We all get it. The Iowa offense is bad. Really, really bad. It is statistically the worst offense of any team in a BCS conference in terms of yards per play. Only Oregon State is worse in points per play. And any way you slice it, Iowa is sitting in the bottom 10% of all offenses in the country.
And yet, I keep hearing a bunch of excuses.
Execution - Of course, the coaches and players are saying it's all about execution (this is still a Kirk Ferentz coached team after all). And execution is definitely a big part of it.
Iowa had 8 drops on Saturday. That is about 1 in every 5 passes. It wasn't just one player either. Davis, Fiedorowicz, Martin-Manley, Weisman, Shumpert, Bullock, and Hillyer all had a drop. It's a team problem.
Vandenberg has had his share of execution problems too. He's lacked a little touch, made a few bad decisions, and hasn't looked all that comfortable in the pocket (which is in part due to the offensive line's pass protection, or lack thereof).
New system - Others are pointing to a new offensive coordinator and the players having to learn a new system. The receivers have also struggled making the right reads and running the right routes. Or at least aren't making the same reads as Vandenberg.
I don't have the exact numbers of teams who have a new offensive coordinator, but it has to be pretty high. Just look around the B1G. Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, Illinois, and Indiana all have new coaches over the offense. Not all of those transitions are going great (some quite bad, actually)...but they are all going better than Iowa's.
We've heard the coaches and player say that they are getting the new system down in practice. Now it's time to see it on game day.
Talent - Another thing I keep hearing is about Iowa's lack of talent on offense. This too I don't really get. Is Iowa's talent really in the bottom 10% of the country? I find that pretty hard to believe. Davis and Fiedorowicz were both 4-star guys (and un-coincidentally looked like the best pass-catchers against ISU) and there is a smattering of 3-stars. The make-up of this offense isn't so different from any past Iowa offense.
What's really interesting about the talent, is the two things Greg Davis has said repeatedly since arriving in Iowa City: he's going to shape the offense around the talent he has, and that there is a lack of speed at receiver.
So what has Greg Davis done? He has completely ignored Iowa's lack of speed and tried to cram in the receivers he has, into the system he wants to run. The receiving corps is not built to catch short passes in traffic and rack up yards after the catch. Martin-Manley kind of fits that mold, but he's the only one.
Davis, Shumpert, and Hillyer are all big, strong targets that aren't speedsters and aren't particularly shifty. They aren't going to turn too many bubble screens into 10 yard gains. But they do perfectly fit the mold of receiver that Iowa has recruited and used the past 10 or so years. They fit into Ken O'Keefe's offense. And that's why we saw the most effective plays Saturday were KOK staples (like the play-action bootleg).
So yeah. Despite all his big talk about adapting an offense to the team's strength, Greg Davis is just trying to jam a square peg in to a round hole. And maybe with enough jamming and cramming that peg will start to shimmy its way down. But that needs to happen very, very quickly. The football season is short. There are only 10 games left.
What all this boils down to is that Iowa's offense has no identity. To be fair to Greg Davis, this problem didn't start with his hiring...it started one year ago as Iowa found itself down by 3 scores to Pitt. Iowa went no-huddle and had one of the biggest and best comebacks in its history. Iowa won the game, but it was the start of major problems for the Iowa offense.
Kirk Ferentz became intrigued by the no-huddle and liked it so much that he decided to use it again the next week against Louisiana Monroe. It was successful enough that he trotted it out against Penn State...and it was disastrous. So, the no-huddle was canned for the season.
When Greg Davis was hired, he told us how Kirk Ferentz wanted to use some more no-huddle. Brian Ferentz teased on Twitter about the tempo of the offense and we saw quite a bit of it during the open practices.
And now, in the first two games, we've seen Iowa employ the no-huddle at times.
Here's the big problem though. Iowa's coaches have no idea how to run a no-huddle offense.
No-huddle vs. 2-minute - The coaching staff doesn't seem to understand that a no-huddle offense doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be, the same as a 2-minute/hurry up offense. The two have different goals.
The 2-minute offense is all about playing against the game clock. The play calling is extremely important here. Passes are thrown to the sideline to get out of bounds. A throw away is better than a 4-yard run. Passing over the middle is only acceptable if it's for a first down. Because the offense is very constrained in its play calling, the defense often has the advantage here.
The no-huddle offense is about exploiting advantages the offense has over the defense with college's substitution rules and by pushing the pace of play. And the advantages are pretty large. In college, you can substitute players on offense, and if you don't huddle, then you don't have to allow time for the defense to substitute players. You can create some pretty seriously mismatches here if you catch the defense sleeping.
The tempo can also make it hard for defenses to substitute. Long drives can be tiring for the 300 pound defensive linemen, and a quick pace may keep them in the game.
The quick tempo also drastically shortens the time for the defense to make pre-snap changes to try to disguise coverages and blitzes. This either forces the defense to show their hand or play a more vanilla defense.
What Iowa does - When Iowa goes no-huddle, it just trots out its 2-minute offense. I tracked the no-huddle in week 1. Every play was run using the same personnel, and all but one from the same formation. It was all from the 311 personnel.
Davis would split out on the short side of the field. Shumpert would be out wide on the other side with KMM in the slot and Fiedorowicz at TE. Vandenberg operated from the shotgun with either Bullock or Garmon by his side. That was every play, except for a 2nd-and-short when Vandenberg lined up under center and Garmon ran in up the middle for a first down.
And the play calling was a lot of short passes to the outside, with a little bit of quick hits over the middle mixed in. It was not so different than what you'd see at the end of the game.
So basically every advantage the offense gets by running up-tempo, Iowa throws away. The one thing it does seem to help though, is to get Vandenberg in a rhythm.
Running the ball and play-action - Iowa's run game hasn't really changed between KOK and Greg Davis. It's still a lot of inside and outside zones. Most of the running plays come out of sets with a fullback or 2 tight ends. It's all pretty standard and works well enough.
In the first two games, we've seen a strong lean towards run-run-pass play calling per each set of downs when Iowa isn't in its no-huddle mode. When breaking the mold and throwing on first/second down, or using some play-action, Iowa has been pretty successful.
On first and second down Vandenberg has completed 63% of his balls and is averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. Those aren't great numbers, but compared to the 6/19 (31.6%) passing for just 35 yards (1.8 yards per attempt), and they look fantastic.
So yeah...basically Greg Davis's horizontal offense is designed to pick up 3-4 yards per play and set up about a 3rd-and-3. The problem is, Vandenberg has been awful on third down and 3 yards is just far enough that rushing isn't a great option. And then we punt.
Like oil and water - So things aren't mixing well. The two main problems: the passing scheme doesn't take advantage of the running game (and vice versa) and Iowa's no-huddle doesn't fit in with the rest of the game plan.
Iowa faces a lot of 8-man boxes against Iowa State. The Cyclones were loading up to stop the run (which worked out well for them) and often left their corners one-on-one with Iowa's wide receivers. Did Iowa try to take advantage of this? A few rare times yes, but basically no. Instead of attacking the man coverage, Iowa threw short underneath passes.
How about some play-action? Yeah, there was a little bit. It was pretty successful early in the game, but we didn't seem much of it later. Greg Davis did dial up a play-action call on 3-and-goal from the 3 that pretty much the entire world saw coming. (That play fell apart fast, but Vandenberg bought some time with his feet and found Weisman for a would-be touchdown. Dropped.)
Then there is the no-huddle stuff, where Iowa doesn't even pretend like it's going to run. Any game plan Iowa had to attack the defense in different ways, set up big plays, whatever... that's all thrown out the window when Iowa goes no-huddle and runs its 2-minute offense.
What Iowa should do
It may sound like I am against using the no-huddle, but it's really the exact opposite. I'd like Iowa to employ the no-huddle almost exclusively...just not the with the crappy 2-minute offense stuff they're using now.
Iowa should run its base offense out of the no-huddle. They actually do some nice things, which if paired with tempo and some of the other advantages of the no-huddle, would be even nicer.
I love the way Iowa uses the same personnel to show pro-sets and then move seamlessly to 5-wide (imagine if they did that with some tempo and forcing the defense to react to it quickly). Having versatile guys like Bullock and Fiedorowicz really helps. Even a player like Derby, who Greg Davis likes to motion out wide, can create mismatches.
The play-action game is really good too and Iowa disguises it pretty well. You see teams like Oregon that have these base plays that look exactly the same, but could be a rush with the running back, the quarterback, or a pass all depending on what the defense does. Now Iowa's not anywhere close to doing that, but could do some similar things with its play-action game.
All that said, I'm trying to stay optimistic and trying to give the offense the benefit of the doubt. The excuses are excuses for a reason and are at least partially valid. But Iowa plays UNI on Saturday...and won't be facing a defense nearly as good as the first two it faced. If the offense doesn't get it figured out, then maybe it'll be time to recall that Greg Davis only has a contract for 1 year that doesn't have to be extended.