Three perfect hours. There haven't been a whole lot of A+ games from Iowa recently, instances where the Hawkeyes were faced with a legitimate opponent and just unloaded a full clip of #BEATEMDOWN for sixty minutes. We're talking 2010 Michigan State*, 2008 Minnesota, and then, um... 2004 Wisconsin? Ohio State? Anyway, the point is that wins in the Ferentz era on this level are rare, especially without Brad Banks at QB, and to be cherished appropriately.
*Some may petition for 2013 Nebraska, but let's not forget the Cornhuskers outgained Iowa (288-282) and had the ball down seven in the fourth quarter. That game was fun, but it's not the type of win we're talking about here.
They're just Northwestern. And my goodness, that was a mauling. Northwestern didn't belong on the same field as Iowa. The Hawkeyes' front five opened up easy holes for Mark Weisman and Akrum Wadley (AKRUM WADLEY!) all day long and never let Jake Rudock get touched. The Northwestern front four's pass rush was nonexistent (Beathard got caught by Nick Van Hoose on a CB blitz in the fourth quarter, but that's it for QB hurries). Iowa's defensive front, on the other hand, rocked Trevor Siemian for five sacks on the day and registered a pair of hurries to boot. This might have been the defensive line's best game of the year, and that's saying something.
Here's a fun fact. Siemian and backup Zack Oliver (a Zackup, if you will) had thirty total plays: 24 combined pass attempts and six combined rushes*. On those 30 plays, Northwestern gained... 30 yards. That is not a typo. Northwestern got 75 yards on 8-for-24 passing and -45 yards on the rushing attempts. That is, essentially, a non-functioning passing game, and Iowa has been doing that to bad quarterbacks all year long.
With the performance, Iowa's pass efficiency defense zooms to fifth-best in the nation (and third-best in the B1G, with Wisconsin a fraction of a point better and Nebraska tops by a healthy margin). It's worth noting that the best quarterback Iowa has faced all year is, like, Chad Voytik, but it's not as if there's a surfeit of great QBs in the B1G whom Iowa's just been skating around this whole time.
Remember how we said the DL might have had its best game of the year? The Iowa pass defense almost certainly had its own magnum opus—and without a single interception. Iowa officially broke up eight Northwestern passes on the day, with production coming from everywhere: tips at the line, linebackers swatting balls away (including a truly great play by Quinton Alston on 4th and goal at the 1 as poor Siemian was trying to find a wide-open receiver in the end zone) and safeties laying lumber on deep throws. John Lowdermilk hasn't had a consistently great season, but this was one of the good ones: 12 tackles, one pass broken up and one beautifully forced fumble that Greg Mabin eventually recovered.
All in all, Lowdermilk and Jordan Lomax combined for 19 tackles, and while normally it's a bad sign when your safeties lead the team in tackles, them doing so in a game where the defense gave up 180 total yards just indicates how instrumental they were in shutting Northwestern's offense down. Justin Jackson was good—we told you he would be—but Lowdermilk was there to meet him close to the line of scrimmage all game long. By our count, rushes in which Lowdermilk made a tackle gained an average of six yards, and while that's not great, it's something any coach would take from his secondaries in run support any day.
One last note: we generally like Reggie Spearman as a concept, but... man, Iowa sure didn't miss him on Saturday.
*Siemian's five rushes were all sacks, so they were called pass plays if the distinction matters in any way. For the purposes of this discussion I'm not sure it does, but Northwestern had intended Siemian to run five times it probably would have gone better than that. Hey, did you know Siemian runs a 4.38?
Spottieottierope-a-dopaliscious. Iowa and Northwestern were both coming off bye weeks, which meant Northwestern had two weeks to prepare for Iowa's tendencies... and Iowa had two weeks to throw those tendencies in the garbage. It was the most beautiful "where the hell did this come from" moment in coaching since Jerry Kill and Minnesota busted out the Maryland I offense out of nowhere against Texas Tech in the 2012 Meineke Car Car Bowl.
Time and time again, Iowa's wideouts found massive holes downfield—because why would Northwestern cover there when Jake Rudock never throws those routes unless it's the fourth quarter and Iowa's losing?—and Rudock hit them for big gainers. Tevaun Smith finally got to stretch his legs with a four-catch, 76-yard performance, and that included a 31-yard touchdown that's worth a closer look.
Here's the setup from @hawkeyegamefilm on HN (whose recap analyses are basically mandatory reading):
The play was a variation of the 4 verticals concept and one they ran successfully for a touchdown against Indiana as well:
[click through to HN's writeup for the play diagram]
This time, instead of targeting the inside vertical from the bunch set, Rudock chose to go to Smith to the single WR side in 1 on 1 coverage. At the snap the CB was shaded well inside and was inviting an outside release from Smith. Northwestern was in in man free(Cover 1) and with an outside release, Smith would be too far outside for the safety to get over in time. Rudock took the snap and eyed Smith immediately, Smith got a clean release and quickly got up the field immediately bursting by the CB. Rudock let the ball go when Smith was 8-9 yards into his pattern and Smith hauled it in right at the goal-line. The key to this play was that the ball was thrown on time. It was just a touch under-thrown but the play is a great example of what it takes to create big plays in the passing game. Rudock and Iowa have struggled to sustain their deep passing attack from game to game and will need to keep after it over it's final four games.
Think about that: 3rd and 7—an obvious passing down—at Northwestern's 31, and the Cats sit in a cover 1 man, basically daring Iowa's best receiver to run a deep fade to the goal line because they don't think that pass is coming. And generally it wouldn't! Northwestern's anticipating another one of those "OH MY GOD RUDOCK WHAT ARE YOU DOING" third-down passes, and instead Rudock and Smith took the invitation to go up 31-7.
How far out of the norm was this passing performance? Working off Hawkeye Game Film's numbers, we get a stark departure from tendency. Against UNI, 34 of 41* pass attempts were within 10 yards downfield of the line of scrimmage. Against Iowa State, 20 of 22**. Against Ball State, 40 of 55, and remember, that's even with a furious fourth-quarter rally. Against Pitt, 12 of 18. Against Purdue, Iowa took more long shots—only 23 of 37 passes were short or behind the LOS, but remember: that was the C.J. Beathard Experience. Against Indiana, back to 23 of 32 passes going short. Against Maryland, 43 of 56 passes—and again, there's a rally, but my goodness was the 4th quarter ever a mess of dink and dunk and doom.
All in all, that's 195 of 261 passes—nearly 75%!—being thrown within 10 yards of the LOS in 2014, coming into Saturday's game.
Against Northwestern, Rudock threw 19 passes... and 11 of them were medium or longer. And wouldn't you know it, Rudock was 6/11 on those throws for 182 yards and his only score of the game.
That's a level of trust and confidence we haven't seen out of Rudock all year. Was this some rope-a-dope by the Iowa staff who figured (if so, correctly) that Northwestern defense would never suspect a flurry of downfield action from the Iowa passing game? Did someone finally explain to Rudock that he's like a big bear, man, and he's got these big claws*** and fangs****? Or is it just simply better situational awareness from the guys in charge?
"We talked to our guys last week about the last two ball games we were (ahead) 21-0 in one (Indiana) and 14-0 in the second (Maryland)," UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said Sunday during an exclusive interview with hawkeyesports.com. "The 21-0 ended up being a shootout with Indiana, and we ended up losing the lead and the ball game with a 14-0 lead. We talked about if we could get a lead, then doing a better job of keeping our foot on the gas to get distance between us and our opponent. It worked out that way yesterday, so it was a good thing to see."
Well, yes, "more points better" is certainly a revelation you'd want your coach to have. But really, this is about the same thing Rudock needed to understand: if you trust your guys and put them in position to succeed as often as possible, good things will generally happen. Being scared of the disasters is fine, but if you let that fear dictate your decisions instead of the general theory of "if we do this something good will happen," you're dooming yourself.
This is, of course, much more easily said by a dope with a keyboard like me than done by a coach. Even Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson (whom I adore unconditionally) benched Tevin Coleman for an extended spell in the first half against Michigan last week after a pair of fumbles. Indiana went into the half with zero points. Well, at least they were noble, mistake-free zero points, I guess.
You play to win the game, as the smart men say. It was great to see Iowa go out there and play to win for 60 minutes on Saturday. A+. More of this over and over forever, because it was beautiful.
*In one bit of retrospectively humorous naivété, the author notes "However targeting 34 of 41 passes under 10 yards, with most of that under 5 yards, isn't a pattern Iowa will want to repeat." You don't know what Greg Davis wants, sir!
**Rudock actually threw 24 passes that day, so I'm not sure how or why they ended up at 22; Iowa didn't spike the ball or anything. So AT BEST, four of 24 passes went downfield that day.