It’s not unusual to see Iowa’s defense ahead of its offense in the middle of September. In fact, the Hawkeyes have long been known more for stopping opponents than winning shootouts under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz.
But the difference between those two units has likely never been starker.
Through two games, Iowa (2-0) has had arguably the best defense in America. The Hawkeyes are allowing just five points a game, second nationally to a Toledo team whose only game so far was against VMI of the FCS. Iowa is also one of just five teams allowing fewer than 200 yards a game, and it is second with nine sacks.
It’s a different story on offense.
Iowa ranks 96th out of 130 FBS teams with 23 points per game following a 13-3 win over Iowa State last weekend. The Hawkeyes are 114th with just 311.5 yards per game and 119th in first downs with 16 an outing — just a year after winning a rare shootout over the Cyclones in Ames, 44-41.
Iowa will hope to get its attack sorted out on Saturday when it hosts Northern Iowa (0-1).
“A year ago at this time the sky was falling defensively for us, right, we gave up 40-plus points,” Ferentz said. “It’s just a different circumstance now. But the bottom line is there’s always something to work on. There’s always a challenge.”
Almost all room for growth is on offense because Iowa’s defense has been brilliant from the opening snap of 2018. It has stifled its first two opponents, Northern Illinois and Iowa State, behind its nasty defensive line led by the likes of sophomore end A.J. Epenesa.
The former five-star recruit had five tackles, two sacks, a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup last week against the Cyclones, earning Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors off the bench.
“We know we’ve got kind of a special group up front, the (defensive) line,” safety Jake Gervase said. “If we’re doing our job on the back end, communicating, reading our keys and staying on top and making plays, it could be a special year.”
The offense has struggled to run the ball much like it did in 2017, averaging just 3.7 yards a carry so far against a pair of defenses in Northern Illinois and Iowa State that are expected to be good this fall. But the passing game has also been a disappointment. Junior quarterback Nate Stanley, who threw for 2,347 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2017, is averaging just 137 yards with a single touchdown.
Stanley’s yards per attempt have also dropped to just 5.37, down from 6.94 as a sophomore. Ferentz said he thinks Stanley might be trying to be “too perfect” with his motion.