By DARREN MILLER
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It’s like a pitcher taking a no-hitter to the ninth inning of a baseball game, University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“I would prefer not talking about it.”
He is referring to the number of quarterback sacks his team has allowed this season. Or in the case of the Hawkeyes, sacks not allowed. Iowa entered Saturday’s game at Indiana on top of the Big Ten Conference by giving up five sacks in five games. Tied for second on the list were Ohio State and Michigan (1.33 per game).
For most of the Hawkeyes’ 42-16 win over the Hoosiers, the starting offense line of center Keegan Render, guards Dalton Ferguson and Ross Reynolds, and tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs was beyond solid. Indiana did register a sack on the final play of the first half, with the collective ears of the Hoosiers pinned back and knowing Iowa’s only chance for more points was a Hail Mary pass attempt.
Other than that…
The Hawkeyes rolled to 479 total yards, 320 through the air and 159 on the ground. Quarterback Nate Stanley was sacked just that one time for five yards. In other words, he was able to throw for five more touchdowns than times he was taken down behind the line of scrimmage.
“From where I stood, it looked like we did a really good job up there,” Ferentz said. “We may have missed a couple of their blitzers and they were bringing them almost every play. It seemed the protection was pretty good and the middle of the pocket was pretty firm which gives a quarterback a chance to step up in there and get the ball down field.”
This was an Indiana defense that, by all pregame accounts, was an upgrade over years past. A substantial upgrade. The Hoosiers allowed 609 yards last week at Ohio State, but to its other five opponents, had allowed an average of 321.8 yards per game.
By halftime Saturday, the Hawkeyes had 219 yards on 35 plays, an average of 6.3 yards per play.
“I thought we did a good job up front,” said Render, a 6-foot-4, 307-pound senior center. “They brought a lot of blitzes, pressures, and movement and as far as our eye placement and discipline, I think we did a good job getting on blocks and finishing blocks. We took a step forward.”
That step forward is reflected in yards gained by the Hawkeyes over the last few Saturdays. After averaging 311.5 yards during wins against Northern Illinois and Iowa State to open the season, Iowa has put together four straight weeks of more than 400 yards of offense. The Hawkeyes gained 545 against Northern Iowa, 404 against Wisconsin, 420 at Minnesota, and now 479 at Indiana.
“It’s a team effort,” said Jackson, 6-7, 320-pound sophomore left tackle. “(Offensive line) coach (Tim) Polasek puts us in position, (offensive coordinator) Brian (Ferentz) makes the right calls, and Nate makes the right checks.”
The combination of prompt decisions and a quick release, elusiveness, and an occasional Houdini escape by Stanley will do wonders for a low sack total. But there is something to be said about the improvement of the gang up front. It has provided Stanley time to throw for more than 300 yards in three of the last four games. Against Indiana, he was 21-of-33 for 320 yards and a career-high six touchdowns.
“They are doing a great job,” Stanley said of the offensive linemen. “They come to practice every day with a great attitude and mindset. They put a lot of time in the film room, studying the defense and picking up on things that help them throughout the course of a game. I can’t ask for anything more from them.”
With six sacks in six games, the Hawkeyes will remain on top of the Big Ten for fewest sacks allowed. Ohio State allowed three sacks during a victory against Minnesota and Michigan allowed three sacks in a win against Wisconsin.
“Playing together and trusting each other is the biggest thing for us to move forward,” Render said. “That has shown over the last couple games.”