Iowa City – Compared to last season, Iowa football’s offense is in a more favorable position for success right now.
It has an experienced and well-balanced quarterback in Kady McNamara, who, in his first game in nearly a year, showed promising signs against Utah State this past Saturday. Iowa brought in a few capable playmakers off the transfer gate, including receiver Seth Anderson and tight end Eric Uhl, each of whom landed against Utah.
There are also a few notable running backs, including Luke Lachey, who led Iowa in catches and receiving yards last Saturday. Iowa’s talented backroom, highlighted by Caleb Johnson, can add a much-needed element to offense.
Overall, Iowa has more explosive offensive playmakers than last season.
But that only matters if the offensive line does its job.
After a disappointing 2022 season, Iowa’s offensive line produced a mixed bag of results in Saturday’s 24-14 win over Utah State. It would be too early to hit the panic button. But it would also be too early to feel completely comfortable about where the unit is. The situation is more subtle than that.
Last season, Iowa’s dreadful offense was plagued by many factors: a struggling quarterback, an injured support staff, and an under-fire coordinator. But the offensive line’s flaws were certainly part of the problem.
It seemed like the 2023 season opener against Utah State was a great opportunity for the offensive line to make a statement. It wasn’t loud. But it wasn’t bad either.
Let’s start with the positive. Traffic protection was very good. Iowa gave up just one sack. And he didn’t turn the ball at all. For the most part, the offensive line gave McNamara plenty of pocket time. This is an important part of improving the passing attack this season.
“I think our lines have been really good,” offensive lineman Jennings Dunker said Tuesday. “So, like when you sign a player, you draw a line from him to the midfielder… I think we had really good lines. And then we used our hands really well. I think that was a big thing.”
McNamara’s production is among the biggest keys to Iowa’s success this season. This, in turn, means that his health is one of the biggest keys to success. This, in turn, means that the men who protect him are among the biggest of the keys. McNamara underwent knee surgery in late 2022. Leading up to the 2023 season, he suffered an unrelated leg injury after suffering an embarrassing fall at Children’s Day in Kinnick. Against Utah, it was encouraging that the offensive line was able to limit the number of weak spots McNamara was in.
“I think a lot of it has to do with our defense,” McNamara said. “We’re training against an incredible defence, whether it’s the scheme or the personnel. I think that has definitely helped our guys prepare. We have all kinds of players on the defensive side of the ball, whether they’re midfielders or midfielders who rush and have the opportunity to pace the passer.” So I think the looks we got during training really helped us out and made the game easier for those guys.
The operating ban was a different story. Against a non-Power 5 opponent, Iowa failed to rush 100 yards. It took Iowa’s all-time leading Johnson just 19 carries to get 63 yards on the ground. For a program that relies on physical fitness and the ability to force itself on the ground, Saturday didn’t cut it.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz cited the difficulty of preparing as part of the reason for the lack of a ground offense. Utah State had a new defensive coordinator, which made it hard to predict what to expect.
“As the season starts, it gets a little easier because you have this year’s team playing, at least – not that you know what’s going to happen on Saturday, there’s always a monkey wrench or two, that’s just part of the football,” Ferentz said. “But you at least know who these people are and you can kind of anticipate things better, I think, and put together a little better plan. I mean last week you’ve been throwing a lot of darts.
To an extent, this makes sense. On the other hand, the Hawkeyes should be able to do better on the line of scrimmage against a team like Utah State, no matter what schemes are thrown at them.
If nothing else, Saturday underscored how important the Iowa State line is to the entire offensive unit’s performance. Sometimes it can be that simple: good pass-blocking made for a good aerial attack, while poor pass-blocking made for a bad sprint. The margin of error is small. Dunker said the basics can be as simple as taking a first step and knowing which angle to block.
It’s a major concern if Iowa can’t run the ball. Even with McNamara and his playmakers surrounding him, it will be difficult for Iowa to rely too heavily on the passing game, since the program is not used to it.
This was only the first week. So how much an offensive line can grow is more important than where it starts.
“I think we can certainly work on the implementation and the fundamentals and that kind of thing. And that’s what we’re working on right now,” Dunker said.
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