I bet you thought I’d pick David Montgomery against Iowa’s linebackers. Well, as you can see, you are wrong. While the matchup I picked last year – the classic star vs. weakness – tilted Iowa’s direction before a converted quarterback found his way, I’m not so sure an opposing running back could dictate an Iowa win or loss. Could it indicate? Certainly: Iowa loses at a roughly 65% clip (since 2000) when opposing runners get more than 100 yards. But there are worse odds.
However, this is a good team Iowa is facing. Arguably the best ISU team in 15 years. Though they lose the aforementioned Joel Lanning on defense, they return plenty of talent from the second best defense in the conference by points per game. Though the numbers are slightly inflated versus the Big Ten (they would have ranked in the bottom half of the conference) they regularly held their opponents below their scoring average and often significantly so.
How did they do it? Often times, it was done on the strength of their secondary. One offseason piece lauded the Cyclones ability to run nickel and dime and it’s well worth your time if you have the chance. The info most pertinent to the Iowa game is likely below:
“Were [sic] Iowa St. made a living on this scheme was against teams that tried to get big with their Dime Package. Memphis went to 12p early in their bowl game against the Cyclones. As stated earlier, the depth of the safeties is difficult for zone (and gap) teams to handle. The offensive line stays on their double teams and offensive coordinators don’t count the safeties in the box fits. Iowa St. was able to stifle the run from depth.”
While it’s not improbable for Iowa to run an offense similar to the second half against Northern Illinois and get the win, it is unlikely given speed of the defenders on the field. It’s for that reason they’ll need help on the outside.
Iowa’s young pups are going against some veterans in their secondary. Starting corner Brian Peavy leads the team with 34 career starts and had excellent success last year, as he defended nine passes (30 in his career) and totaled 88 tackles, including six for a loss, in 2017.
Starting opposite Peavy is former 4-star recruit D’Andre Payne. He’s started 20 games and, given his lower tackle numbers (48 in 11 games), seems to be the less targeted of the two. In his self-uploaded sophomore year (2016) highlights, he shows a knack for getting to receivers in the flat and always seems to be the guy who is this close to intercepting the ball. Hopefully not this week. He has one career interception to 9 passes defended.
For Iowa to challenge the corners, they’ll need better production from game one out of their wideouts. The four receptions for 33 yards certainly provides a low bar to clear, especially considering they accounted for 15 of 27 targets, per @tnels20. The accompanying spray chart is even uglier than it suggests as only 5 of 15 throws outside of the hashes were completed. Yuck!
Now, it isn’t all on the receivers, as Brian Ferentz said. Nate Stanley regularly placed balls on the edge of their catch radii, at best, to make routine pass/catches more difficult than necessary. Rumor also has it Nick Easley was nursing an injury which is indicative by his relative snap count. Additionally, Brian Ferentz rarely ran receivers across the field to provide easier opportunities to free them up.
In rewatching it, however, something stuck out to me. Brandon Smith lacks a certain assertiveness when running routes. While his first hitch route seemed tailor-made for an easy completion to build confidence, they could not connect. In his next three targets, he gets pushed off his line in all three times, resulting in an interception, an incompletion, and a penalty, respectively.
It’s unfair to place all the blame on Smith especially because the issues were more widespread: his performance against NIU was a bellweather for the perimeter passing attack. Routes weren’t as clean as they could be, Stanley missed some throws, and those drops. Hopefully it was a widespread case of first game jitters and these issues are cleaned up this weekend.
Iowa receivers need to be more involved in the game on Saturday or else the offense will become incredibly predictable. ISU will be able to key on the tight ends in the pass game, trust their corners on Hawkeye wideouts, and be well-positioned to stop Iowa’s running attack. A step forward from receivers could go a long way in realizing their potential in the Cy-Hawk matchup and all of 2018.