“All three segments played well, and most importantly they complimented each other well.” - Kirk Ferentz
After handing off to the running backs only 17 times in a one point loss last week to Northwestern, Iowa got back to the basics and used their run game effectively against Michigan State. Iowa’s mindset, and play calling, drastically changed this week. Iowa ran the ball on their first nine 1st down plays. The first pass call on 1st down was not until the 2nd quarter with a 14-0 lead already established. On the day, Iowa had 32 1st down plays and ran the ball on 24 of them with 6.3 yards gained average (aided nicely by a 71 yard burst by Tyler Goodson).
Using shotgun with Sam LaPorta lined up as an H-Back, Iowa motions slot receiver Nico Ragaini across the formation in jet motion at the snap. All three linebackers step toward that motion with their initial movement. In addition to this motion, Goodson is following that motion as well with his first step. While the Iowa offensive line slants as well, LaPorta comes back weakside on split zone action to crack the defensive end who was left unblocked while Jackson slanted to the linebacker. A huge lane opened for Goodson, who does a great job of making winning his solo battle against the safety. On your second rewatch, pay attention to how Jackson gets to the inside shoulder of the linebacker and turns him to seal the lane for Goodson. It is perfect footwork and execution by the big left tackle.
Iowa was even more effective through the air on first down connecting on 5 of 6 passes for 57 yards and also earned two defensive penalties.
With Iowa’s run game, we continue to see improvements in short yardage situations. In an area that plagued Iowa the previous few years, Iowa has improved by utilizing motions and alignments to improve the numbers game.
Finish the drive
On 3rd and goal from the 3, Iowa is in a heavy personnel package with Nico Ragaini as the lone receiver. He first motions across the formation before sprinting back in jet motion to the field. Because of this, the field linebacker and corner must follow that movement. Doing so puts five offensive lineman, two tight ends, and a fullback against five down lineman, a defensive back, and two linebackers. Everyone hits their block with Cody Ince and Tyler Linderbaum working perfectly in tandem to contain the lineman before Ince works to the second level. Fullback Monte Pottebaum then has a free path the assist at the second level to guide Tyler Goodson into the end zone.
For Iowa’s second touchdown run, Iowa is at the nine yard line facing 2nd and 6. Iowa moves Sam LaPorta from his boundary position partially across the formation and back into an H-Back position. During his shift, Michigan State counters by shifting their defensive line toward the field and drops a safety from the line of scrimmage back to a shell position behind the defense. As the line and fullback slant right, we see another perfect tandem block by Linderbaum and Ince before Linderbaum works his way to burying the linebacker. Iowa also gets a pancake block from Alaric Jackson on the backside. These three lineman open a huge cutback lane for Goodson. Because of the shift, the outside linebacker moved outside and now gets picked off by Beyer who is sealing for the cutback. It is now Goodson 1v1 against the safety, and that is a huge win for Iowa. Touchdown Hawkeyes!
In the 3rd quarter, we get a near repeat of the first touchdown run, but this time it is with Mehki Sargent running the ball. Iowa continues to see a lot of success on 3rd down runs using motions, specifically jet motion, to gain the small advantage that can be the difference between a touchdown and a one yard gain. We have highlighted the interior blocking, but here Shaun Beyer and Monte Pottebaum need some recognition for the excellent job they have done this entire season. Both were excellent on this play.
Oh my gawd that’s Charlie Jones music!!
With senior Ihmir Smith-Marsette suspended, that opened the door for Charlie Jones to see the field as a receiver in addition to his role as a punt returner. While he didn’t record any receptions, Jones impact was felt with two big gains on runs.
Sometimes, it is the smallest of adjusts that affect a play. As Jones does his initial motion across the field, the corner covering his side starts dropping back off of the line. The boundary outside linebacker also moves as he starts to slide back inside of the tackle box. The first movement gives Pottebaum plenty of time to get outside to and put another defender on the ground. The linebacker’s movement creates a better angle for Brandon Smith to get to the outside shoulder and seal the edge.
Jones has another nice pickup, this time on an end around. I marvel watching how Linderbaum moves from his center position to pulling to lead the end around. He is playing at an All-Conference and even All-American level right now.
It wasn’t just this punt return, but Charlie Jones continues to show excellent feel and then quickness on his punt returns. As Ferentz said in his post game, you just feel comfortable with him back there. There are no questions about him making the right decision on the catch and then he makes a positive play once he has the ball. Late in the return, Pottebaum and Jestin Jacobs both put defenders on the ground to help guide Jones into the end zone.
Finding what works through the air
Iowa’s passing game has been feast or famine so far this season. At times, Petras will rattle off a string of beautiful passes and connections. He will then follow it up with 4 to 5 consecutive incompletions where it looks like the offense has not practice for weeks.
The game plan for the passing game was simplified this week to include more quick, timing passes to the perimeter. Petras has the arm to make these throws with ease, and it creates some continuity to keep the offense on schedule. We came into the season touting the weapons on the outside, and these quick passes allow those guys an opportunity to win a 1v1 matchup against a cornerback to gain additional yardage.
Iowa also saw improved success out of the play action passing game. To this point, Petras has looked uncomfortable in several play action situations. At times he was holding the ball a split second too long and almost looked to be aiming or hoping to throw the ball in the right spot. This week, the passes came out smoother and on time. Here, he rolls out to his left twice and delivers an on time and on target pass. These were not huge plays, but show the progress many were hoping to see from Petras.
While we saw progress with the play action game, the running back screen passes still look uncomfortable for Petras. While Iowa scored on the following play thanks to another highlight catch by Brandon Smith, this was a waste of a perfect call as Goodson would have likely walked into the end zone.
And yes, we all want to see that connection with Smith again. In the red zone, you just have to give him a chance. These types of catches are becoming the norm for him.
Coming into this game, I thought there was a chance the game could turn on a play where the defensive line created pressure on Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi. Where I was wrong was I thought it would be a close game where a play like that could be a late turning point.
Iowa’s defense line completely dominated the Michigan State front all day. The Spartans were not able to run the ball effectively, and Lombardi was pressured constantly.
One third down, Iowa goes to the Raider package with Chauncey Golston sliding inside and Joe Evans coming in as an outside pass rush specialist. Golston’s quickness creates havoc on in the interior as his combination of length and agility allows him to split interior defenders frequently. He creates the first pressure, and then Joe Evans uses his pursuit to force Lombardi into a rushed decision outside of the pocket.
While Daviyon Nixon, Jack Heflin, and Golston have garnered much of the front line attention, and rightfully so, Zach VanValkenburg continues to make plays from his end position as well. You can see why Phil Parker plays him extended snaps due to his fundamentals and consistency. While he doesn’t have the same ability to make ‘wow’ plays like the other three, he is making more impact plays with each game. Here, he doesn’t bite on the play action and chase the scrape down the line of scrimmage. Once he sees Lombardi, he closes quickly and forces an errant throw and poor decision. Barrington Wade picks up his second interception of the season by being both in the right spot at the right time, and also aware of the ball and its location.
On the third interception, Iowa once again forces Lombardi to scramble due to pressure from John Waggoner and Joe Evans. As they collapse the edges of the pocket, Nixon does a great job of getting his left hand up to take away the initial passing lane that Lombardi wanted to use. As he scrambles, with Evans in pursuit once again, he makes a poor decision and Riley Moss is able to take the easy interception and then find his way to the end zone.
The constant pressure on Lombardi did not only cause turnovers, but also several passes were well short because Lombardi was either not able to step into the throw, or he threw off his back foot out of habit from not having space to step forward. Lombardi was hit nearly double digit times during drop back passes.
With Iowa earning their first victory of 2020 in dominating fashion, Hawkeye fans have renewed hope for the season. The first of three trophy games is Friday. With the shortened week, it was great for Iowa to be able to rest much of the defensive line during this game. Guys like Nixon, Heflin, and Golston have been carrying a heavy load so far this season. None of them toped 45 snaps against Michigan State.