“Happy to see our point production continue to be healthy. So I’m just proud the guys on that. The bottom line is it was a really good step for us.” - Kirk Ferentz (post game)
Iowa pushed Penn State further into a free fall with a 41-21 victory. While Penn State is now 0-5, their defensive front has been solid against the run and provide a potent pass rush. Despite this, Iowa was able to once again win at the line of scrimmage and are having one of their best seasons rushing the ball in the past decade. The duo of Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent provide one of the best backfields in the Big Ten. Their success comes from their ability to read and finish runs behind the offensive line, tight ends, and fullback.
While there were many areas where Iowa was simply at a higher level than the Nittany Lions, the difference in short yardage helped Iowa take control on the road.
Short yardage dominance
The Iowa defense dominated short yardage in vital spots during the game. With a narrow 10-7 lead in the 2nd quarter, Penn State has 3rd and 2 year midfield. With Iowa bringing linebacker Nick Niemann and safety Kaevon Merriweather to the line of scrimmage, Penn State goes with an option to the boundary. The design lets quarterback Will Levis read Niemann, who is unblocked, with the left tackle going to block middle linebacker, Jack Campbell. Levis pitches the ball too far behind the running back and the Hawkeyes are able to jump on the ball for their first turnover of the game.
Facing another 3rd and 2, Penn State elects to go with a zone read run. It is amazing that Iowa is able to shut this play down when you look at formational alignment. Iowa only has 4 down defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage and Penn State has a tight end lined up to the boundary. The defensive line does an excellent job eating blockers and allow Jack Campbell and Nick Niemann to keep the running back from falling forward for a first down.
On 4th down, Penn State goes with QB Power against a loaded line of scrimmage. Safety Jack Koerner fires off the line and spins Levis down for no gain. Once again it is a Hawkeye defender keeping the ball carrier from falling forward to get the first down despite being originally hit in the backfield.
It is another 3rd and short near midfield where Penn State continues to try to pick up these first downs on the ground. Once again, the unblocked defender, by design, makes the play for the Hawkeyes. This time, Zach VanValkenburg is the guy who makes a brilliant play. He correctly attacks the mesh point and leaves Levis will no right decision. Once the ball goes to the running back, VanValkenburg immediately swallows him for a loss of one.
With 4 straight run plays on 3rd or 4th and short failing, Penn State tries to pass downfield instead. Riley Moss correctly plays the route and the ball lands out of bounds with no shot of a completion.
Continued commitment to the ground game
After passing far too many times in a loss to Northwestern, Iowa has recommitted to the ground game with great success during the three game win streak. Sargent and Goodson combined to carry the ball 35 times for 179 yards and 3 touchdowns. Gaining over 5 yards per carry against a defense that has the type of talent Penn State has shows a team that is on the right path. I continue to be impressed by the interior of the offensive line and how they constantly push the line of scrimmage forward.
On this 1st down run, center Tyler Linderbaum and fullback Monte Pottebaum, The ‘Baum Squad, create a textbook downfield running lane sealing off the linebackers. The speed at which Linderbaum gets to the second level catches teams by surprise. Linebackers have no time to react and he makes quick work of moving players out of the designed lane.
When watching this shotgun carry by Goodson, I encourage you to focus on the play of right tackle Mark Kallenberger and left guard Cody Ince. Kallenberger is crashing down at the snap heading for the middle linebacker. With him leaving the field defensive end, Ince is pulling around to pick up the unblocked defender. As the defensive end crashes all the way down, Ince is able to change his point of attack despite pulling around to the outside and use the defenders momentum to push him further inside. In a similar fashion, as Kallenberger slants inside, he is able to take advantage of the linebackers over pursuit by changing directions and sealing the inside linebacker to the outside of the running lane.
As usual with these plays, Brandon Smith is downfield blocking and extending the play.
With Penn State’s athleticism on defense, Iowa used a lot of reverse pivot action from Spencer Petras to get their defense over reacting to the initial movement. Tyler Goodson looked like Akrum Wadley on that action for Iowa’s first touchdown. Goodson has a special ability to make the first defender miss and then wins the race to the pylon.
Again near the goal line, Petras opens to the left before spinning and pitching the ball to Sargent on a sweep to the right. The two linebackers to the strong side of the field both make their first step forward and because of this have no chance to catch Sargent as he sprints around the right side for his first of two touchdowns.
More red zone misdirection
Evolution of the Wildcat
Each week we have highlighted the use of Wildcat to gain a numbers advantage against the defense. By either removing Petras from the formation or splitting him out wide, Iowa has removed one unblockable defender from the equation. To this point, there have been a variety of formations, but Goodson has been keeping the ball.
With Petras off the field, Iowa flanks Goodson with his two fellow running backs Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin. The handoff goes to Sargent who ends up with Kelly-Martin as a lead blocker. Placing three playmakers in the backfield creates leverage issues for opposing defenders trying to deal with the different packages Iowa is utilizing.
In the 3rd quarter, Iowa goes back to this look on consecutive plays. The first time, Sargent returns the blocking favor as the give goes to Kelly-Martin around the right edge. The next play, Goodson keeps for a short gain up the middle. It is difficult to tell if Iowa is giving Goodson the option to read these or if the direction comes from the sideline. By showing all three variations, Iowa keeps giving future defenses something to think about.
The Hawkeye defense totaled 10 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 sack fumbles, and 2 interceptions. The final of those was an impressive of a play from a defensive lineman as you will ever see.
Phil Parker dials up one of his zone blitzes with Niemann and Campbell crossing in the middle of the field attacking the A gaps. Nixon slides from his defensive tackle position to the outside as Joe Evans drops into coverage from his defensive end position. Nixon realizes he is not going to get to the quarterback so he backpedals to create space from the offensive lineman. Once he sees the quarterback begin his motion, he times his jump and comes down with the ball. What he does from there needs no words.
That was not the only time Nixon was able to create a turnover with his outstanding timing and length. On another blitz, Nixon recognizes he is not going to get to the quarterback. He creates space from his blocker and reads the quarterback’s eyes. As Clifford is hit by Niemann, who racked up 17 tackles, Nixon is able to bat the ball in the air leading to an interception by Chauncey Golston. This is great awareness by both players to create a turnover.
Golston was not done creating havoc as he recorded a 4th quarter sack of his own. It is another zone blitz from Phil Parker with Dane Belton and Campbell blitzing from the boundary while field end Joe Evans drops back into coverage as a quarterback spy. Once again Nixon slides to the left and takes the right guard with him leaving a 1v1 assignment for Golston. He flashes across the center and uses his speed to split the gap between the center and guard. The running back steps up to the other side as he sees Campbell blitzing. Campbell obliterates the running back and Golston gets the easy sack.
Campbell is such a unique linebacker with his size and mobility. When he blitzes, he truly is a linebacker and lineman hybrid. Here he is able to cross from one side of the center to the far edge before turning the corner and blindsiding the quarterback. Not only does he get the sack, but he gets a forced fumble that bounces right to a Penn State player.
With the performances from the offense, defense, and special teams over the last three weeks it is easy to see why Hawkeye fans were so excited about the potential of this team. Following two losses by a combined 5 points, Iowa has dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It is often when you win by twenty against a Big Ten foe and leave the game saying it wasn’t even that close.