TIME FOR SOMETHING NEW. Remember those Vine embeds we used for our Super-realistic EA Sports NCAA 2014 Simulation? We thought we'd use the same Vine embeds to take a closer look at select plays from Iowa's game with Northern Illinois. We'll break this in two; one post for offense, another for the defense and special teams. Television doesn't always provide the most information regarding the formations, particularly the secondary, but we'll do our best.
LINEBACKER BLITZING. I felt Iowa did a decent job of mixing in blitzes and it appeared at times they had NIU well scouted. With a player like Jordan Lynch, NIU's offensive coordinator is going to want to move the pocket depending on down and distance to provide Lynch the option of running if the receiver isn't open. When the pocket didn't move Iowa blitzed Lynch from the short side of the field on this occasion:
Here, the running back motions out of the backfield and against a man-to-man defense, the linebacker would follow. Since Iowa is primarily a zone defense, the backer stays inside with flat assignment on his drop. Anthony Hitchens sat inside and attacked at the snap of the ball. Lynch was focused on the wide side of the field but obviously felt the pressure. James Morris also blitzed on the play and Iowa's six man rush forced a quick throw that was broken up by John Lowdermilk forcing a punt.
Later in the second half, against an empty backfield, Iowa gambled and again sent both Hitchens and Morris along with the four men up front. Hitchens was able to blitz through an open gap right in the line of sight for Lynch's potential target. The throw got rushed again and the pass fell incomplete forcing an NIU punt.
SECONDARY FAILING. Here is a complete breakdown by Iowa's defense. The announcers remarked that Iowa had trouble getting the call in. It was the first quarter and first down for NIU. This was the first touchdown of the game.
It was a play-action pass and NIU sent only two receivers on routes. Jordan Lomax was matched up on the outside and John Lowdermilk the strong safety. Lowdermilk falls for the fake and decides he's going to stay in the flat and cover air. Lomax gets burned badly and is left without safety help. Bad, bad play for the Iowa defense and something we weren't used to seeing during Norm Parker's tenure as defensive coordinator.
And this play:
I'm not exactly sure what happened here. This was the touchdown that tied the game at 27. Lowery, if you recall, had already left the game earlier after he nearly intercepted a pass and stayed on the turf with what was later confirmed to be muscle cramps. He was back in the game for this series and at corner lined across Derren Brown, the NIU wide receiver that caught the pass.
NIU had trips to the wide side and faced a third and seven from the Iowa 34 yard line. Lynch faked a hand-off and then looked down field. Iowa had Lowdermilk on Lowery's side, Tanner Miller and Desmond King were the secondary on the tight end side of the field. Here's where I get cloudy, and the television shot doesn't help: It appears that NIU went with the famed four verts, the tight end on the short side kind of confirms that (and Chuck Long called it a four vert type play). If not four than at least three vertical routes and one trailing route. Iowa had Kirksey in coverage and he dropped to the flat. It looks like Iowa was in a Cover-4 but Lowdermilk's position sort of says Cover-2. Either way, it was not-cover-the-wide-receiver coverage. Lowery was on the inside receiver instead of splitting the two. He talked about it Tuesday. Lowdermilk was floating in the middle. This looks like a miscommunication or just a tired and out of position Lowery had too far to go and couldn't get to Brown in time to make a play.
PICKING ON HITCHENS. Anthony Hitchens had a strong day against the NIU run. On NIU's second touchdown drive he stepped up in the hole and stuffed a couple of NIU run attempts. But, on third and four, this happened:
NIU had trips to the wide side of the field. They motioned the running back to the trips to form a quads, or four wide receivers. The NIU wide receiver ran a short route (it was 3rd and four) but then modified the route to get behind Hitchens who was sitting in a middle zone in a cover-2. Not getting pressure on the passer is a killer here. NIU's wide receiver had plenty of time to wiggle where Hitchen's couldn't cover. Still, he lost the wide receiver and got turned around but did make the tackle after the reception.
Later, on the same drive:
Here we see NIU in a shotgun and two backs in the backfield. Iowa is in their 4-3 defense and Hitchens is shading the slot receiver. NIU runs play action with the sweep to Hitchens' side and he now trails the lead blocker from the backfield. Tommy Lee Lewis ran a wheel route and Hitchens was beat for the touchdown. To be fair to Hitchens, Lewis is a 5'7" 155 pound wide receiver. Jordan Lomax admitted that Iowa was in a Cover-2 defense and he was supposed to be there to help. It was a failure in coverage but also a failure to identify the wide receiver in the backfield and communicate.
PUNT FAKING. Okay, about this. My first thought was that Iowa wasn't prepared. I think I even vented a little in Monday's INP about it too. Turns out, Iowa coaching staff was prepared for the punt fake and had a punt safe call with the defensive unit on the field. The problem wasn't surprise, it was execution. And to NIU's credit, they ran a helluva fake. I mean, the punter is athletic enough to be the pitch man on an option. Here it is:
First, NIU motions the gunner from the wide side of the field. Iowa's defender follows leaving one less defender in the area. The failure didn't happen at defensive end. Like the old days of the veer option, the end's responsibility on the option is the quarterback. Or in this case, the up back. Drew Ott kept his shoulders square and rushed the up back. Maybe he could have waited for the up back to come to him but at this point let's assume that the players thought it was an up back fake and not an option to the punter. Ott crushes the up back and quickly turns to get down field but it was too late for him to make a play.
James Morris is another we can assume didn't see the option as, well, an option. He immediately broke inside for the up back and was left with a bad angle to the punter. Christian Kirksey got blocked completely out of the play by a guy that's listed at 5'11" and 180 pounds on the NIU roster. I no longer think this is a case of bad coaching but rather bad recognition by the players on the field and honestly, well executed trickery.