Each week I’ll rewatch the previous game and try to figure out what went right — and wrong — in the weekend’s game. Catch all the previous rewatches right here.
Just when we all thought Iowa’s passing offense had disappeared into a dark abyss, Northern Iowa rolls into Kinnick and Nate Stanley throws for 300 yards in a 38-14 Hawkeye win.
As it turns out, they might have just entered the cave, realized that this was not the way to go and quietly left. Maybe they’ll go exploring in there again, but for now, at least, the Hawkeyes look like they just might have figured some things out.
Iowa ran a number of funky plays, went at a faster pace (they had 81 offensive plays, which is the most they’ve ran since the offense had 86 snaps last year against North Texas) and generally looked good against an inferior foe.
The defense was solid too and we’ll get to that, but let’s start with the offensive side of the ball.
Offensive snap counts
Wide receiver: Brandon Smith (46), Nick Easley (43), Max Cooper (32), Kyle Groeneweg (21), Nico Ragini (12), Tyrone Tracy (11)
Tight end: TJ Hockenson (53), Noah Fant (32), Nate Wieting (24), Shaun Beyer (11), Tommy Kujawa (4)
Running back: Mekhai Sargent (36), Toren Young (30)
Fullback: Brady Ross (24), Austin Kelly (6)
— RG Levi Paulsen, one, -15 yards total (illegal block); TE Shaun Beyer, one, -10 yards total (holding); Tristan Wirfs, one, -5 yards total (false start); Team, one, -5 total yards (delay of game)
Offensive personnel packages
— 81 total plays: 2WR/2TE/RB (25); 3WR/TE/RB (21); 2WR/TE/FB/RB (17); 1WR/2TE/FB/RB (13); 1WR/3TE/RB (4); 2WR/TE/2RB (1)
With Ihmir Smith-Marsette missing the game, a bunch of receivers that haven’t seen a whole lot of time this season got plenty of snaps. Max Cooper and Kyle Groeneweg were very involved in the offense and Stanley didn’t hesitate to look for them. Both have seen time this season, but those were both the largest snap counts of their Hawkeye careers.
Interestingly enough, while Nico Ragini got most of his snaps during garbage time, he was actually on the field for two plays early in the game. That would make him Iowa’s fifth receiver, I suppose.
Outside of those notes, everything was fairly normal, though Nate Wieting continues to see his usage rise. His 24 match his season-high from the NIU game.
Most importantly for Iowa’s offense, however, Nick Easley finally looks healthy. He was on the field for a huge amount of snaps and made the most of it with 10 catches on 11 targets for 103 yards and a touchdown, as well as one rush for nine yards.
It’s the first time in five games that a receiver has led the Hawkeyes in receiving. His longest play was for 24 yards, but his best catch was a touchdown in the third quarter.
Easley (No. 84) runs a short corner route to the left side of the end zone, gets separation from the Northern Iowa defender and catches a well-thrown ball by Stanley. Kudos all around.
Stanley has plenty of time to throw here and while the game was basically already over, this pretty much sealed it.
This was standard, but some of the other things Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz did with the Iowa Western product were a little different. Certainly not new, but different from what we’ve seen so far this season.
Take, for example, this screen pass and pay attention to the play design, because it’s about to come up again.
This is fairly standard as far as screen passes go, though Stanley did put Easley in motion, which is something I like a lot.
The formation is a two wide receiver, one tight end (Hockenson) and fullback as well as Mekhi Sargent in at tailback. The Northern Iowa defensive back (No. 23, AJ Allen) hits the edge hard, but by the time he gets to Stanley, the ball is already out of the junior QB’s hand.
Already, the Panthers are at a disadvantage as their linebackers are out of position and Easley has a clear path upfield. Credit to Brandon Smith here, he gets out in front and puts a nice block on the cornerback. Smith is, at least in my opinion, an excellent blocker and that’s exactly why he’s been on the field an average of 43 snaps per game, which leads all of Iowa’s wideouts by a significant margin.
This was well executed and gets Iowa out of its own red zone. My favorite thing about this play, however, is what it sets up on the very next play.
Similar formation, similar motion (though, if you’ll notice, Groeneweg, No. 14, doesn’t get as close to Smith) and a similar result.
Groeneweg gets 11 yards on the carry and all of the sudden Iowa’s putting together a very nice drive that started at the Hawkeyes eight-yard line. That’s 23 yards in two plays, which is some production I’m very happy with.
Now, is this a bit of gamesmanship from Iowa? Quite possibly. Wisconsin (who I haven’t had much of a chance to watch this year) has apparently struggled a bit with jet sweeps and motion, which is a little ironic.
Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s showing Iowa can threaten them with this. Sweep plays like this usually go to Smith-Marsette, but obviously with him out other players are getting the chance. I don’t know what this all means, but I like that it’s working.
Now, let’s go back to Easley for a second. Check out this swing pass in the second quarter.
Stanley puts Easley in motion, who is extremely briefly set in almost a slot-back role, and then fakes a handoff to Toren Young. Stanley rolls and then hits Easley for a 12-yard gain.
Good stuff. I’m sure Iowa’s ran plays like this before, but this is the first time I recall seeing it this season. Again, it’s extremely important Easley is healthy. He’s a dynamic player and has the quickness to test just about anyone.
Also, this wasn’t the only time Iowa ran something akin to a swing pass. Later in the game, one went to Sargent for a massive gain.
This is out of a two running back, three wideout formation (Fant is wideout here, though, obviously, he’s a tight end), which Iowa also used one other time this season — last week against Iowa State.
The snap is low, but Stanley gets the play off. The blocking downfield is excellent and Sargent runs the ball well. It eventually led to this 15-yard Toren Young touchdown run:
For starters, UNI defensive lineman Elerson Smith (No. 47) overpurses a bit here, though he’s probably getting smacked by fullback Brady Ross regardless.
Young sneaks past him, Fant holds his block long enough for the young running back to get to the edge. From there, it’s some excellent balance to bury himself in the end zone. Also, TJ Hockenson might have gotten away with a hold here, but that’s neither here nor there.
It wasn’t the only time the running backs would shine, as Sargent scored twice against the Panthers. His second, which was from 10-yards out, put the Hawkeyes up 21-0 in the second quarter.
The entire left side of the lines gets excellent blocks and Ross cleans up the rest. Sargent runs nearly untouched into the end zone and everything is going for the Hawkeyes at this point.
This was the end of a really, really nice drive where Iowa ran 14-plays for 67 yards and converted two (!!!) fourth downs. Speaking of which, the Hawkeyes have converted four fourth downs this season, which is tied for 20th in the country. They’ve attempted six total this year so far.
One of those against UNI was from Brady Ross, who basically rolled his way over both the offensive and defensive lines.
An interesting note on Brady Ross: he has six touches this season (four rushing attempts, two receptions) for 26 total yards. That’s the most touches an Iowa fullback has had since Macon Plewa had nine total touches (seven receptions, two rushing attempts) in 2014.
I’m not saying that Ross is becoming a major part of the offense.... but he does have five total first downs this season. He’s 2-2 picking one up on third this season rushing, 1-1 on picking one up one rushing on fourth down (above) and 1-1 on picking one up on third down receiving.
Those three third-down conversions are more than anyone on the team — sans Nate Stanley — has had this season. If you include the fourth down conversion, then he’s tied with Fant with four total third- or fourth-down for the most on the team.
Anyways, speaking of Fant, he had himself a game. He finished with five catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. The score was his 14th, which is now the most in Iowa history by a tight end.
Stanley puts him in motion and from there, it’s just playing catch as Fant easily crosses the goal line.
The touchdown was setup by a beauty of a 43-yard catch from Fant.
He gets in motion, gets loose, and Stanley places the ball right where it needs to be.
Are Stanley’s days of overthrowing Fant over? Are Fant’s days of dropping the ball over? I mean who knows, but Saturday was the best the junior tight end has looked all year.
While Fant was solid, not everything was perfect. Stanley’s protection was sometimes a little iffy and he was sacked three times and hurried another two.
He also threw this interception:
That’s... that’s not a ball he should be throwing. The protection was bad (there’s just a whole slew of things going wrong at the center of the line on this play) and he threw it late, across the middle.
It probably cost Iowa some points, though the Hawkeyes would get the ball back on the next play via interception.
Moving on, Dalton Ferguson was okay in starting for the injured Cole Banwart, though he did make some mistakes.
Elsewhere, Ross Reynolds got his ass kicked on one of Stanley’s sacks. It wasn’t pretty.
I mean what else is there to say? He got beat one-on-one and Stanley paid the price. It wasn’t Alaric Jackson’s best play either, but the sack is on Reynolds.
Oh, and Levi Paulsen got knocked for an illegal block. It’s his first penalty of the season and third game in a row in which the Hawkeyes have been tagged for this exact same infraction. Reynolds has the other two.
Was it called for? I’m not anywhere close to a rules expert, but it didn’t look like Paulsen (No. 66) was past five yards or out of the tackle box. Here’s an interpretation of the rule and here’s the play itself:
Someone’s probably going to ask about this during today’s presser, so keep a lookout for that. UPDATE: He did, and here’s a piece from Marc Morehouse that includes a reaction from Paulsen.
Ferentz has certainly given his thoughts on the rule earlier this season:
Ferentz says he will call the league about low-block penalty. "It's the dumbest rule in football," he says. Has a very long answer on this question.— MarkEmmert (@MarkEmmert) September 4, 2018
Lastly before we move to defense, there was one more play I really liked. Sargent didn’t get this in for a touchdown, but this fake FB dive, running back flip play was pretty cool.
Stuff like this is set up because Ross has been so good in short-yardage situations.
Overall, Iowa did exactly what it needed to do on offense to get a win over Northern Iowa. They did some interesting, different things and hopefully we’ll continue to see a bit more creativity during the Wisconsin game.
Defensive line snap counts
Defensive ends: AJ Epenesa (46), Chauncey Golston (34), Anthony Nelson (21), Parker Hesse (9), Brandon Simon (4), Mark Kallenberger (4)
Defensive tackles: Cedrick Lattimore (30), Brady Reiff (25), Matt Nelson (24), Sam Brincks (16), Parker Hesse (6), Chauncey Golston (5), Garret Jansen (4)
— LB Jack Hockaday, one, -15 yards total (personal foul); Jake Gervase, one, -10 yards total (pass interference)
So for all of us who wanted, one day, to see AJ Epenesa lead Iowa in defensive line snaps... well, that day was last Saturday. Iowa built its lead early and really let Chauncey Golston and Epenesa set the tone at defensive end.
Epenesa got his fourth sack of the season and he’s currently tied for third in the nation in the stat.
Give Golston some credit here, he drives Northern Iowa quarterback Colton Howell straight to Epenesa.
An interesting tidbit from Newton Daily News reporter Troy Hyde — when Iowa gets to 30 sacks under Ferentz, they’ve always won 10 games. They’re currently at 12.
Stopping drives has been something the Hawkeyes have been very good at this year and Northern Iowa was no exception. Iowa caused two turnovers: an interception and a forced fumble.
Neither play was particularly impressive, but Michael Ojemudia’s return certainly was.
This was a horrendously overthrow ball from Howell and it’s an easy play for the cornerback to make.
It came just one play after Stanley threw an interception of his own and helped Iowa go into halftime protecting it’s ultimately doomed shutout bid.
The Hawkeyes other turnover came via a Jake Gervase forced fumble:
The ball is basically dropped by UNI’s Terrell Carey after Gervase hits him and Kristian Welch revoers it. Four plays later the Hawkeyes scored a touchdown.
Northern Iowa struggled to get anything going on offense throughout the evening, due in part to Iowa’s relentless drubbing of the Panthers’ running game. UNI rushed 21 times for a net total of six yards.
Panther running back Trevor Allen was limited to 27 yards on 13 carries, while no other UNI player rushed for more than five yards. Defensively, the Hawkeyes were able to completely dominate the athletically outmatched Panther defensive linemen in the trenches and the UNI backs paid the price.
There just wasn’t any running room for them throughout the day.
There’s five Hawkeyes through the line almost as soon as the Panthers snap the ball. There’s not much you can do against this front in that situation and UNI wasn’t able to find ways to get its playmakers the ball.
Northern Iowa did score one touchdown against a group of mostly starters and 14 points for the game. In all, that puts the three game total of points scored against the defensive starters at 10.
The lone touchdown allowed by the starters was just a mismatch. Briley Moore is a lot bigger than Michael Ojemudia:
Djimon Colbert was in at linebacker on the series that led to this touchdown, while Golston, Epenesa, Lattimore and Reiff were in for the majority of snaps on defensive line.
As the Panthers got closer to the end zone and the shutout was threatened, Brincks and Matt Nelson were put in, as was Anthony Nelson. There were also a bunch of weird penalties on this drive, especially near the goal line.
It was kind of a mess, but meant the end of the day for the majority of the starters. To me that’s more than alright, save it for Wisconsin.
In all, the Iowa looked pretty good against Northern Iowa.
There, of course, is always the caveat that the Panthers are just a FCS team. They’ve been an above-average program, but they’re still a step below. That’s true, of course, but this felt like the type of game the Hawkeyes needed.
FCS or not, the offense came to play and the defense took a shutout well into the fourth quarter. The passing game really needed to make something happen and against UNI, which it did.
Now whether the offensive uptick is a season-long thing or Iowa just looked good in this game remains to be seen. But heading into a massive rivalry game with season-long implications, I’d certainly rather my team enter with some confidence.
Because on Saturday night against the Badgers, they’re going to need it.