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Iowa 17, Ball State 13: The Experimenting

A few personal observations following Iowa's 17-13 comeback win over the Ball State Cardinals.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

As the rest of the Big Ten burned I sat impatiently in Kinnick Stadium waiting for Iowa to take control of a football game they had no business losing. It took all three quarters but the Hawkeyes finally came alive on offense and strung together two scoring drives with under six minutes left in the game. By the end I was both emotionally and physically drained. There was a point where I'd wanted to leave. I was tired, my smuggled liquor had run out and the last game I'd attended where Iowa actually gritted out a win was Michigan State in 2007. But I was convinced to stay...and the result was enjoyable. A few observations...

For two quarters Iowa's offense called a game that made absolutely no sense. It was like Greg Davis turned on his computer, read every negative comment about Iowa's offense and decided to experiment as a pass-first team. The results were predictable. The Hawkeyes sputtered, weren't able to string together steady drives and ended up punting. This drive in the second quarter was sort of the Hawkeye offense in a nutshell in the first half:


Opening up the second half Iowa tried Ferentzball with better results. They handed the ball off seven times to Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman and only had Rudock throw the ball three times. They drove from their own 30 to the Ball State 11 before Mick Ellis missed a 29 yard field goal. Apparently, driving to Ball State's 11 wasn't good enough for Ferentz and Davis because they promptly abandoned the run and continued throwing the ball throughout the remainder of the quarter.

But something clicked with under six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Rudock went 5/7, scrambled for 26 yards and capped it off with a 12 yard touchdown to Derrick Willies, making the score 13-10 in favor of Ball State. Iowa's defense immediately forced the Cardinals to punt, giving Iowa the ball on their own 41 and Rudock once again went to work with only 2:33 left on the clock. He went 4/4, rushed for 6 yards and gave Iowa the lead with a 12 yard pass to Jake Duzey. The defense promptly forced a fumble on the next series and Iowa escaped with a 17-13 win.

The pass-first offense that Greg Davis has been "experimenting" with has almost cost Iowa both games. While I have all the faith in the world in Jake Rudock, I believe that he's your typical Iowa quarterback: He's a game manager. He makes plays when he has to. He isn't going to run your offense. That's the job of the running game. So where has the running game been?

The absence of Iowa's running game is one of the most Kirk Ferentz things ever. All summer Iowa fans/writers/bloggers lauded the stable of running backs that the Hawkeyes had to work with: Weisman, Bullock, Canzeri, Daniels. Ferentz came out and said that they're going to take it easier on Weisman this year, which apparently means that he's only going to get the ball 16 times through the first two games. In comparison, Weisman got the ball 50 times throughout the first two games in 2013. I understanding "taking it easy" on Weisman but 16 carries? That's a tad light.

The stable of running backs also means, apparently, that no running back will be given the opportunity to establish any sort of rhythm over the course of the game. When Iowa opened a new series and called a running play during the first three quarters it was never with the same back. Here's the rushing back on each Iowa drive in order: Weisman, Parker, Bullock, Canzeri, Daniels, Weisman, Parker, Weisman, Daniels, Canzeri, Weisman, Canzeri, Weisman. Iowa stuck with Bullock in the fourth quarter because he was utilized (finally) as a third down back.

You might notice an unfamiliar name in there: Jonathan Parker. Who in the world is Jonathan Parker? This is so Ferentz. Iowa has all these running backs and talent at wide receiver and he's got a true freshman out there returning kicks, opening up series as Iowa's rusher and running end arounds. Naturally, he fumbled twice and accounted for 10 of Ball State's points.

Which is worth pointing out: Iowa's defense was absolutely dominant. Ball State only had 219 yards of total offense and the Iowa D only surrendered three legitimate points. The Cardinals touchdown came from a recovered fumble that was ran back (via Jonathan Parker) and one field goal came from recovering a fumbled kickoff (via Jonathan Parker). The Hawkeye defense was fantastic and when they needed a big play, they forced a fumble and secured a win.

The HOT TAKE of the day following the win was criticizing the shaky performance of Jake Rudock. For the second straight week he checked down on a frequent basis and arguably got rid of the ball too early when there were open receivers down the field. Yet, when the pressure was on, Rudock did exactly what he needed to do: He drove Iowa down the field twice and won them the football game. He also finished 33/52 for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns. I'm not sure how "shaky" of a performance that is.

So what does it all mean? Beats me. But I refuse to believe that what I saw on Saturday was indicative of what Iowa can really do on offense. Between arguably one of the most talented group of wide receivers I've seen in the Ferentz era, the solid OL and the stable of running backs they can be better. Yet, for two weeks in a row Iowa seemingly abandoned the run when it wasn't paying immediate dividends (or never went with it in the first place) and asked Rudock to win. It was ugly, it was difficult and it was risky but I suppose that's what the passing game and Rudock did: they won.

The difficultly the passing game faces is why some are clamoring for CJ Beathard to take the helm at quarterback. He's more athletic, has a better arm and for some strange reason he played a series against Ball State and threw the best pass of a game: a fade route to Damond Powell that would've resulted in a touchdown if Powell didn't bobble it at the last minute.

I take no issue with Rudock. But as I said earlier I think Iowa is asking him to be the type of quarterback he isn't. He isn't a gunslinger. He's a manager. And Iowa isn't giving him the run game to set up the pass. Iowa doesn't know what their offensive identity is because nothing is running smoothly. I think Greg Davis gives up too early on the run, experiments with the pass-first offense and relies solely on the quarterback (come to think about it, Davis has done that his entire career) to win the game. It's worked so far. Iowa is 2-0. But if they don't get the run game figured out it's going to start costing Iowa games and it won't look like 2009 anymore. It will look like 2006. You remember that, don't you, Iowa fans?

PS: Iowa's kicker and punter are just awful and I guarantee that Iowa will lose a game because of them. Yes, even the punter.