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The Rewatch: USC

Premier Ihmir and others fly past and through USC

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Iowa Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“Perception gets distorted sometimes.” - Kirk Ferentz (post-game interview)

Coming in to this Holiday Bowl matchup, many wondered if the Hawkeyes had what it took to stand up to the 4- and 5-star laden talent of the USC Trojans. Turns out, the Iowa program was the one that played like 5-star talent scoring 49 points, which included a kickoff return for a touchdown and an interception return for a touchdown. Iowa took advantage of USC on the perimeter and out schemed the Trojans constantly, especially on 3rd down.

Third Down Success

Iowa finished the game 8 of 13 on 3rd down, but dominated on this down early in the game. Following their first two plays, Iowa faced 3rd and 9. Nate Stanley found Brandon Smith, who returned to the lineup for his first significant action since a lower body injury in mid-October against Purdue. Smith finished with four receptions, and three of those came on third down.

On the first, Iowa is in 21 personnel with both backs flanking Stanley, who is in shotgun. This gives Iowa seven blockers to counter any blitz package USC brings. Smith is the solo receiver on the left side, and he runs a perfect route just past the sticks to pick up the first down. Stanley also does a great job here throwing the ball on time and placing it between the two defenders where only Smith has a chance to make the play. Also to note, with both running backs presenting a receiving threat, USC linebackers start to come forward, but hold their positions neither rushing the passer or covering any receiver.

Early in the 4th quarter, Iowa has 3rd and Goal from the 6 yard line. Once again, Smith uses his outstanding size and hands to convert a touchdown following a highlight reel scramble by Stanley. Stanley’s first look was on a pivot route by Ragaini from the right slot. USC does a great job of bracketing his coverage with a defensive back and a linebacker taking away any inside breaking route. When that isn’t there, Stanley is forced to improvise by stepping up in the pocket and appearing as if he is going to break for the end zone on foot. As the linebackers step up, he turns to the sideline, while not completely crossing the line-of-scrimmage, and finds Smith. Smith not only caught the touchdown, but he drew a penalty on the defensive back who was forced to grab him prior to the throw.

With Iowa once again marching deep into Trojan territory, Iowa has another 3rd down where Stanley looks to target Smith. Not only does Smith utilize his size to create positioning for the reception, but then ensures the first down by fighting through the tackle and extending the ball out to the first down marker after being pushed back following the catch. Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette will make a very imposing duo for opposing defensive backs in 2020.

Premiere Ihmir

Two people stood out during the Holiday Bowl and being more explosive than anyone else around them, and on offense, that was Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He accounted for three touchdowns, all in the 2nd quarter, and nearly a forth when he just missed Smith on a wide receiver end around pass.

Iowa took advantage of USC on the perimeter all game, and Smith-Marsette was the focal point of Iowa’s attack on the edges. In the red zone, where space is compressed, pursuit angles are narrowed leaving little room for error for defenders chasing plays to the outside. Iowa goes 13 personnel on 1st and goal forcing USC to put nine defenders in the box with a tenth directly behind those linebackers on the boundary hash. Presnap, Smith-Marsette motions across the formation to the boundary side where a single tight end is lined up. He quickly reverses motion coming back to the field side where he receives the jet sweep handoff. Tight ends Nate Wieting and Sam LaPorta both jump in front of Smith-Marsette and secure the corner for him to jog untouched into the end zone. All five offensive lineman, as well as boundary tight end Shaun Beyer, all step to the right and bring most of the defensive line and two linebackers with them. At that point, Smith-Marsette only needs to outrun a couple of Trojan defenders who do not have space to take the angle they would need to catch the speedy wide receiver before he scores.

No setup needed here. Ihmir is fast. Like, really fast.

On Smith-Marsette’s third touchdown, a reception, we get a little extra insight from a video posted by Iowa’s film crew. He’s heard talking with coaches on the sideline about USC actually calling the play out presnap. That is why he stops his route from coming all the way inside, as it usually does, and instead cuts upfield immediately. Once again, if you don’t have an angle or space to create an angle, you just can’t catch him. Ferentz mentioned postgame that Smith-Marsette had not been 100% recently, so it was great to see him create so many big plays in the season finale.

When he wasn’t scoring touchdowns, he was still making big time plays for the offense. This one was a result of an audible from Stanley at the line of scrimmage. With Iowa in 21 personnel, USC has countered with an eight man box and single high safety. That safety however, is positioned outside the boundary hash where only one receiver (Smith) is lined up. This gives away to Stanley that USC is planning a boundary corner blitz. Seeing this, Stanley audibles knowing he has Smith-Marsette one-on-one to the field side, giving him plenty of room for a clean release as well as space to place the ball away from the defender. The offensive line slides left to handle the immediate threat of the linebackers blitzing and Stanley knows he can deliver the pass, off a three step drop, prior to the blitzing corner being able to get to him. Perfect read, and execution by all eleven Hawkeyes on the field.

Freshman Making Plays

When it wasn’t the dynamic duo of Smith and Smith-Marsette making plays for Iowa, several others were stepping into those play making roles to keep drives alive.

True freshman Sam LaPorta has come on strong in the second half of the season and recorded a season high six receptions in the bowl game. During that stretch, LaPorta has shown off great hands, body control, and ability to make plays with is feet after the catch. The first two are on full display here as Stanley delivers a rocket to LaPorta on another 3rd down. If this catch reminds you of a previous All-Conference tight end from Iowa, you aren’t alone.

On the replay, you can see Stanley’s hand/wrist hit the helmet of left guard Kyler Schott. Following this play, Stanley is just 4 for his last 10, but luckily the game is well in hand at that point.

Following two uncharacteristic penalties, Iowa puts itself in a tough position behind the chains. Once again, Iowa uses motion to cause the defense troubles with alignment. Iowa was able to isolate Nico Ragaini by creating a switch release with Ragaini and Smith-Marsette. Because of this, the defensive back covering Ragaini is forced to take his inside shoulder and gives Stanley the opportunity to throw to the outside and back shoulder as Ragaini works the seam route.

Iowa gets on the board during their first possession by taking advantage of the Trojan’s defense lack of discipline and over aggressiveness. Iowa is again in shotgun with Goodson and Sargent flanking Stanley. Iowa has run sweeps out of this formation multiple time this season using one of the running backs as the lead blocker. Iowa shows that action here, but brings Tyrone Tracy Jr. against the grain as Sargent pitches back to Tracy on the reverse. The entire right side of the field is open as he take the pitch with Tristan Wirfs and Nate Stanley out front as lead blockers. Wirfs takes care of the lone threat and Tracy is able to high step his way for the easy touchdown

Side note: Would there be a better feeling as a runner turning the corner and seeing #74 out in front ready to destroy anyone in his path? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Epenesa is a one-man wrecking crew

He would be, and was, the first guy to say his success is only because of those around him, but that’s just because he’s as good of a teammate as he is a player. So let me be one of the many to heap praise on the man who singlehandedly ruins play-after-play.

A.J. Epenesa was unblock able for large chunks of the game and continued to demonstrate why he is an All-American. He uses strength, speed, and technique to get to the quarterback and create havoc for opposing offensive lines. As I’ve said before, just sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the greatest to ever wear the Tiger Hawk do his thing.

When he wasn’t doing the damage himself, his presence created big plays. Twice, Phil Parker drew up a blitz bringing linebacker Nick Niemann behind Epenesa leading to clear paths to the quarterback. Both times Epenesa drew the full attention of the offensive line and let Niemann get through untouched.

Three Straight Bowl Victories

The combination of offensive efficiency, big plays on defense and special teams, and general dissection of all facets of USC’s game made this game one of the most fun watches of the past several seasons. Iowa capped a 10-win season with brilliant play from its three-year starting quarterback, All-American defensive end, thrill inducing speedster wide receiver, and many others. Enjoy this one for a while Hawkeye fans. This team deserves one last round of applause.

I leave you with this. Iowa preaches “Tough. Smart. Physical.” and nothing says those attributes better than this play (outside of Iowa’s QB sneaks). Geno Stone could have stood and watched his teammates make a tackle, but instead he raced across the field to get in on the action as well. That’s {Iowa} football.