The story of Iowa's victory over Pitt was clear, right? "Stodgy coach pursues unproductive 'balanced' strategy to little effect for first three quarters, belatedly resorts to no-huddle, shotgun passing attack and wins game," something like that?* As it turns out, no. The surprising thing is that, looking back at the number of plays run, Iowa was passing and using the shotgun from the very start against Pitt. Here is a chart of the plays run by formation in the pre-hurry-up phase of the game (everything before the Iowa drive starting with 3:11 left in the third quarter):
* Alternate story-line: "Ashton Kutcher stands on sidelines in weird hat, casting a voodoo hex on the Iowa offense until his departure to a luxury box late in third quarter."
(click to enlarge)
As you can see, passing plays exceeded run plays 30 to 20, and the most-used formation was the 3WR, 1RB, 1TE set run out of the shotgun. And as Kirk Ferentz noted to the press after the game, the offense really wasn't that bad in the first half. Iowa gained over 200 yards and moved the ball very well, in particular on a 86-yard drive that stalled at the Pitt four yard-line. A penalty hamstrung that drive, too, forcing the Hawks to start at their own 10 after an illegal block in the back call on the Iowa kickoff return. An interception, more penalties and two missed field goals made Iowa's early offensive production look pretty empty, but there were some hopeful signs. And in any event, the general strategy of the game was clear: Iowa was going to pass.
The thing that struck me watching the game again was how significantly James Vandenberg's erratic throwing confounded this plan for much of the first three quarters: there was the interception thrown into clear coverage, of course, but also a throw in the second that could have been an interception and one in the third that should have been a pick-six, plus a host of balls thrown off-target:
- the throw that led to Marvin McNutt's crazy one-hand grab;
- a throw over Keenan Davis's head out of bounds;
- a bad slant to McNutt on third and three that forced Iowa to take the 40-yard field goal that Michael Meyer missed;
- several throws into coverage;
- a should-have-been touchdown to McNutt in the back of the end zone that was overthrown.
Pressure led to some of that, of course, but there were a lot of throws where Vandenberg either plain missed or, worse, locked in on one receiver from the snap and threw the ball without apparently looking for defenders. That cleared up, thankfully, once things sped up. Here is a chart of the plays by formation once the hurry-up started late in the third quarter:
About the speed: Iowa had 50 plays in their first 24 minutes of non-hurry-up play (about 30 seconds per play), and 32 plays in their last seven and half (about 13 seconds per play). That, along with the defense's crucial (and crucially speedy) stops, gave Iowa the time to make up a 21-point lead in about a quarter. The running game and the play-action game ceased to exist for obvious reasons (and three of the runs on the chart were in the last, clock-killing drive and don't really count). Vandenberg was slinging it out of the shotgun, for the most part, with three wide-outs and a tight end (Zach Derby). The Hawks even went to a quasi-four-receiver set, with Derby split out, looking for all the world like Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl. The Hawks ran more shotgun in the hurry-up phase (about 62% of their plays as compared with 36% pre-hurry-up), and the run/pass balance was tilted more heavily toward pass (1:3 as opposed to 1:2). It's only sort of reflected here, but the Hawks also started stretching the field more, looking for those seam routes to Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley. It's hard to know exactly what made everything click, but it seemed like some mixture of a) better protection by the line (aided by more shotgun play), b) improved accuracy by JVB, c) abandoning an unproductive aspect of the offense (running), and d) playing fast. You would have to think that a) and b) were things the Iowa coaching staff expected would be there all day, so the most significant change may have simply been that the hurry-up offense was well-executed as opposed to poorly-executed.
One more note on the running game: as much as it has been criticized lately, Ken O'Keefe actually did some unusual things with it in the non-hurry-up part of the game, choosing to run out of the shotgun on occasion and opting to pass on first down (14 times) more often than run it (11 times). It still wasn't very productive, though, averaging 3.9 yards per play to the 5.4 Iowa got on pass plays. At least based on the play-calling, it seems the Iowa coaching staff came in with the philosophy that they would have to pass against Pitt. Sacks and incomplete passes made a hash of that thinking, but it was there from the beginning. And Iowa played a good deal of shotgun against Iowa State as well, so this may be a longer-term strategic shift the coaches are making to accommodate the personnel this year.
There weren't too many big head-scratching coaching decisions this week. You could argue that Iowa should have gone for it from the Pitt 4 yard-line on fourth and goal in the second quarter, but that's a pretty close call. Given Vandenberg's early accuracy problems, it was understandable that Iowa took the sure three points. And the 50-yard field goal attempt was perhaps a tad optimistic, but the Hawks were facing a 4th and 9 from the Pitt 32 there, so a conversion wouldn't have been extremely probable either. Really, though, when Pitt went ahead by 21, all strategic ambiguity went out the window: the only option for Iowa was to score touchdowns fast (the adage "the prospect of hanging focuses the mind wonderfully" comes to mind here). And it's remarkable to think just how improbable the comeback was once Iowa went down 24-3. In the generic NFL win probability model (which I mentioned last week), a team down 24-3 with the ball at its own 40 and 3:11 left in the third would have a 2% chance of winning the game. Two percent! How does a team overcome those odds? The lion's share of the credit goes to Iowa's offense and defense for, as Adam said, going down the list and doing every single thing they needed to do to win the game. And the defense's contribution was really just as crucial as the offense's: if Pitt's first two drives in the fourth quarter had just lasted another series or two, Iowa probably wouldn't have had any time left for their final scoring drive.
Pitt also deserves some blame here, especially for getting a little cutesy and going for an improbable deep throw on third and three in Iowa territory with eight minutes left. The pass fell incomplete, forcing Pitt into a tough fourth and three in no-man's land that failed. I can see Todd Graham's thinking there -- get the touchdown and the game is over -- but Tino Sunseri hadn't shown much touch on the kind of delicate throw required by the play (he threw an interception in the second quarter on a similar throw), and Ray Graham was running the ball well. The fact that the ball was at the Iowa 36 and thus in likely four-down territory made the decision not to run there even more curious (if they had only gotten one yard on third down, that would have just made the fourth down conversion all the easier). The fourth down decision was a reasonable one -- a punt was likely to net Pitt only 16 yards -- but the long throw made it a more difficult one than it had to be. It just goes to show that big risk/reward plays are called that for a reason. Pitt took one risk by going for the long throw, then another by going for it on fourth down. When neither risk paid off, Iowa was left with the ball in good field position and lots of time left on the clock.