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Iowa’s too clutch on offense now, depriving Kirk Ferentz of his beloved punts

The Hawkeyes are really good at throwing on third downs and extending drives into the red zone.

Northern Illinois v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Something must have gotten into Kirk Ferentz, right?

The grand puba of punting is presiding over a team that isn’t punting at the rate one would expect for one of the most infamously conservative coaches in the sport.

Over the last decade, Ferentz’s conservative nature has become a national meme. But 2018 Iowa just isn’t punting.

Look at the per-game punts:

  • Northern Illinois: 5
  • Iowa State: 5
  • Northern Iowa: 2
  • Wisconsin: 3
  • Minnesota: 4
  • Indiana: 2
  • Maryland: 2

This is the program that punted seven times in three different games in 2017, nine times twice. In 2016, they only punted fewer than six times in four games.

In fact, when broken down by percentage of drives that have ended in a punt, Iowa’s punting has dropped off a cliff.

  • 2009: 36 percent
  • 2010: 38 percent
  • 2011: 34 percent
  • 2012: 47 percent
  • 2013: 39 percent
  • 2014: 39 percent
  • 2015: 38 percent
  • 2016: 48 percent
  • 2017: 43 percent
  • 2018 (through seven games): 28 percent

Iowa’s doing a little better in different areas, and it adds up to depress the total number of punts.

The Hawkeyes are basically chipping away at puntable situations overall.

For simplicity’s sake, a typical football game features 12 drives per team. If you think about it, all 12 possessions in a game could end in a punt, so eating into that number without turning the ball over is good.

The easiest way to look at this is how often Iowa gets the ball into the red zone. The more you can get the ball into the red zone, the more you’re likely to score, and the less likely you are to punt, because no team — not even Iowa — is gonna punt in the red zone. Iowa’s average red zone attempts per game are up.

  • 2015 3.8
  • 2016: 3.1
  • 2017: 3.8
  • 2018: 4.6

Iowa’s offense is taking nearly one extra possession per game and replacing the end of it with a scoring try. The Hawkeyes are on pace to attempt more field goals than in nearly any other season over their last decade.

But the red zone doesn’t tell the complete story of why Iowa’s less punty.

It also has to do with getting inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, which — despite the jokes about Iowa — is what we call a scoring opportunity.

Iowa is currently averaging 54.2 percent scoring opportunities (plays inside the 40) per drive. They haven’t averaged over 50 percent since 2008 and averaged 40.3 percent and 43 percent in the last two seasons respectively.

Iowa’s moving further down the field, and kind of in an Iowa way.

They’re 127th nationally in percentage of first downs coming on either first or second down, so when they move the chains, it’s on third down.

Of 492 total plays through seven games, 108 have been third downs, or 21 percent. For comparison, Ohio State’s run 658 plays so far and only faced 12 more third downs.

Yet the Hawkeyes are converting third downs at an exceptional 49 percent, 11th nationally, and it’s largely thanks to the ... passing game!

Only 40 percent of Iowa’s third downs are third-and-longs (seven-plus yards), and that ranks 10th nationally. They’re also No. 3 in the country in converting in those situations, at a rate of 43.2 percent. Third-and-long is the hardest situation on any drive, because you basically always have to convert and it shrinks the playbook. Third-and-medium/short lets you be multiple.

They’re particularly good at passing their way out of trouble, ranking No. 22 in throwing success on passing downs (second-and-long and third/fourth-and-medium). Nate Stanley currently leads the country in passing yardage on third downs and ranks No. 1 in passer rating among all QBs with more than 40 third-down throws. He’s thrown 66 of those!

They’re also going for it on fourth down slightly more than usual. Fifteen attempts through eight weeks is more than the 2010 Hawkeyes had all year.

This all leads to longer drive distances for Iowa.

  • 2012: 25.9 yards per drive
  • 2013: 29.7
  • 2014: 32
  • 2015: 30.1
  • 2016: 26.2
  • 2017: 26
  • 2018: 33.5

And it must be noted that 2018 Iowa is yet to play a truly good team outside of Wisconsin, but Penn State and Purdue are their only remaining chances. They skip Michigan and Ohio State in the regular season.

The epitome so far was against Maryland.

The Hawkeyes converted nine third downs and three fourth downs, holding the ball for 41 minutes while only punting twice. The Terps were only allowed eight full drives all game, one of which was a two-play drive with a scoop-and-score by Iowa.

If this doesn’t hold up, Iowa can fall back to its good ‘ol punts-and-defense strategy.

If they get more punty as the season continues, the Hawkeyes can play the hits. In nearly every per-game defensive statistical category, Iowa’s in the top 10. They’re ceding red zone touchdowns at a high rate (81 percent), but to score you have to get to the red zone first, and Iowa’s No. 9 nationally at preventing red zone entries (16).

Iowa’s punting hasn’t been bad, either. They’re nearly top-40 in net punting this season. If when you look at it a different way, Iowa’s punting — when it’s used — might be elite. Colten Rastetter’s punting success rate is 71 percent, a measure that sets a bar for a punt from each yard line based on average net yardage.

If you’re punting from the 1, a successful punt nets more than 33.2 yards. If you’re punting from your 35, it’s 39.5 yards. From the opponent’s 45, 31.5. This gives you a moving target and doesn’t punish punters who end up taking more snaps from their end zone or from deeper in opponent territory.

Punting was a bit of a question mark entering the season, with questions about whether Rastetter would be replaced by a graduate transfer. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods was asked this last spring, and he suggested a position battle.

“Our mantra, our thought is always develop people,” Woods said. “That’s first and foremost. ... To blow a guy up or blow up a position, that doesn’t make any sense to me or to us. That’s not our philosophy. We’re trying to develop the people first and then as players and see what we have.”

The question mark was cleared up, and Rastetter has been doing his job when called upon. But thanks to Iowa’s continually clutch offense, that’s rarely been the case.