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Big Ten Takes, Picks: Yes, Iowa's Offense Has Actually Improved, Michigan Set To Face First Real Test » TheSportsDay Big Ten Takes, Picks: Yes, Iowa's Offense Has Actually Improved, Michigan Set To Face First Real Test » TheSportsDay

Big Ten takes, picks: Yes, Iowa’s offense has actually improved, Michigan set to face first real test

The Iowa offense looked worse on Saturday than it has in a long time, which is saying a lot considering we’re talking about the Iowa offense. The unit was so terrible last year that it felt compelled to tell the world that if the team did not average 25 points per game this season then Hawkeyes offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, son of legendary Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, would be ousted.

Saturday night felt different, though. The Hawkeyes lost to Penn State 31-0 in Happy Valley, but the score didn’t tell the whole story. The most damning statistic wasn’t the zero points or that Iowa averaged only 2.3 yards per play. It wasn’t even that the Hawkeyes finished with nearly half as many first downs (4) as punts (7).

No, it was that Penn State ran nearly three times as many plays on offense as Iowa did. Penn State snapped the ball on offense 97 times to Iowa’s 33. There was a moment late in the third quarter where Penn State had run more plays during the second quarter (28) and third quarter (29) than the Hawkeyes had in the entire game to that point (25).

It was perhaps the most inept performance in a long, ugly list full of them from Iowa offenses over the years. You can point to the substantial number of injuries the Hawkeyes are dealing with (and there are a lot of them), but not even that does enough to explain away the futility of Saturday night in State College, Pennsylvania.

Here’s the craziest part of all: Yes, you’re aware that Brian Ferentz is behind on keeping up his end of the bargain as it relates to the goal of 25 points per game and that Iowa has only reached the 25-point mark once in four games, but did you know this? Iowa’s offense has been better this year than last. Seriously, it has. 

It still stinks, and I would rather undergo a rectal exam than watch an Iowa offensive possession, but the numbers don’t lie. Iowa is scoring 19.0 points per game on offense this season compared to 14.15 per game last year. While points are the ultimate arbiter of games, they’re the result of a process and there are improvements in other areas. You just have to look really hard to find them.

Success Rate

34.2% (2.3)

35.0% (3.8)

Passing Success Rate

34.8% (5.4)

30.8% (3.0)

Rushing Success Rate

33.7% (3.8)

39.6 (31.1)

EPA per play

-0.22 (1.5)

-0.10 (9.8)

Pass EPA per play

-0.20 (2.3)

-0.15 (7.6)

Rush EPA per play

-0.15 (4.6)

-0.02 (37.1)

Explosive play rate

8.3% (0.8)

9.7% (12.1)

Points per possession

1.14 (2.3)

1.62 (18.2)

Yards per play

4.2 (1.5)

4.5 (4.5)

Turnover rate

10.6% (55.4)

12.8% (33.3)

Now, if you look at the raw numbers in that table, you see some spots where there’s an improvement. But raw numbers can be misleading. I’ve added Iowa’s percentile ranks to provide more context with how the offense stacks up nationally. The higher the percentile, the better.

Of the 10 statistics listed here, Iowa has improved its percentile ranking in eight of them. The only two spots where it’s gotten worse are passing success and turnover rate. What’s somewhat surprising, given all the offseason hype surrounding transfers on offense (new QB, TE, WR), is that the biggest leap has been in the run game.

The Hawkeyes have made significant strides running the ball, which is pivotal for their overall philosophy and a key to their long-term success. The problem is Iowa’s run game is still well below average and it’s paired with a passing attack that may be improving but remains anemic. Throw more turnovers on the pile for an offense that can’t score, and things snowball quickly.

Also, I’d be doing a disservice if I failed to point out that Iowa hasn’t gotten through Big Ten play yet. These numbers could all come crashing down by the end of the season as the schedule gets more difficult (theoretically, anyway), so I don’t know what conclusions we can reach based on any of this.

You could take the pessimistic approach and say that none of this matters, the offense is terrible and will remain that way. I wouldn’t blame you. Nor would I blame you if you told yourself that the improvements could continue, even if incrementally, and a healthier roster might only improve them further. I’m a Chicago Bears fan, so I’m no stranger to being delusional.

Teachable moment in South Bend

There’s nothing college football coaches love more than winning games but still having plenty of mistakes at which to point the following week to keep their players from getting complacent. This week, however, I’m turning the table on the coaches.

Ohio State gutted out a tough win against Notre Dame, scoring a touchdown during the final second of regulation when Chip Trayanum found a crease into the end zone. Since the game’s end, a lot of attention has been paid to why that crease was there — Notre Dame only had 10 players on the field — and Ryan Day getting passionate about Lou Holtz during his postgame interview. It’s all overshadowed by a mistake the Buckeyes made that could’ve been devastating.

Ohio State players rushed the field following Trayanum’s touchdown, thinking the game was over and they’d walked off the Fighting Irish. However, there was a second left on the clock, requiring Ohio State to run a conversion play following the touchdown. The Buckeyes sent their kicking team out, drilled the extra point and then began to party.

They never should’ve sent the kicking team out there, though. The score was 16-14. Had Notre Dame blocked the extra point and returned it for a safety, it would’ve tied the game 16-16 and sent it to overtime. There was no good reason for the Buckeyes to send the kicking unit out there, even if the odds of a Notre Dame safety were minimal.

Instead, they should’ve lined up under center and kneeled. It wouldn’t have killed the clock, but it’s not as if Notre Dame could fair catch the kickoff and attempt a 90-yard field goal. 

Stat of the week

This was a good reminder that even if Michigan looks to be moving at half-speed and hasn’t covered a spread yet this year (it managed a push against Rutgers, depending on when you got it), that doesn’t mean the Wolverines aren’t dominating teams. Even when they’ve looked “bad” in games, they still ultimately won big and have been in control nearly the entire time. That said, considering how well other teams have played this year and some of the big resume wins, I’m surprised the Wolverines have held onto the No. 2 spot in the AP Top 25.

They’re one of only three Big Ten teams to remain in the poll this week, though all three are in the top 10 (No. 2 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 6 Penn State).

Gut reads of the week

Every week I pick every Big Ten game against the spread based on nothing but my gut reaction to the number. No digging into numbers, just vibes, baby. I even track my record to embarrass myself publicly. Odds via SportsLine consensus. 

No. 2 Michigan at Nebraska: Is this the week Michigan finally takes off the restrictor plate and floors it or are the Wolverines content to drive the speed limit until they head to Happy Valley in November? I’m leaning toward the latter, but even if Michigan gets a bit more aggressive this week, it’s hard for me to trust them to cover a number this large. It’s not simply that they’ve yet to cover this year, it’s that Nebraska, as mediocre as it remains, is still the best team the Wolverines have seen. It’s also the first time they’ll be on the road. Nebraska +18

Last Week: 3-5-1