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Northwestern v Iowa
Anthony Nelson is terrifying.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

For those of you returning to this series — thank you! For those new — welcome! This is a weekly analysis column where I’ll be breaking down a little film from Iowa’s previous game as well as keeping tabs on snap counts, penalties, and formations. It’s my favorite thing I write for this site and I do hope you enjoy this series’ second season. If you’d like to rehash any of the games from last year, those can be found here.

Down several players from the roster due to suspensions as well as breaking in a number of new starters, it isn’t exactly shocking Iowa struggled at times during their 33-7 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday.

As the game progressed, however, Iowa looked cleaner and had a strong second half, giving Kirk Ferentz his 144th win as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. In fact, that second half was about as quintessential Iowa football as you possibly can get: they ran the ball well, played excellent team defense, limited mistakes and won the field position battle with the help of special teams.

Upon rewatch, there really are quite a few positives to take from the season opener. Let’s dive in and we’ll start with the offense.

Snap counts:

Wide receiver: Brandon Smith (40), Ihmir Smith-Marsette (39), Nick Easley (17), Kyle Groeneweg (6), Max Cooper (1).

Tight end: T.J. Hockenson (51), Noah Fant (34), Nate Wieting (25), Shaun Beyer (3).

Running back: Ivory Kelly-Martin (31), Mekhi Sargent (19), Toren Young (14).

Fullback: Brady Ross (30), Austin Kelly (7).

Note: I did not include the final two ‘garbage time’ drives with Peyton Mansell running the show for snap counts. It was basically just a bunch of second- and -third string players.

Offensive penalties:

— TE Noah Fant, two, -15 yards total (illegal touching, holding); TE T.J. Hockenson, two, -20 yards total (holding x2); OG Ross Reynolds, one, -15 yards total (illegal block); OG Cole Banwart, one, -5 yards total (false start).

Adding up the snap counts, I was shocked at the disparity between how much Brandon Smith and Nick Easley saw the field. Smith was held without a catch and didn’t have much in the way of targets.

He did, however, spend a lot of time blocking. I was also a little surprised at the way Iowa used him. Granted he didn’t see a lot of playing time last year, but when he did it was nearly exclusively with another wide reciever on the field.

Against the Huskies, he was the lone wideout seven times. Now that’s not really a lot, but almost all of those single-receiver sets went to either Easley or Smith-Marsette last year. It’s a certainly a change in the rotation on offense and it’s curious Easley saw his snaps cut so much. Certainly something to keep an eye on.

Smith-Marsette did see the field quite a bit on Saturday. He was second on the team in receptions (3) and third in yards (28). Those really aren’t a lot, but Iowa also didn’t throw the ball very much at all.

Quarterback Nate Stanley finished 11-of-23 for 108 yards, a touchdown and an interception. It’s his third-lowest passing yardage output in a game that he’s started in his career. Again, Iowa really didn’t pass the ball much with its running game working so well.

When he did, Iowa had mixed results. We’ll start with the pick.

It’s a fade route to the corner and Stanley simply underthrows Smith. Give credit to Albert Smalls, the defensive back that comes down with the ball here. He judges it perfectly and doesn’t allow Smith to rip the ball away and force an incompletion.

The interception did, however, come at a rather inopportune time. Iowa had finally put together a drive (this was the 10th play, Iowa had moved 38 yards to that point) and had already converted two third-downs as the moved down the field.

Luckily for the Hawkeyes, the defense was able to stop the Huskies on fourth down so this miscue ended up not really costing them much.

Stanley did also lose the ball on a fumble in this game too. It was something he struggled with last year (he lost five last year, which was tied for the fourth-worst mark in the FBS) and absolutely needs to be better about.

There’s definitely a little pressure, but Stanley honestly kinda walks into this fumble. Just not a real good look. Iowa ended up turning the ball over on downs a couple plays later. Drive killer.

Moving on, Stanley’s lone touchdown of the day was a one-yard pass to Noah Fant early in the third quarter. It gave Iowa a 10-point lead and after this, the Hawkeyes never really gave back any momentum.

He nearly overthrows Fant, but the talented tight end comes down with the grab on fourth down. Iowa used its tight ends a ton in this game (really, what else would expect?) and three — Fant, Wieting, Beyer — are on the field for this play.

To my knowledge it’s the first time Beyer’s been in on offense. It seems he’s in-line for Peter Pekar’s fourth-tight end spot this season.

Staying on tight ends for a minute, Iowa went into 22 (two tight ends, two running/full backs) nearly the entire second half. Brian Ferentz went to it 13 of the 33 first-string second half plays and went to a three tight end two back second another five times.

Iowa was trying to ground the Huskies into pieces and it worked. Eventually things started to pick up, especially once Toren Young got a few carries. This forty-yarder out of the 22 was gorgeous:

Hockenson has an absolutely fantastic block here to help spring Young and Ross is able to get enough of his first target to give him a bit of space. Young keeps his legs moving and breaks a tackle before turning on the speed to get him into a bit of space.

Iowa eventually scored a touchdown on this drive and I really believe this was maybe the turning point of the game. At any rate, it was the Hawkeyes longest play from scrimmage during the game and certainly one of the most important.

That type of running isn’t something it’s felt like Iowa’s had since maybe LeShun Daniels. And with him, the injuries were always a concern. I just don’t feel that way about Young, or even Kelly-Martin and Sargent who both who had some strong runs as well.

This one, from Sargent was just seven-yards and his longest of the day, but still showed a little bit of why the sophomore saw so much time.

He picked a lane, the offensive line cleared out some space and he got Iowa an early first down. Good stuff.

That said, it wasn’t all good stuff. Iowa got stopped short on third down towards the end of the second quarter and it was not pretty.

The Huskies sent a blitz, Hockenson gets eaten up by DE #15 Sutton Smith (who Iowa mostly did a good job of containing) and there’s basically white jerseys in the backfield as soon as the ball is snapped.

This didn’t end up costing Iowa because the defense came up with an interception on Northern Illinois’ ensuing drive, but these are still mistakes they’ll be needing to correct. I was also a bit shocked Ferentz went for it at this point in the game.

Sticking with some of the other not-so-great plays, Noah Fant dropped a pass that would have gone for a long gain and perhaps a touchdown. I think he said after the game it was a bit of first-game nerves so hopefully that clears up in the near future.

I counted four Iowa drops during the game, with another that was kinda 50/50 as to whether it was a drop or bad throw.

In other miscues, Iowa also had a punt blocked. The Hawkeyes have only had two kicks or punts blocked during the previous two seasons, so this was certainly a little surprising.

I *think* it was Barrington Wade’s (#35) fault on here, as he seems to point to NIU’s Jauan Wesley who is the one that blocks the kick. It definitely wasn’t a hot start to the game.

Iowa’s defense, however, held and NIU missed a field goal attempt. If there’s a common theme with this game, it’s that defense bailed out the rest of the team on more than one occasion.

After the block the Hawkeyes seemed to go to more of a rugby-style kick and Colten Rastetter’s average skyrocketed. He eventually hit this 69-yarder which took a beautiful bounce and directly led to a safety.

Overall, the Hawkeyes offense sputtered, but were eventually able to get the ball moving in the second half. Iowa’s offensive line should be all right and they definitely wore down NIU’s defensive front. The Hawkeye running backs are talented and look like they can legitimately play.

Will all that remain the case once we get to conference play? We’ll see. Let’s move to the defensive side of the ball.

Snap counts:

Defensive end: Anthony Nelson (48), Parker Hesse (31), AJ Epenesa (23).

Defensive tackle: Matt Nelson (33), Sam Brincks (33), Chauncey Golston (23), Parker Hesse (8).

Note: This doesn’t include the final NIU drive. It was, again, a mixture of second- and third-string players, though Epenesa did see a few more snaps.

Defensive penalties:

— LB Amani Jones, one, -11 yards total (facemask).

Northern Illinois had just 211 total yards of offense against the Hawkeyes, in large part due to the tremendous work of the defensive line.

Iowa registered five total sacks, allowed just 3-of-12 third down conversion attempts and only gave up 2.8 yards per rush. That’s a way to win a whole bunch of football games.

I mean just look at this nastiness.

Matt Nelson (98) and Golston (57) create a large, immovable wall while Parker Hesse breaks through two defenders from the tackle spot to get the third-down sack. Hesse was credited with two in the game and he was simply tremendous.

With Iowa not straying into much else besides a 4-3 look, the coaching staff once again used Hesse at both the tackle and defensive end spots. The third-down looks with Hesse in at defensive tackle are some of my favorites and even with Brady Reiff coming back next week, I’d expect we’ll continue to see this.

Elsewhere along the line, Matt Nelson was also credited with a nice sack in the second quarter — this was actually earlier in the same drive as the above Hesse sack.

NIU quarterback Marcus Childers was never able to get into any sort of rhythm in this game and I have a feeling he might be seeing the Iowa line in his night terrors for weeks to come.

Epenesa got in on the fun too with a strip sack. This was really the last gasp for the Huskies and the Hawkeyes scored a touchdown six plays later, essentially sealing the game.

AJE played great and I still think he needs more snaps.

I know that Iowa is blessed with depth here, but still — there are things that guy can do that we just haven’t seen in a while. He’s a game changer and arguably already the most talented defensive player on the team.

Elsewhere on the defense, Iowa broke in three new linebackers and benched one (Amani Jones) in the middle of second half. Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann were the other two new guys, though each has seen time in the past.

Niemann, at least to me, was the most impressive of the bunch. He came up with two critical stops, the first a fourth-and-two in the first half:

Niemann was showing a blitz and that’s exactly what he did. The redshirt sophomore read the play perfect, got a good pursuit angle and gets a massive tackle for loss as a reward.

Iowa would go on to score a field goal on the ensuing offensive possession and take the lead. Big time.

His second big stop was on third down early in the third quarter. At this point in the game, Iowa was still clinging to a three-point lead. Forcing the Huskies to go three-and-out on their first possession of the second half had to have been a little disheartening.

It also injected some much-needed life into the team and the stadium.

This play was interesting to me for a couple reasons.

First, Childers very obviously doesn’t want to test the coverage he has on the receiver that Amani Hooker is covering. Hooker already had an interception at this point and I think that’s part of the reason he just dumped it off.

Niemann sticks where he needs to be and makes the sure tackle. The dude can hit and he made sure plays all game long.

Kristian Welch wasn’t bad either and ended up leading Iowa 11 total tackles and was credited with a sack. He may have gotten a little banged up in this game, so it’ll be interesting to see if anything comes out of that during media availability.

I really liked this play from him:

Just slides off the blocker and makes a solid play.

Not everything, however, was so pretty. This 19-yard run in the first quarter from NIU’s Tre Harbinson is probably one of the reasons Jones got benched.

He just got completely lost and gets blown by.

Jack Hockaday ended up replacing him and is now the starting linebacker on the depth chart. Outside of injury, I’d be a little surprised if that changes again this season. Jones did not show anything against an opponent he really needed to show something against in order to stay as a starter.

In the secondary, Iowa really wasn’t tested all that much, though Amani Hooker did get an interception.

The coverage downfield was tremendous and Hooker just makes a brilliant play after the receiver calls for the ball. I’d be willing to bet NIU at least gets a field goal before halftime, perhaps even a touchdown if the junior safety doesn’t come down with this.

Iowa’s corners weren’t really tested this week, though that will certainly change on Saturday against Iowa State. We’re about to learn a lot more about the progress Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia have made.

In all honesty, I think you can say that about the team too. Iowa did what it needed to do against an undermatched foe to get Kirk Ferentz his 144th win.

Now comes a rivalry game the Hawkeyes nearly lost last season. We’re about to learn a lot more indeed.