Each week we’ll take a look at what went right — and wrong — for the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Catch all the previous rewatches right here.
So after a bit of hiatus, this series is back. At some point I plan on circling back to the Wisconsin game, though what form that takes is yet to be determined.
Against Minnesota, the Hawkeyes did a lot of the things they’ve done well so far this year. For the third-straight contest, Iowa’s passing game looked well above average and Nate Stanley, along with his wide receivers, made some very nice plays.
The relative emergence of Brandon Smith has been nice to see and it continues to look like Nick Easley is healthy. Iowa’s tight ends were fine as always and Ihmir-Smith Marsette had the Hawkeyes’ longest play from scrimmage this year.
The Minnesota defense was pretty bad, but still — executing against a bad team is still executing.
On the other side of the field, Iowa’s defense looked solid, especially starting two true freshman and having a rash of injuries at linebacker. There were both good and bad moments there, but Iowa did spot Minnesota 14 points with two turnovers deep in Hawkeye territory. That’s bearable when your offense is putting up great numbers, but this game looked closer than it was or should have been.
We’ll start with the offense today.
Offensive snap counts
Wide receiver: Brandon Smith (52), Nick Easley (45), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (34), Max Cooper (12), Kyle Groeneweg (9).
Tight end: TJ Hockenson (63), Noah Fant (47), Nate Wieting (14).
Running back: Ivory Kelly-Martin (41), Mekhi Sargent (23), Toren Young (14).
Fullback: Brady Ross (27).
— WR Brandon Smith, one, -10 yards total (holding)
— 79 total plays: 2WR/2TE/RB (25); 3WR/TE/RB (23); 1WR/2TE/FB/RB (18); 2WR/TE/FB/RB (7); 1WR/3TE/RB (2), 3TE/FB/RB (2); 4WR/RB (1); Fake field goal thing (1).
Nothing really jumps too far off the page in regards to snap counts and packages. While TJ Hockenson’s snaps were certainly high, that’s how it’s been all year. Hockenson is the best blocking tight end Iowa has so he’s going to see the field the most.
While I do understand the Fant family’s ire in regards to how much he’s playing, I do believe it’s a non-story. Iowa uses Fant a ton and often times with Hockenson on the field. That’s just how it is and I don’t think him getting an extra 10 snaps a game is going to make all that much difference.
It’s honestly a good thing Iowa’s passing offense can use more than its tight ends anyway. And right now, the Hawkeye passing offense has things rolling. Nate Stanley completed 23-of-39 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns against a single interception.
My favorite play of the day was one of those touchdowns, a 60-yard strike to Ihmir Smith-Marsette out of one helluva scramble situation.
Credit to several players here, starting with Mekhi Sargent. The sophomore back has become Iowa’s third-down RB due to plays just like this. He’s strong and willing to pass block, a major tenet of the Iowa offense.
Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman (No. 36) comes untouched straight up the middle and Sargent gets just enough of a chip block to buy Stanley a valuable second. The junior quarterback doesn’t lose his head, steps up in the pocket, and delivers a strike to Smith-Marsette.
Credit to the receiver here as well for getting open and being in a good position. Once the ball is in his hands, the rest is history. Marsette has some serious wheels. Also, this play came on third down, a place where Iowa was excellent on Saturday — they converted 10-of-19 third downs.
In any case, the long touchdown put Iowa up 14-0 in the first quarter and the Gophers were only able to cut the lead to seven the rest of the game. Giving your defense a 14 point lead that early certainly makes things easier.
Here’s Iowa’s first touchdown, a pass to TJ Hockenson:
I like this play and this formation a lot. Iowa’s getting a little creative and is in shotgun at the three-yard line, with Noah Fant (No. 87) and Nick Easley (84) in a tight trips bunch formation.
Watch Easley on this play. He cuts inside and helps clear a little bit of space for Hockenson. Minnesota actually has numbers in this situation, but Easley uses his body to basically cut off two of the defenders and give Stanley one-on-one coverage with Hockenson.
Hockenson is going to win a lot of those battles and certainly wins this one. Easley would get his, finishing with a team-high six catches. One of those went for a touchdown late in the second quarter, the play following a 25-yard catch-and-run from Ivory Kelly-Martin.
Iowa’s five-wide here, which they did four times during the day. On this particular play, the Hawkeyes are running with three wide receivers (Brandon Smith/Nick Easley/Kyle Groeneweg), one tight end (Hockenson) and one running back (at the bottom of the screen, it’s Kelly-Martin).
Of the four times Iowa went five wide, three of them were with three wide receivers while the other play was with two receivers and two tight ends. They all had one running back split.
Stanley is also obviously out of a shotgun, which Iowa utilized on 31-of-79 offensive snaps.
Anyways, back to the play itself, Easley gets into the middle of the field and Stanley finds him for a relatively easy touchdown. It’s something of a mismatch, as Easley is being covered by Sentman at the end of the play and it works.
There were a couple of other pass plays I really liked, especially this first-down pass to Brandon Smith.
There’s only three players with a real route here — Hockenson (who is more of a decoy than anything), Nick Easley (underneath) and Brandon Smith (just past the sticks).
It’s a rollout, with Noah Fant staying home to block and Sargent in something of a flat route that’s basically just giving Stanley a bit more protection. But Stanley has a decision to make here and he’s got to make it quick — take the easy (ish) five yards with Easley, or throw a pass into a little bit tighter coverage.
He chooses Smith, who I think this play was designed to go to, and gets a first down. This was the fourth play of the drive and the next is an 11-yard rush to Sargent. Getting these type of first-down passing plays to work is great and all off the sudden this has turned into a real drive, one that eventually leads to a touchdown.
Just good stuff. There’s also one last pass play I really liked — the ultimate backbreaker for Minnesota, a 30-yard third-down toss to Hockenson.
The play design, to put it simply, is gorgeous. Iowa’s in a single receiver set (Max Cooper) along with two tight ends (Hockenson, Nate Wieting), fullback Brady Ross and running back Mekhi Sargent.
Watch Hockenson. He starts off the play blocking, before releasing to the wide side of the field. There’s hardly a defender within five yards of Hockenson when he makes the catch.
While Iowa was likely going to win regardless, this really was a game-ending play. Iowa scores a touchdown two plays later and it’s a three-possession game with under three minutes left.
That score was a Sargent two-yard touchdown run.
If you look real closely, you’ll see a certain No. 18 on the left side of the line. That’s none other than junior Drew Cook, son of legendary tight end Marv Cook. Chills, man. I’d also like to note that the fourth tight end spot, up until this game, at least, has belonged to Shaun Beyer. Perhaps that’s changed?
It’s interesting, anyways. But moving on, Iowa’s running game wasn’t particularly great throughout the day. After a strong start to the year, they’ve struggled a bit and the longest rushing play of the day was this one:
Nothing really fancy about it, just a zone run play to the opposite side of the field. The Hawkeyes execute their blocks well and Kelly-Martin finds the hole. Iowa finished with a pedestrian 106 yards on 40 totes, which averages out to 2.7 yards per carry.
Not good at all, really. Is it time to start worrying a bit about the running game? I’m not sure, but it was certainly strange to see Toren Young have exactly one snap before halftime.
Though looping back to that run for a second, it was important. It came one play after Ihmir Smith-Marsette did this, completely flipping field position after Minnesota tightened up the game to seven points.
Minnesota had some momentum and with over seven minutes left in the third quarter, were absolutely in a position to make this a close game. A kick return and a nice run later, however, and Iowa has the ball on the Minnesota 36.
The Hawkeyes end up scoring on this drive and the Gophers never get any closer. It’s rather incredible how two plays can completely change the dynamic of a game, especially if you’re a team like Iowa that relies so much on field position and the special teams plays that give them that.
Speaking of field position, though, Iowa did spot Minnesota points twice, both off of Stanley turnovers. The first, right before halftime, was an interception, his fourth of the year.
I’m honestly not sure what he was trying to do here. It’s just a ball that never should have been thrown. This is one of those plays where you’re out of the pocket and should just get the ball out of bounds and live for another day.
Iowa’s other turnover was this fumble:
Alaric Jackson (77) did not have his best day and was responsible for this fumble. He simply gets his ass kicked.
Like last year, Stanley’s already had a couple of fumbles this year, which remains a knock on him. Hard to blame him on this play, though.
Let’s move on to the defense.
Defensive line snap counts
Defensive end: Anthony Nelson (60), Parker Hesse (45), AJ Epenesa (25), Chauncey Golston (10).
Defensive tackle: Matt Nelson (41), Sam Brincks (37), Cedrick Lattimore (18), Chauncey Golston (12), Brady Reiff (4).
— Riley Moss, one, -15 yards (pass interference); Julius Brents, one, -10 yards total (holding); (AJ Epenesa, one -5 yards total (a bullshit offsides call); Team, one, -5 yards total (substitution infraction).
Throwing new starters in during the middle of the season is never easy and it’s made even more difficult when they’re freshman, on the road, in a rivalry game. But, credit to Riley Moss and Julius Brents — they persevered.
Early on in the game Moss, especially, was being targeted by the Gophers and they were having some success in doing so. Late in the first quarter Moss gave up this 34-yard pass.
In all fairness, it wasn’t even that bad of play by Moss, the receiver just gets a jump on him and the young cornerback doesn’t react quick enough.
Several plays later, Minnesota again goes back at him, getting a touchdown on a fade route in the end zone. Moss played better as the game went on, but in the early goings he was struggling a bit.
But he was hardly the only one.
Amani Hooker played a bit of outside linebacker in this game, giving a nickel look and kinda gets blown past here. That said, it’s hard to tell exactly what Geno Stone’s (No. 9, playing safety) responsibility is and if it’s his fault this turned into a 52-yard gain.
I didn’t keep snaps of Hooker not at safety (I should have) but it was at least four or five drives during this game. It will be interesting to see what the Hawkeyes do against Indiana next week, though it sounds like Kristian Welch will be getting the start at linebacker.
The secondary, however, certainly redeemed itself during this game. In fact they did on the very next play, as Riley Moss got his first career interception.
Minnesota gets the one-on-one coverage they want, but Gopher quarterback Zack Annexstad underthrows the ball. Moss is right where he needs to be to contest the pass and comes down with the interception.
Now, of course, Stanley gave it right back BUT this was still a really nice play with time winding down in the first half. It wouldn’t be Moss’ only pick, either.
Right position, right time. This is good defense and comes at another critical juncture in the game. Minnesota is still only down 14 points and there’s still 12 minutes left on the clock. THe Hawkeyes only got a field goal out of this, but it did make it a three-possession game.
The return here is nice as well. Moss picks his way through traffic to get the ball down near the end zone. For these two interceptions, Moss was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
In all honesty, it probably should have gone to Julius Brents, who I thought had a far more impressive game. Just look at this pass breakup.
This isn’t the best angle of the play, but Brents absolutely rips the ball out of Chris Autman-Bell’s hands. It’s a difficult thing to do and Brents plays this really well to help end the drive.
Brents ended the game with two pass breakups as well as an interception. While I’m sure he’ll get cooked at some point this season, this is a really interesting development as far as Iowa’s cornerbacks go.
Kirk Ferentz seemed lukewarm as to whether Matt Hankins or Michael Ojemudia will play this week. If they don’t, hopefully Brents continues to do things like this:
Another underthrown ball (though this one by Seth Green), another interception.
Good body placement by Brents, however, and he’s strong enough to not let the receiver rip the ball away. Indiana, of course, will be another big test, but the early results of Iowa’s young cornerbacks seem to be more positive than negative.
Though, it helps when your defensive line can do what they did against the Gophers. Iowa had five total sacks and four of them came from the defensive line. Three of them came from Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Anthony Nelson.
And man, oh man were they fun to watch.
Nelson absolutely demolishes Minnesota redshirt sophomore tackle Sam Schlueter and gets just enough of Annexstad to pull him down. This play ended Minnesota’s first drive of the game and sort of set the tone for how the other 59 minutes of this game would go.
Early in the third quarter, Nelson would strike again. They were back-to-back plays and he nearly single handedly ended a drive that started with two Minnesota plays going for a combined 27 yards.
Nelson with a swim move and Schlueter has no clue what’s going on. Yikes.
His last sack, though, might have actually been his most impressive.
The junior defensive end fights through the tight end, catches Schlueter looking (again) and brings down Annexstad. If I’m the Gopher quarterback, I’m not talking to the offensive line for a week.
Nelson did quiet down a bit after this, but still finished with five total tackles in an altogether impressive day. Whenever he decides to head to the NFL, he should certainly make sure scouts watch this game tape. He was dominant for good portions of this win.
Before I end this, there was one more play I liked a lot. It’s a tackle for loss from Amani Jones, who looked much, much better than he did in the first game of the season.
Minnesota had been having a bit of success late in the game using Seth Green in something of a wildcat formation. It’s a personnel group the Gophers have used before this year and while Iowa was ready for it, Minnesota did gain a couple yards.
Not here. Jones shows patience and gets in the backfield for a nice third-down stop. It’s a damn shame he got ejected for a questionable targeting call and will miss the first half against the Hoosiers.
I digress, I suppose, but it seems like he’s made a lot of progress over the past few weeks. With Iowa’s linebacker depth so thin, Jones playing well — or, at least, better — is certainly a good thing.
Next for Iowa comes another road game, this time at Indiana. The Hoosiers have burned the Hawkeyes more than once over the years and always seem to play Iowa well.
With a number of its starters injured, or, to use a football term ‘nicked up’, there’s going to be some pressure on some new guys to play well. Getting off to a fast start as they did against Minnesota will certainly make things a little easier.
Oh, I almost forgot. The Goofers tried to fake a punt. It didn’t work. Why? Because throwing deep down the side of the field with your punter (?) for an already low-percentage play is dumb.
Anyways, go Hawks and enjoy Minnesota being dumb.