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A field goal won it, but there’s a whole lot more to talk about

Nebraska v Iowa
And to think we get two more years of Mekhi...
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Each week we’ll take a look at what went right — and wrong — for the Hawkeyes on Saturday (well, Friday this week). Catch all the previous rewatches right here.

For the majority of three quarters against Nebraska, Iowa was clearly the better of the two football teams.

The Hawkeye offensive line pushed the Blackshirts around like rag dolls, the defense managed to respond after giving up an early drive and Iowa was cruising. There’s a couple things that happened late in the third quarter to change this game — and we’ll get to that — but in rewatch it almost surprised me how close this was to being quite a bit more lopsided.

All season this team has given us glimpses of just how good they can be if they put everything together. A quick three-and-out. Nate Stanley and crew get on the field. Iowa rips off a couple 5- to 6-yard runs. They hit a couple passes. Then all of the sudden, boom, touchdown.

But by the same flip of the coin, the offense can go three-and-out itself and the defense might not get the stop it needs. Against Nebraska, the Hawkeyes had just enough offensively to stave off the Cornhusker comeback.

It’s just been inconsistent beyond all comprehension and I think that’s the story of this season. Maddening.

Anyways, a quick note before we head into the offense... I’d really like to thank everyone that reads this piece each week. Of the stuff I write here this is easily my favorite weekly piece and it’s been a fun two seasons so far.

Offensive snap counts

Wide receiver: Brandon Smith (50), Nick Easley (40), Kyle Groeneweg (19), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (17).

Tight end: T.J. Hockenson (71), Noah Fant (60), Drew Cook (3).

Running back: Mekhi Sargent (47), Toren Young (25), Ivory Kelly-Martin (2).

Fullback: Austin Kelly (28).

Offensive penalties

Noah Fant, one, -0 yards total (unsportsmanlike conduct — was offsetting).

Personnel packages

— 73 total offensive plays: 2WR/2TE/RB (35); 1WR/2TE/FB/RB (18), 2WR/TE/RB/FB (10); 3WR/TE/RB (4); 1WR/3TE/RB (3); 2WR/1TE/2RB (2); Fake FG (1).

Mekhi Sargent got the bulk of the work at running back this week and was tremendously effective when he was on the field. Iowa used Toren Young to spell him and only played Kelly-Martin on the two plays that had two running backs on the field.

Iowa kept its receiver rotations short and this week again saw Brandon Smith get heavy snaps. Kyle Groeneweg continues to grab nearly all the single-wideout snaps, though Ihmir Smith-Marsette did see a handful in that package.

As it has been much of this season, T.J. Hockenson played just about every offensive snap. Noah Fant’s 60 snaps is also a season (and I believe career) high.

The pair of standout tight ends combined to catch six balls for 66 yards, with Hockenson making five of those receptions. His first was the longest pass play Nate Stanley and the Hawkeyes had all day.

First drive of the game, first third down of the game and Iowa comes up with this. Watch Hockenson’s feet as the ball is snapped. When he lines up split out, his left foot is forward (its his normal stance) with his right behind. On the snap, he hops, takes a light jab step to the right and then sprints inside off his left foot, which was planted when he came down.

It’s just enough to throw off defensive back Tre Neal (#14) and Hockenson has more than enough room to make the catch off the pretty little route over the middle.

The other interesting thing about this play is the simple fact that both Fant and Hockenson are split out in the way they are. Splitting both tight ends (or just one) is something the Hawkeyes have done all year, but in this game it felt even more pronounced.

Fant was standing for 20 snaps while Hockenson was up for 10. I’ve only recently started to keep track of how much Iowa uses the pair stood up, but I’m fairly sure this was a season high for total snaps with a stand-up tight end.

It worked well, too.

This was the fourth-down pass late in the game that eventually led to the winning field goal.

The lead-up to this was interesting in and of itself. Nebraska took a timeout to save clock and Iowa came out and tried to draw the Cornhuskers offsides. The Hawkeyes then took a timeout as the play clock winds down before coming back out to try the fourth down.

Noah Fant isn’t on the field here and instead Iowa’s using Sargent and Kelly-Martin as dual running backs. This is a max-protection play and as the Hawkeyes thought, Nebraska brings a whole bunch of pressure.

While Kelly-Martin does sneak out at the tail end of the play, Iowa has more than enough bodies to pick up the blitz. Sargent makes an excellent block (you could make a whole highlight film out of his pass protection blocks this season) and Stanley has more than enough time to throw the ball.

Stanley wasn’t sacked this game and only hurried twice. He didn’t throw an interception and finished 16-of-27 for 152 yards in an overall well-played game by the Iowa signal caller.

He did miss on a couple balls, but found Brandon Smith twice (once for a touchdown) on a pair of dimes. My favorite was this 20-yard catch:

Again, another third-down where Iowa needs to make a play. Smith goes up and gets the ball on the fade route and gets a critical third-down conversion.

It’s fairly good defense too. Just great hands by Smith.

Here’s his touchdown:

Another fade route, another completion. It’s been fun to see Stanley hit Smith on these type of plays more and more often this season.

Also, check out how much attention Fant is getting. The tight end only had one catch for 12 yards (it was out of a set with him standing up, fun fact) but the tight coverage he’s getting was an overall benefit. This gave Easley some stuff to work with underneath and led to single coverage on a lot of other players throughout the game.

Iowa’s relatively versatile passing attack had another benefit too: Nebraska couldn’t load up the box every play. And that led to 266 total rushing yards.

Mekhi Sargent had 173 of those, while Toren Young added on another 83. The Cornhuskers couldn’t stop them, no matter what they tried to do. Iowa owned the line of scrimmage from the beginning of the game and pushed the Cornhusker defense around.

My favorite of Sargent’s runs was this 16-yarder late in the fourth quarter.

For starters, Nebraska calls a blitz here and gets a player through. The defender, however, overpursues and he’s behind the play, which allows Sargent to get through the line. From there, Sargent keeps his legs churning and pushes forward for a 16-yard gain.

This was tough, in-your-face type running. Young was the same way.

Iowa’s in its 21 personnel here (2WR/1TE/1RB/1FB) with Hockenson as the tight end and Smith-Marsette/Smith as the wideouts.

It’s a play to the short side of the field, but Young sees the middle of the field open up and takes the cutback lane. He’s not touched until he’s nine yards down the field and pushes forward for another 10 more.

This is a gorgeous run from Young and I was happy to see both running backs come alive in this game. While they did rip off a couple big runs, most of the game went like this:

It’s a simple zone run, but because of a strong first push from the offensive line and solid vision from Sargent, it turns into a nice six-yard gain.

This game was what I expected the Iowa rushing offense to look all season and it finally materialized.

Sargent was also solid once again in the passing game, hauling in three catches. His third catch went for a touchdown and was one of my favorite play designs of the day.

Pre-snap we have Fant on the bottom of the screen in single coverage, Hockenson on the line, Nick Easley in the slot and Brandon Smith on the top.

As soon as the ball is snapped Hockenson immediately gets jammed by the defender. Fant disappears into the back of the end zone while Easley and Smith take their defenders out of the play to the top of the screen.

Sargent corrals the pass and easily gets into the end zone to make it a two-possession game. Just a great play call from Brian Ferentz, who I think had one of his better days as offensive coordinator.

With that in mind, however, we’ll go to one more offensive play. Outside of Hockenson’s fourth-down catch, it was probably the most significant of the game.

Setting the scene for a second, Iowa’s driving following Sargent’s score in the clip you just watched. After forcing a three-and-out the Hawkeyes marched down the field and have a first-and-10 at the Nebraska 11. Two runs leave Iowa with a third-and-two at the Nebraska three-yard line.

I think this was designed for Hockenson or Fant, both of whom are covered tightly. Sargent is in pass protection and Drew Cook isn’t open, which leaves just Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He can’t come up with a catch that would have been short of the first down and Iowa fakes a field goal on the next play.

This play, in fact:

Nebraska was smelling this the entire time and had obviously planned for it.

I honestly don’t mind going for the touchdown, but I would have rather had the offense on the field in this situation. To this point Nebraska had forced Iowa to punt just once and hadn’t really shown much of anything on defense.

Then, out of absolutely nowhere, they get stops on three consecutive plays inside their own five-yard line. Instead of Iowa going up 35-13 or 31-13 and putting the game pretty far out of reach, the Cornhuskers get momentum and march down the field to get back within one possession.

My only point here, I guess, is that if the Hawkeyes score on the drive to hit the 30-point mark with a little four minutes left in the third quarter, they very likely win by double digits.

Defensive snap counts

Defensive line: Anthony Nelson (52), Parker Hesse (52), Matt Nelson (38), Sam Brincks (38), A.J. Epenesa (33), Chauncey Golston (33), Cedrick Lattimore (19), Brady Reiff (19).

Linebacker: Jack Hockaday (71), Djimon Colbert (46), Nick Niemann (31).

Defensive back: Amani Hooker (71), Matt Hankins (71), Jake Gervase (71), Geno Stone (65), Michael Ojemudia (59), Riley Moss (12).

Defensive/Special teams penalties

Amani Hooker, one, -10 yards total (personal foul); Riley Moss, one, -5 yards total (offsides).

Defensively Iowa was truly a mixed bag against Nebraska. The Hawkeyes are about as healthy as they’ve been this season at both defensive back and linebacker, which is reflected in the snap counts.

Hockaday struggled at points throughout the day and i’m not sure he’s the ultimate answer at middle linebacker. It was certainly nice to see Nick Niemann back in the lineup and I thought he was fine, if unspectacular.

The secondary had a few touch-and-go moments in pass coverage, but most of the damage Nebraska was able to do didn’t come on deep routes. The Cornhuskers exploited matchups with the Hawkeye linebackers throughout the game and is a major reason they were able to hang around.

It helps to have a player like Adrian Martinez. The freshman quarterback had 260 yards passing and added another 76 on the ground, scoring three total touchdowns. His scrambling ability was beyond impressive to watch and I thought his best play was the two-point conversion to tie the game late.

Iowa managed to bust this play by covering up Stanley Morgan Jr., who is put in motion and runs a flat route to the short side of the field.

Martinez quickly realizes he’s in trouble, as do the other receivers. Flying back to the other side of the field with Anthony Nelson on his tail, he throws a dart across his body to Kade Warner.

It was not the only time he made the Iowa defense look silly.

I think Nebraska was looking to take a deep shot down the field here. Martinez flows to the wide side of the field and the Hawkeye defense follows suit. Chauncey Golston gets taken way outside the play and loses any sort of contain, allowing a massive hole to open up.

The Nebraska quarterback gets into the open and the only player anywhere near him is Colbert, who doesn’t have much of a pursuit angle.

I knew Martinez was good, but I didn’t know he was this good. Iowa’s had a bit of luck bottling up dual-threat quarterbacks this season but this was not the case against the Cornhuskers.

For as explosive as Stanley Morgan is, it was running back Maurice Washington who led the team in receiving yardage. This, of course, goes back to Nebraska finding the matchups it wanted and taking advantage of them.

All Martinez had to do was make throws.

This was Washington’s second touchdown. His first came on a swing pass, where this one was a true wheel route.

Nebraska gets the coverage it wants — Colbert on Washington — and Martinez pulls the trigger. The pass is exactly where it needs to be and the freshman back is untouched as he crosses the goal line.

Martinez hit 26 of his 38 throws and was pretty efficient throughout the day. He certainly wasn’t perfect, however, and Iowa was able to force a couple bad throws.

Anthony Nelson is coming at him hard here, but Martinez does have enough time to get the ball out of his hand. That throw, however, is straight into double coverage and Ojemudia grabs his third interception of the season.

Iowa didn’t score on its next possession (Miguel Recinos missed a field goal) but it very likely saved them from Nebraska scoring.

This interception wasn’t the only thing to go wrong for the Cornhuskers on the day. While Martinez and Nebraska looked pretty good late in the game, the first three quarters were more struggle than not.

After scoring a touchdown on its first offensive drive, Nebraska was held to a punt or a field goal attempt on its next five possessions. The Iowa defensive line was able to break through several times during that stretch and ended with three sacks.

This one from A.J. Epenesa was particularly monstrous:

Sophomore offensive tackle Brenden Jaimes (#76) doesn’t get any help on Epenesa and the defensive end gets a free shot on Martinez.

Epenesa’s technique is phenomenal here and his speed just helps seal the deal. What an absurdly fantastic player.

It’ll be fun to see what he can do next season with even more snaps. But before that, however, the 8-4 Hawkeyes have a bowl game to play and a chance to put a nice cap on an oft-frustrating season.