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Iowa's offense suddenly has explosive players, and that's why it's winning

The Hawkeyes aren't just three yards and a cloud of dust anymore.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa fans have long had a contentious relationship with the Hawkeyes' offense, particularly under offensive coordinator Greg Davis. But after a 40-point destruction of a Northwestern defense that ranks sixth in S&P+ and with an easy schedule the rest of the way, the Hawkeyes' offense is rolling.

The Iowa offense ranks No. 43 in S&P+ this year, which isn't world-beating, but after finishing No. 71, No. 70 and No. 92 in the first three years under Davis, the Hawkeyes will take it.

Iowa teams under Kirk Ferentz have always been known for their pro-style, grind-it-out approach, utilizing multiple tight ends and fullbacks. That's no different this year. Even in the era of Ferentz 3.0, Iowa hasn't changed its identity. But Iowa has made a fundamental change that has reaped big rewards: The Hawkeyes are suddenly relatively explosive.

The Hawkeyes rank No. 63 in explosiveness, which may not seem like much. But Iowa has shown an ability to make big plays that fans have rarely seen in recent years. As pointed out by FOX's Bruce Feldman, Iowa is on pace to nearly double the number of plays it will typically have over 40 yards. The Hawkeyes rank 11th nationally and first in the Big Ten in plays of 40 yards or longer, far better than they have been in any other year under Davis.

Year 40+ plays 40+ plays per game Big Ten rank National rank
2015 (7 games) 12 1.71 1 11
2014 12 0.92 10 80
2013 9 0.69 9 99
2012 4 0.33 12 120

A big reason for this sudden improvement is execution, but personnel is playing a big role. After a disappointing 2014 season, the Hawkeyes called a rare January press conference to name gun-slinging and mobile C.J. Beathard the new quarterback over risk-averse former starter Jake Rudock, who has since transferred to Michigan.

Davis, the offensive coordinator at Texas during the Vince Young years, ideally wants a quarterback who can make plays and improvise. That makes Beathard the perfect fit.

Because of his mobility, the coaches are trusting Beathard to make plays, even in risky situations. Against Iowa State, he rushed for 57 yards from his own 1-yard line and threw a 48-yard pass on third-and-26 from the Hawkeyes' 6-yard line. Against Illinois, he had passes of 46 and 49 yards on third-and-long. Even when the offense isn't at its most efficient, that doesn't mean third-and-long kills Iowa's chances to make anything of a drive, as it so often did in previous seasons.

Personnel changes initiated by Davis are making a difference all over the offense. Iowa has traditionally had big receivers, but recruiting has shifted toward small, speedy receivers in past years. That showed up in a big way after the Hawkeyes' top receiver, Tevaun Smith, went down. His replacement, true freshman Jerminic Smith, isn't small at 6'1, but his speed was on display in his second career start against Illinois, when he finished with four receptions for 118 yards.

The changes at running back have been even more stark. The Hawkeyes named bruiser LeShun Daniels, Jr. their starter at the beginning of the season, but once he got hurt the keys to the offense were handed to short, speedy Jordan Canzeri, who rushed for 256 yards against Illinois. Canzeri got hurt against Northwestern, so enter Akrum Wadley.

A lightly recruited player who was just 5'10, 175 pounds coming out of high school, his commitment right before 2013 National Signing Day didn't seem to make a lot of sense. From Iowa site Black Heart Gold Pants at the time:

The bad thing: he's 5'10 and 175 pounds, making him a relatively odd choice for Iowa's power-running tendencies. Perhaps Iowa sees him as a change-of-pace back, or a safety and punt returner, or another of the cadre of undersized, quick receiver-types that Greg Davis has been collecting. Perhaps Iowa sees him as a two-sport athlete and proven winner with a skill set they can use somewhere, and the positioning will be sorted out once he arrives.

Wadley rushed for 204 yards on 26 carries against Northwestern, a blistering 7.8 yards per carry.

Iowa is not going to have the most talented offense on the field if it makes a top-tier bowl, and the Hawkeyes are still going to line up just as they always have. But now they have some firepower, and that's proved to be a very dangerous weapon.


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