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The Rewatch: Illinois

November victories do not need to be pretty

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

“In conference, every victory is earned, and every game is important.” - Kirk Ferentz post game press conference

It wasn’t as shiny and fun as last year’s 63-0 drubbing of the Fighting Illini, but it might have a better win. This year, Illinois had a winning record, a four game win streak, and an opportunistic defense. On Saturday, it was the Iowa defense creating turnovers and capitalizing those into scoring opportunities. Honorary Captain Desmond King challenged Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins to get an interception, and both were able to pick off Brandon Peters.

The first interception was a classic way zone defense can create turnovers. Ojemudia had responsibility for the underneath route near the sideline, but he was able to peel off his man and under the intended route once he saw where Peters was going with the ball.

Iowa needed each of the three turnovers created by the defense. Illinois was able to contain (that’s putting it nicely) Iowa’s rushing attack and forced Iowa to beat them through the air. While Iowa was able to successfully attack Illinois’ Cover-2 scheme for over 300 yards passing, the run game struggles are still very alarming.

Here were the rush totals by opponents during Illinois win streak: Michigan State 275, Rutgers 185, Purdue 135, Wisconsin 156. The game before that Michigan was able to rack up 295 yards on the ground. Iowa was only able to muster 79 yards on 32 carries and just one of those carries went for double digits (10 yards on a rush by Tyler Goodson).

Loading up against the run

On this carry by Goodson, Iowa lines up in 21 personnel with Nate Wieting to the left of the line on the wide side of the field. Iowa runs outside zone to the boundary, where the numbers pre-snap look reasonable. There are only three players in the box to the right of center Tyler Linderbaum pre-snap. However, linebacker Milo Eifler moves right before the snap all the way across the formation to the boundary. Landan Paulsen is not able to get to the second level and slow down the middle linebacker, which gives Illinois five defender for four blockers. Linderbaum, Schott, and Wirfs, and Ross all do their job and have good blocks, but the play is over as soon as it starts. This is a loss for the offense not because of execution, but due to Illinois either having the perfect defensive call or correct read by the outside linebacker. Illinois was in an eight man box so even a run to the field would have been trouble. Stanley did not audible because pre-snap the numbers were still in Iowa’s favor, but once Eifler moved across the center, it was too late to make any changes.

On the very first play of the game, Illinois tips its hand as to what their game plan is for the rest of the day. Once again Iowa starts in 21 personnel with Wieting to the field-side. Illinois is in a traditional Cover-2 shell, with a 7 man box and 2 high safeties. The moment Stanley turns his back for the handoff, all three linebackers and both corners commit to the run. Despite all of that, had Brady Ross blocked the attacking corner, I think this is a huge play as Tracy was already upfield to block the safety and Goodson would have likely been able to outrun the pursuing linebackers to the edge. Instead, Ross runs right by him and it’s a four yard loss.

Following a nice 1st down run by Goodson (shown later), Iowa is set up in 2nd and 3 at the Illini 27. Iowa decides to go 22 personnel with both tight ends to the boundary. Tyrone Tracy Jr is the lone receiver split wide to the field. Illinois goes with an interesting pre-snap adjustment moving the boundary OLB behind the other two linebackers forming a triangle. By moving deeper and more centered, he is allowed a free path to flow to the ball on the run. This was an interesting wrinkle I haven’t noticed teams try before.

Here is Goodson’s seven yard carry on first down. He does a great job of pressing the outside zone and then cutting it back underneath the pursuit. On the backside, Kyler Schott and Tristan Wirfs score major wins driving their man downfield (see second video for Wirfs getting a pancake 10 yards downfield).

Attempts to Counter

Iowa tried several things to counter the extra numbers Illinois was bringing early in the game. Iowa tried to get the ball outside on end around and jet sweep action to both Tracy and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Iowa also used a Tyler Linderbaum and Tristan Wirfs to pull around on a pitch to Tyler Goodson. This put Goodson outside of the linebackers and let him follow two of the more athletic lineman in the conference. Both do a great job on defenders in open space. Landan Paulsen also had a perfect cut block to take away pursuit.

In the 4th quarter, Iowa went with counter action to pick up some important yardage as well. Since the Michigan game, Iowa has put a TE in motion in the backfield more as an H-back with success in the run and pass game. It has helped that player see free rushers and lets them take advantage of lineman trying to jump the gaps of the offensive line. While it looks like a cutback at first, based on the way Alaric Jackson is blocking, it appears he’s expecting Goodson to come back to his side.

Pass Game Adjustments

Iowa dug out a few of their favorites in the pass game as well. Two separate times, Iowa ran Swap Boot. The first time, all three levels, were open and Nate Stanley was able to find Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a big game.

Later in the game, Tracy was available on the same concept to pick up a first down. On each of these plays, you can see how Illinois linebackers commit to the run right away. This leaves them vulnerable to the backside play action. Stanley makes the correct decision on both plays.

Another Brian Ferentz favorite is 4-Verts. Here, Iowa is able to get tight end Shaun Beyer open down the seam. He does a great job of bending his route back inside and between the safeties after getting depth past the linebacker. Both safeties have attention to the outside as other receivers are occupying their deep responsibilities as well. You really get an opportunity to appreciate how fast Beyer is once he catches the ball on this play.

Cover-2 Beaters

When playing against Cover-2, there are going to be opportunities to make contested catches between the corner and safety. As a reciever, you know the safety is bearing down on you and you are going to take a hit. You just have to attack the ball and commit to the catch. A year ago, I’m not sure Smith-Marsette would make this catch, but he does an excellent job of high-pointing the ball and protecting it through contact. He deserves a lot of credit for this reception, and he has really blossomed into a complete receiver during his junior season.

Here it is Ragaini who is able to find the space between the corner and safety. Stanley’s arm strength stands out on this 3rd down play as he faces pressure from his left side. He’s able o get this ball between the two levels while throwing off his back foot and from the opposite hash. The ball takes him low, but Ragaini does a great job of securing the catch knowing the defenders are coming to deliver a big hit.

Sam LaPorta is quickly becoming a fan favorite the past few weeks. This is a play T.J. Hockenson made a living on in the past. What impresses me about LaPorta is how naturally he catches the ball and turns his body to get upfield. He doesn’t pick up a lot of yardage after the catch, but he uses his body to shield the ball while falling forward to ensure he picks up the 3rd down conversion. It isn’t really fair to compare anyone to Hockenson, but I’m cautiously optimistic that LaPorta is the next in line of All B1G tight ends.

Last time in Kinnick Stadium?

While we do not know for sure, we might have had our last chance to see A.J. Epenesa play in Kinnick Stadium. The true junior projects well at the next level, and treated Iowa fans to another special day. While his counting stats don’t jump out, he was absolutely dominate against Illinois.

His pass rush ability is what put him on the map, but his ability to defend the run while having that pass rush ability is what puts him in a unique category. He’s able to shoot gaps, push offensive lineman into the backfield to shut down the outside run, and shed blockers against the run. Iowa’s number one tenant on defense is to stop the run game, and he is a major part of this defense’s special season.

As I said, his pass rush ability is what first put him on the map, and he continues to make life difficult for opposing pass games. While he did not record a sack, he routinely put pressure on the quarterback and commanded double teams in obvious pass situations.

If that was the final time he plays in a home game for the Hawkeyes, I think I can speak for all of us with a mighty THANK YOU. I’ve spent a lot of time the last three years laughing at the misfortune of opposing offensive tackles who have been tasked with slowing you down.