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Behind Enemy Lines: Inside information on Iowa before today’s game

Our friends from Black Heart Gold Pants pull the curtain back to give us the unbiased truth about the Hawkeyes.

Ohio State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

In preparation for the No. 2 Ohio Buckeyes (6-0, 3-0) taking on the Iowa Hawkeyes (3-3, 1-2) in Ohio Stadium today, we chatted with Jonah Parker, the co-managing editor of Black Hearts Gold Pants, our SB Nation sibling site that covers Iowa athletics.

It has been a tale of two sides of the ball for Iowa this season. The Hawkeyes have been characteristically stout on defense — they currently rank third nationally in scoring defense and seventh in total defense — however, on offense, Iowa has been absolutely putrid. Coming into the game Brian Ferentz’s unit ranks dead last in total offense and 127th nationally in scoring defense.

If you want more of the Hawkeyes’ perspective on the game, make sure that you check out all of BHGP’s coverage on their website or on Twitter @BHGP.

LGHL: First things first, with so much national attention being paid to Brian Ferentz’s offense, what is the sentiment toward him from the Iowa fan base? Do they see the situation differently than fans and analysts on the outside? Has his performance soured Hawkeye fans on his dad at all?

BHGP: Sentiment towards Brian hasn’t been good really since the moment he was hired as offensive coordinator. He’s had solid to great game plans in one-off games basically once a year over the last five seasons, but by and large, the offense has been bad since the moment he stepped into the role, even by Iowa standards. Things have certainly come to a head this season and we’ve asked our community nearly every week for an updated count of who thinks Brian deserves to be fired. We’re well over half the fanbase that believes he should be gone now and I think that’s a pretty safe viewpoint given the offense is not just bad, but dead last nationally.

That has started to leak into people’s views on Kirk Ferentz and I would place myself in this camp. While fans have long been frustrated by the style of play offensively (Iowa has been in the top half nationally of total offense just once in the last decade), the track record of (relative) winning has helped mitigate the concerns. The slide in results this year has fans ready to tear things down because it’s becoming clear this is not complementary football as we’ve been sold, but simply a great defense and special teams being totally wasted by an incompetent offense that Kirk continues to defend for the sole reason his son is running it. Those results start to really shine a light on prior years and the fanbase is all too aware that the OC has not really mattered — the offense has always been a challenge under Kirk Ferentz.

LGHL: Ohio State has had one of the best offenses in the country through the first half of the season, and Iowa has had one of the best defenses through the first half of the season. With all of the different offensive weapons that the Buckeyes have, how do you think that Phil Parker will look to limit the OSU offense? Will he focus on either the passing or running game and try to make the Buckeyes one-dimensional, or will he give them opportunities underneath while looking to prevent big plays?

BHGP: The latter has been the bread and butter of Phil Parker and his predecessor Norm Parker (no relation) for two decades. The philosophy is predicated on the idea that college athletes very rarely can play mistake-free for 8-10 consecutive plays and thus marching the length of the field to score touchdowns is really difficult (which is infuriating for Hawkeye fans as the offense seems predicated on the idea they will do just that). I expect the Hawkeyes to play a base 4-2-5 (with that extra DB being more of a safety than a nickel corner – a position played by Amani Hooker the last time these two teams squared off) and try to keep everything in front of them.

The challenge this week that is really never there any other week for this group is Ohio State presents such a matchup problem on the outside that Phil can’t rely on his base defense to keep the Buckeyes out of the endzone consistently. OSU is going to take shots down the field and they’re going to connect on more than one. The key for Iowa historically has been in those situations to find a way to rally to the ball and be sure tacklers to big plays ultimately end with field goals in the red zone instead of touchdowns.

That was largely successful against Michigan, which opted to play Iowa’s game and dink and dunk their way down the field with great success and run Blake Corum into the ground. I suspect OSU will be less patient because they don’t need to be. Against most teams that lack of patience has resulted in turnovers for one of the best secondaries in the country at creating them (they finished 2021 tops nationally over a five-year span), but C.J. Stroud is not most QBs.

LGHL: The Buckeyes haven’t really played an elite (or even all that good) defense yet this season. What does the Hawkeye defense do so well that has allowed it to keep five of its six opponents to 10 points or less?

BHGP: As noted, Phil Parker employs a sort of boa constrictor approach to defense. Typically, Iowa will give up the underneath stuff and allow some modest gains on the ground at the expense of not letting anything get behind them. Again, the philosophy is that more often than not a college offense will stub their own toe at some point via a penalty, missed blocking assignment, missed throw, or whatever, and then they’re behind the chains and this defense can pounce.

The more the offense squirms and gets impatient attempting to march down the field, the more the defense constricts and ultimately creates turnovers. The Hawkeyes never have the best athletes on the field but they’re always disciplined and rarely out of position. The result has often been that opponents are able to move the ball but end up taking a shot on the fringe of the red zone or forcing a throw down inside the 10 and the defense capitalizes.

LGHL: Like OSU, Iowa is coming into this game following an off week. What have the coaches said about what they focused on during the bye and what are fans most hoping was accomplished over the past two weeks?

BHGP: Mostly, fans were hoping they would take the two weeks to fire Brian Ferentz and give an interim OC time to work with the team. That didn’t happen (and it’s not going to) and Spencer Petras is still the QB behind a really not-good offensive line. So the staff has indicated they took the first week to really get back to the basics and try to eliminate some of the mistakes that have plagued this team through six games. If the Hawkeyes were facing any team in the conference besides Ohio State, I would expect to see them come out and work to finally really establish the run to get this offensive line in a rhythm, then open up play action.

But at this point there really is very little they can work on to improve things this season. The offensive line is young and a year away from being serviceable. The wide receiver room is sparse after five of the top six returning scholarship players were injured in the weeks before the season started (add in that the presumed #3 target Charlie Jones departed after the portal closed following spring practice to go actually catch passes in what looks like an actual offense) and there are no signs we get top playmaker Keagan Johnson back this season (or ever?). And the scheme is what it is and what it is, is not effective.

LGHL: I’m sorry that I have to do this, but I’m going to ask a question about the offense. Spencer Petras has obviously not been great this year, but no other quarterback has even attempted a pass this year, including Alex Padilla who saw some action last year. Is this just a case that the coaching staff feels that they have no other better option, or is Petras’ experience just the best fit for an offense that has struggled this year?

BHGP: This was a source of a lot of consternation among fans both last year and early in this season. Spencer Petras is a prototypical Iowa QB in that he has a big arm, big body, is not mobile, but is very good at reading defenses pre-snap and getting Iowa into the plays most other teams would simply have their OC signal in pre-snap (this is the primary reason we continue to hear how “complicated” the Iowa offense is for young players despite it quite clearly being a basic scheme – players, and especially the quarterback, are asked to make pre-snap reads and adjustments at the line whereas most offenses will simply line up and either run the play called or get a decision from the sideline). We hear repeatedly that he is the better player in practice and the staff believes he gives them the best chance to win.

The frustration from fans comes from the divergence between his abilities and what this offense needs to have a pulse. By all accounts, Petras is head and shoulders above everyone else in the room in terms of making those reads, his arm strength, and ability to make on-schedule throws (which probably says more about the staff’s job on the recruiting trail than anything). But as noted, this offensive line is really struggling so those on-time, in-rhythm throws are few and far between. Alex Padilla was even worse statistically than Petras in his time on the field a season ago, but he is at least mobile enough to extend plays and make things happen off-script.

Despite what Padilla offers, Spencer Petras remains the only starter in the country to have played every single offensive snap for his team.

LGHL: If Saturday is a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter, what do you think will be the major storyline (or storylines) that has gotten the teams to that point?

BHGP: If this is a one-score game in the fourth quarter, there have likely been a slew of injuries or ejections on the OSU side. A more realistic scenario, which I still don’t think gets you there, is that CJ Stroud is looking ahead a week and just flat-out misses on several shots down the field. I expect Ryan Day to be looking for style points for the CFP and to be aggressive going downfield. If for some reason Stroud can’t find anyone and starts pressing, this is a defense capable of picking him off 3+ times and just as capable of returning each of those for a score without any help from the offense.

For Iowa to have any hopes of scoring points on the offensive side of the ball, we would need to see major improvements up front that allow them to FINALLY be able to run the ball and actually control time of possession. I don’t see that as a realistic outcome, but there is some very small world out there where the Buckeyes turn the ball over early and give Iowa a short field once or twice or even a pick-six, and then Iowa is able to turn this into more of a rock fight IF the offensive line has a light switch turned on.

LGHL: I won’t make you pick a score (although you are welcome to if you would like), but I do want to know how you think the game will play out.

BHGP: While I would love to predict the above scenario or get uber optimistic and call for something along the lines of the 2017 game (we get those once a generation so apologies if we watch that on Saturday instead of this blood bath), I really suspect this one is a blowout. If history is any indication, the Buckeyes are likely to come out and march down the field on their first possession to get out to an early 7-0 lead. The Iowa offense is unlikely to do anything other than occupy three downs between the defense and Tory Taylor booming a punt. I do think the defense will settle in a little bit in the first half and probably keep the Buckeyes in the 17-24 points area, but at some point, things will just break down with how long I expect them to be on the field.

I assume Iowa gets a field goal somewhere, probably courtesy of a short field, but I’m not expecting more than that. I think Day keeps starters in longer than he probably should for those style points and a 17-3 halftime lead turns into something like 56-3 in the end with the Buckeyes getting a pick-six or at minimum a turnover on the Iowa side of the field, as well as 2-3 home run balls from Stroud and a 40+ yard TD run from someone in the second half. The Iowa defense is good, but it’s not built to play 65% of the game. Doing so against an entire team of superior athletes is not going to end well.