IOWA CITY, Iowa — Receivers coach Kelton Copeland brought in his players the day after the Hawkeyes beat Michigan State 10 days ago and they engaged in a frank conversation after a rough outing.
The receivers dropped five passes and had six receptions that night against the Spartans. Quarterback Cade McNamara tore his ACL early in that game, which meant sophomore Deacon Hill moved to the starting lineup. And the receivers didn’t help him.
“It’s always good to remind guys of that fact that we only get these opportunities, and they’re not coming back,” Copeland said last week. “So there are some hard conversations being had in that meeting.”
Whether it was the unit’s subpar response or Hill’s inability to connect, that meeting didn’t translate into production. In a 20-14 win against Purdue on Saturday, Iowa’s receivers were targeted six times for no receptions, the first time since Oct. 7, 1978 the group had no catches. On that day, which was exactly 45 years ago from Saturday, Utah beat Iowa 13-9 win and Hawkeye quarterbacks completed six passes. In the present era, Hill completed six passes himself.
Iowa football owes its defense a ‘thank you’
Against Purdue, Iowa’s receivers had six targets and one drop, which turned into an interception. Through six games, the unit has 20 catches for 212 yards, and that’s with Seth Anderson hauling in a 36-yard touchdown strike from McNamara on the season’s first pass. It’s an incredible plummet considering last year was the lowest year for the receiving group since 1982 with 76 catches for 796 yards. In 2019, Iowa receivers had 169 catches for 2,214 yards.
“That stuff is all going to play out the way it plays out,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Saturday, the way the game developed, we were playing in a way that we felt gave us our best chance to win in that particular ball game.
“You never know how it’s going to unfold or what it’s going to look like. And we were having pretty good luck with the running game at that point. It’s the way it worked out.”
The Hawkeyes rushed for 181 yards on 35 carries against the Boilermakers and threw only one pass in the fourth quarter — a 22-yard touchdown strike from Hill to tight end Erick All. When it came to the receivers, Hill took the blame for not getting them involved more during Saturday’s 6-for-21 passing performance.
“I just missed,” Hill said. “You take ownership of that. I don’t blame the receivers at all. They did nothing wrong. It was just me just taking accountability on that, seeing what I did wrong and adjusting it for this week.”
Among the receivers, sixth-year senior Nico Ragaini leads with eight catches for 70 yards. Ragaini led the Hawkeyes in receptions with 46 in 2019 and has 133 in his career. Diante Vines has seven for 63 yards and a touchdown while Anderson has five for 79 yards. Kaleb Brown, a high-profile transfer from Ohio State, doesn’t have a catch and was not in uniform Saturday for “a personal matter,” Ferentz said. Brown since has returned to practice and “has had two good days.”
Without McNamara and All-American-caliber tight end Luke Lachey, who is out with a broken leg, the offense is trying to recalibrate. But that doesn’t mean Iowa will force passes to the receivers, either.
“We’re not going to change our overall philosophy a lot,” Ferentz said. “Everybody’s got a role, a chance, an opportunity. And hopefully, when it comes their way, they’ll be able to execute the way we think they can. They’re good players. They’ll bounce back.”
Reviewing Iowa’s win against Purdue: Highlight plays, forgettable calls and more
Sizing up a new-look Wisconsin
While Iowa (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) remains committed to its traditional offense, Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) has revamped its philosophy. According to TruMedia, the Badgers operate out of three- or four-receiver sets on 87.1 percent of their offensive plays under new coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Last year, Wisconsin used those groupings on 37.3 percent of its snaps.
Traditional former Wisconsin offensive staples with two or more running backs (around 24 percent) or multiple tight ends (about 23 percent) have fallen to 1.7 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively.
For two programs who knew each other’s system so well over the years, it’s a radical change for the Hawkeyes’ defense.
“It’s more 11 personnel than some of the teams we’ve played so far this season,” Cooper DeJean said. “That’s different for Wisconsin than we’ve seen. But we just have to prepare, like we always do. We played some teams who were in those personnels these past couple of weeks who like to throw the ball.”
The Hawkeyes have faced up-tempo attacks this year, beginning with Utah State in the opener and last week against Purdue. But the Hawkeyes are leery of buying in completely on the Badgers’ makeover. While there’s rarely a fullback or extra tight end, Wisconsin still possesses a massive offensive line plus physical running back Braelon Allen (6 feet 2, 235 pounds).
“They’ll spread you out, they’ll throw the ball and then they’ll spread you out and run the ball as well,” DeJean said.
Iowa, ironically, changed its defense in 2018 because of old Wisconsin’s three-receiver set. The Badgers repeatedly lined up a slot receiver on a linebacker and it produced the game-winning touchdown that year. Iowa flipped to a 4-2-5 defense for its ensuing game and has stuck with it. Now, Iowa’s defense is necessary to greet Wisconsin on every down.
“We got a good look at them last week watching Purdue film,” Ferentz said. “It looks different from that standpoint (multiple receivers), but what doesn’t look different is they still look big, physical. They run the ball really well.”
The Hawkeyes welcomed defensive tackle Noah Shannon back to practice this week after the NCAA announced it would revisit gambling-related penalties. Shannon, a sixth-year player, was suspended for the season, which didn’t allow him to practice with the team. But he still attended classes and worked as a student assistant before the NCAA gave the OK to Iowa.
Shannon had started in 28 games but has missed all six this year. He admitted gambling on an Iowa basketball game in the spring, which triggered the automatic suspension and was upheld on appeal.
The NCAA Division I Council announced last week it would reexamine reinstatement guidelines for athletes who have engaged in sports wagering, provided they did not bet on their team. The penalties would be education rather than game suspension for a first offense. The NCAA Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement will finalize recommendations either this week or next week and a final Council Coordination Committee vote takes place in late October.
Shannon’s eventual return will help Iowa, but Ferentz isn’t sure how quickly he can get into football shape.
“We’ve never been in this situation,” Ferentz said. “He missed a lot of time. He has a great attitude. He’s been around and was working through an injury; (he) probably couldn’t play physically until a couple of weeks ago. Hasn’t been in pads in quite a while now. So we’ll see.”
The blocking on Kaleb Johnson’s 67-yard touchdown gallop against Purdue was what enabled the play to run the distance. The middle trio of left guard Rusty Feth, center Logan Jones and right guard Connor Colby were nearly flawless on that play. Initially, Colby and Jones were supposed to double-team the nose tackle, but in pre-snap, the nose shifted toward Feth.
Kaleb Johnson takes it 67 yards for the @HawkeyeFootball TD.
📺: Peacock pic.twitter.com/wma9Si3i7o
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) October 7, 2023
In the split zone run, All moved to the right off to snap to cut off the backside. Colby stonewalled multiple Purdue defenders while Jones took the nose outside of the tackle box along the line of scrimmage. Feth then drove the linebacker vertically nearly 10 yards down the field, and Johnson raced for the end zone.
“It was just a play where it all came together,” Colby said. “You just focus in on us trying to get better at what we do. And you guys saw it on Saturday more than a couple of times. So I think it just shows that the work we’ve been putting in, it’s slowly starting to see the payoff.”
Purdue’s defensive alignment also helped without a deep safety on the play, but regarding the line play, Ferentz said, “Saturday is probably our best day out there.”
“We were able to catch them and the line creased it really well,” Ferentz said. “(Johnson) hit and there was nobody out there. Instead of a 20-yard play, now you’re going through the end zone. It would have been 100 if we had a 100-yard field.”
(Top photo: Jeffrey Becker / USA Today)