Each week I’ll be rewatching the Iowa game and hopefully shine some light on the things that did — and didn’t — work.
Week 1: Wyoming
Week 2: Iowa State
Week 3: North Texas
Week 4: Penn State
Week 5: Michigan State
After two weeks of frustration, Iowa finally managed to pick up its first Big Ten win, 45-16, over lowly Illinois. It felt really good to watch the Hawkeyes beat up on another team and made even better by the fact the state they’re from is right across the Mississippi River.
Iowa pulled out the bag of tricks in this game, converting both a fake punt and an onside kick in the first half. It was able to rattle the Illini into four turnovers and turned those into 17 points. The Hawkeye offense looked better than it has the last two weeks and while that’s in part a product of playing a team with a bad defense, it’s still progress in my book.
There was a lot going on in this game, so let’s dive in.
The Hawkeye defense had an up-and-down day, but the line — as normal — had a solid day.
Nathan Bazata suffered an injury early in the second half which allowed us to see a bit of defensive tackle Garret Jansen, who hasn’t seen the field really at all this season.
Let’s go to snap counts: Note: All snap counts are non-garbage time (basically up until the last 4:30 of the game, when Iowa started playing a few guys who you probably won’t see much more of this year, unless we get into another blowout situation.)
Defensive end: Anthony Nelson (42), Parker Hesse (39), A.J. Epenesa (23), Sam Brincks (22).
Defensive tackle: Matt Nelson (38), Cedrick Lattimore (35), Nathan Bazata (27), Brady Reiff (13) Garret Jansen (9), Hesse (1).
Anthony Nelson and Hesse started at the end spots while Lattimore and Bazata started at tackle. Iowa loves to bring in Epenesa and Brincks in together and weren’t on the field with one another for all of three plays.
Jansen was in the game before Bazata got injured, so that’s something to watch as we move forward. Reiff played an okay game, but got thoroughly destroyed early on.
Bo Bower got smacked on this play, Josey Jewell wasn’t able to get over and time and Iowa’s lucky Amani Hooker took a good pursuit angle.
If he hadn’t, that would have been a touchdown as Michael Ojemudia isn’t quite able to trip up Illini back Mike Epstein. Not a good play all around and Illinois actually ended up outgained the Hawkeyes on the ground (200 to 191) in part due to this very run.
It certainly wasn’t all bad and as this next play — the very first of the game — shows, I’m glad Anthony Nelson is suited up in the Black and Gold.
Nelson fights off two blockers, has enough field awareness to spin around and find Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. as he scrambles out of the pocket. Don’t count out Lattimore’s contribution here either as he rushes over from his tackle spot to deal a bit of pain himself.
Iowa fumbled on the next possession (we’ll get to the offense in a bit) but it was one of many good plays by the defense.
I’ve talked a bit about Brincks on here as well and has the season has gone on, he’s developed into a more than serviceable end. I really liked a play he made in the third quarter.
There’s a couple things going on here. First, Matt Nelson puts a nice little spin move on redshirt freshman offensive tackle Andrew Trainer. This is an option and Nelson forces George Jr. to pitch the ball to Reggie Corbin, who really doesn’t have a whole lot of space to maneuver.
Brincks plays sound defense and holds Corbin to just a four-yard gain. It’s Brincks’ only tackle of the game, but an important one. Illinois is threatening to get itself squarely back in the game and instead of a potential third and short situation, they’re forced into 3rd and 6.
One incompletion later, the Illini have to settle for a field goal. The Hawkeyes scored a touchdown on their next offensive possession and the game is more or less over.
This drive was important for another reason, too. George Jr. had just thrown a pick-six, and instead of throwing in the towel, Illinois put together a nine-play drive that started at its own 25. Momentum is everything and a touchdown very well could have thrown this game into doubt.
That said, I’m not really sure how you come back from this.
This was the sixth-longest interception returned for a touchdown in school history. It put a cap on an incredible game from Brandon Snyder, who somehow returned to action less than six months removed from ACL surgery.
It’s an incredible gift to have Snyder back. He’s not only a nice person and a good story, but an absolute terror on defense. Snyder finished with three tackles, two pass breakups and the interception. His instincts are tremendous and he provides a good balance with Amani Hooker.
Speaking of Hooker, he had quite a day as well.
Malik Turner had some room to work with and if George Jr. hadn’t underthrown this ball, it very well could have been a touchdown. Hooker made a tremendous play and his early season growth has been everything we could have possibly asked for.
Hooker also made a great open field tackle and seems to just have a knack of where he needs to be on the field. It’s needed.
He read the play beautifully and was able to make a sound tackle. That’s good stuff. Hooker finished with six solo tackles (fourth on the team for the game) and the interception. Not a bad day, statistically speaking.
I’d be remiss to not throw in his scamper for a first down on a punt return as well. I still can’t believe after ALL this time, Iowa pulls this out against Illinois.
But hey, at least it worked.
Hooker took over at safety for Miles Taylor early in the game and played tremendously, once again, in his relief.
Taylor, a senior, has simply not been good this season.
He bites on play action far too often and isn’t particularly good in pass coverage. One of Taylor’s worst plays comes early in the game.
It’s a good fake from the Illini quarterback, but quite simply Taylor needs to read this play better. Luckily for Iowa, Josh Jackson is able to stop tight end Louis Dorsey from getting into the end zone, but not before he goes for a 40-yard gain.
Overall, the Iowa pass defense had a mediocre day. George Jr. was harassed into three picks and completed 22-of-45 passes, but he was able to find his wide receivers occasionally for big gains throughout the game.
Take these two plays (Iowa’s in dime, the only linebacker on the field is Jewell) for example.
The second isn’t quite as egregious as the first but, still, not ideal.
Speaking of dime, let’s talk about Iowa’s packages with extra defensive backs on the field for a second. I went back through my notes and found something slightly... frightening over the past four games.
Against North Texas, Penn State, Michigan State, and now Illinois, Iowa’s gone into a nickel or dime package in 29 instances.
Of those 29 times, it’s worked on third down eight times and kept the opponent short of the sticks another four. That means 17 other occasions, it’s resulted in either a first down on third down (eight times) or a first down on first or second down (11 times.)
To my knowledge, Iowa has yet to move out of its base 4-3 on fourth down this year.
It’s just a frustrating phenomenon. Manny Rugamba is not having a good year and Matt Hankins (whom the Hawkeyes usually bring in when they go into dime) is still young. They both are, really. Hankins is a freshman and Rugamba is a sophomore.
Now I get not wanting to be in 4-3 every defensive snap and that’s not what I’m advocating here. You can’t blitz in every passing situation, nor can you use a linebacker in coverage all the time.
Not to pick on Bo Bower (who is easily having the best season of his career) but you start to get plays like this.
Malik Turner is a great player and just not someone you can ask Bower to cover on a regular basis.
Is there an easy, simple fix here? I doubt it and it might just be something we have to live with until the defensive backs improve, though I still think it’s more than worthy of discussion.
Let’s move on to the offense.
Stanley had another solid day, throwing three touchdowns against a single pick (just his second of the season) and finished 17-32-247. Iowa also made some changes, starting Toren Young at running back and Tristan Wirfs at tackle.
Perhaps most importantly, this allowed Sean Welsh to move back to guard, a position he is more comfortable at. In Wirfs first day, he had some ups and downs.
Take, for example, a play early in the game where he gets beat and almost allows Stanley to get sacked.
Wirfs completely whiffs against Illinois’ James Crawford, a 6-2, 235-pound senior. The young freshman from Mt. Vernon had a serious learning moment here, but he got better as the game went along. I wouldn’t worry all that much about him and I firmly believe he’ll grow into a truly excellent player.
There’s another thing that stood out to me about this play as well — Stanley’s ability to shrug off would-be tacklers. It’s not a flukey maneuver and he’s been able to get himself out of several near sacks this season, an incredibly valuable skill to possess.
Iowa’s offensive line has done a solid job keeping him upright so far this year, but it’s nice to know Stanley has that poise inside him.
He’s also not afraid to take a hit, as this read option (!!!) Iowa ran shows.
Illinois jumps offsides and this is a free play for the Hawkeyes. So what does Stanley do? He keeps it and gains six yards for a first down.
Iowa’s personnel on this play is absolutely fascinating as well. T.J. Hockenson is in at tight end, which makes sense. Wadley’s at running back, which makes sense. But you know who the other running back is?
Iowa runs its read option with a fullback lined up in a split running back set. I love it. I absolutely love it.
Brandon Smith is also in at wide receiver on this play with Nick Easley. Smith played a bit in this game and Max Cooper saw some time with the first team as well. Before we get much further, let’s do snap counts.
Note: When Fant lines up split out, I threw him in with the receivers to give y’all an idea of how often Brian Ferentz decides to do that. Also, as before, these are non-garbage time snaps.
Wide receiver: Nick Easley (53), Matt VandeBerg (40), Imhir Smith-Marsette (32), Brandon Smith (14), Max Cooper (4), Noah Fant (3).
Tight end: T.J. Hockenson (40), Fant (31), Nate Wieting (5), Peter Pekar (1).
Fullback: Drake Kulick (17), Brady Ross (9), Fant (1).
Running back: Akrum Wadley (52), Toren Young (14), Ivory Kelly-Martin (1).
Easley was the first wide receiver in two games to lead the Hawkeyes in receptions and had seven for 59 yards as well as this nice little touchdown.
Stanley stares down Wadley and then rips one across the middle of the field to Easley. That’s a nice play. A real nice play.
Easley did have a couple drops, but once again provided a nice safety net for Stanley to look to. He’s obviously been a great player so far this year for the Hawkeyes and they need him to come through during the rest of conference play.
Matt VandeBerg had a nice game as well. He only had two catches, but this one was pretty nice, no?
Quick play action and Stanley easily finds MVB streaking across the middle.
This came after the aforementioned Illinois field goal and put the game out of reach. Iowa didn’t really call much in the way of deep passing in this game, but Stanley did find quite a bit of room in the intermediate distance.
Fant and Hockenson both made some nice grabs and finished 3-78 and 2-48, respectively. Fant led the Hawkeyes in receiving yardage, with most of it coming on this nice 41-yard catch and run.
A little bit of a mesh concept? Why yes, thank you. Fant finds some space and Stanley gets him near the end of the route.
Fant continues to grow as a player and while Hockenson has been taking more snaps as of late (though there are plenty of times where both players are on the field) I really do believe the Hawkeyes have found a pair of great tight ends.
Getting the tight ends involved in any way possible is a huge boon for this squad and I thought Brian Ferentz did a nice job of that in this game.
This is a formation Iowa nearly always runs out of. Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the lone wide receiver (side note: Iowa ran a single wide out set 10 times in this game, ISM was receiver for nine of those) and Hockenson sneaks out and finds some space on third down.
Two plays later, VandeBerg found the end zone.
Not everything was perfect and Stanley did throw his second pick of the season on a, uh, questionable at best throw.
Throwing into triple coverage? Not ideal. It didn’t end up costing the Hawkeyes much but still, triple coverage?
In the running game Iowa finally managed to split Wadley’s carries up a bit and Toren Young ran well in his couple of attempts. He’s a tough ball carrier and I hope that even when (if?) James Butler gets back on the field Iowa can find some room to get Young the ball.
Wadley had a nice bounce-back game and had 23 totes for 115 yards and a nice little touchdown toward the end of the game. He also caught a two-yard pass to give Iowa the lead before the half.
Some well-designed misdirection, a nice block from Fant and Wadley’s speed gets Iowa six points. This was Wadley’s longest run of the day, but he was able to give the Hawkeyes a needed boost.
In the grand scheme of things it’s hard to put a whole lot of stock into this game. Illinois is a young and not very good football team. Iowa was playing at home and for what it’s worth, it was homecoming.
Is this a renaissance of the Hawkeye offense? I don’t think so. It was a nice game, to be sure, but there’s still a long ways to go. Illinois was firmly in this game until the fourth quarter and that doesn’t exactly inspire a whole lot of confidence.
With that in mind, it’s still a win — one Iowa needed badly. The bye week will hopefully give the team a chance to add a few more wrinkles to the playbook and get everyone a bit healthier.
There’s still a lot of football left and sitting at 4-2, there’s still plenty to play for.