Parker, which is give up the short underneath stuff, stay in their base 2-high safety look and try to avoid bringing pressure from anyone other than the front four. The goal is to wear down opponents and eventually capitalize on a turnover or let penalties derail drives. That’s been successful for two decades.

Once the defense does their job, the special teams has been largely good. We saw the Cooper DeJean 70-yard punt return for a TD last week, and that’s been a long time coming, but we’ve also seen DeJean let a few punts hit the ground, giving up hidden yardage in field position that this offense can’t afford to lose. We also saw him late to call out a short punt (in a deafening white out so timing ultimately didn’t matter) in Happy Valley, which led to a gunner taking a ball to the back of the head and ultimately points for Penn State.

On the other side, punter Tory Taylor is a treat to watch for anyone who loves punting (so every Iowa fan). He had one partially blocked in the opener (it still managed to roll for a 40+ yard kick) but otherwise things have been pretty clean in the punt game. And kicker Drew Stevens has been close to automatic at 8 for 9 with a long of 53 (his only miss a 44-yarder) and 11 for 11 on XPs. I don’t expect any kick returns for either team Saturday.

Purdue is just a 2.5 underdog right now. Given last year’s 24-3 beating that’s surprising to me. Does that feel like an appropriate spread to you?

Given Iowa struggles to move the ball, let alone score points, and that’s before they lost a Big Ten Championship QB, I think 2.5 is pretty fair. However, any Iowa fan would tell you the easy money is on the under. Always bet the under.

Who does Purdue have to stop on offense?

Brian should be able to take care of that for the Boilers without much effort. But if you’re going to try and slow down one person, I suppose it would be tight end Erick All. The former Michigan tight end is Iowa’s leading receiver on the season and the primary target in the passing game with fellow TE Luke Lachey out for the season. If the Boilermakers blanket All, it’s hard to imagine the Iowa offense finding a way to throw for more than 100 yards on the day.

In the running game, it sounds like the Hawkeyes might finally get starter Kaleb Johnson back this week. I suspect we’ll see Purdue load the box to slow him down and make Deacon Hill beat them with his arm. Behind Johnson, Leshon Williams has flashed a few times this season while true freshman Kamari Moulton has a lot of burst.

Unrelated to Saturday’s game, but how much longer do you think Kirk Ferentz can do this? He’s been at Iowa since roughly the Ford administration at this point.

There have been some within the fanbase asking if Kirk would actually hang it up after this season if Brian Ferentz isn’t retained/renewed. I think he could walk away if Brian is fired, but the most likely scenario to me is that he keeps doing what he has been doing his whole life. I think it’s hard to walk away from what you love and your way of life.

The other factor here is Kirk’s career winning percentage, which is at .596 heading into Saturday. The threshold for the college football hall of fame is .600. So Kirk needs to win six of Iowa’s eight remaining games this year (including bowl game) to finish the season at that mark. The ask is a bit smaller if he hangs around another year, needing to win 14 of the 21 games between this year and next. Once he gets above that mark I think the chances of him walking away go up.

If you wake up on Sunday and you see that Purdue won the game, what happened to make that possible?

The easy answer here is Purdue won the turnover battle. Three of Iowa’s last six losses (eg the losses over the last two years) have come in games where they lost the turnover battle. Two others came in games where Iowa matched the opponent but turned it over multiple times. The Iowa offense is bad. They cannot afford to shoot themselves in the foot even more with turnovers and the defense simply can’t withstand short fields given to opposing offenses.

That was the story of the game at Penn State. Don’t get me wrong, the Nittany Lions are a vastly superior team and win that game 9 times out of 10, but when you turn the ball over 4 times in a game, directly contributing 17 points to the opponent, you aren’t winning. Not at Iowa.

If the Hawkeyes win the turnover battle, they can hang around and keep things close with just about anyone, even with the worst offense in the country.