“We don’t want to play that way. I’ll go on record with that. We don’t want to play that way. Looking for a lot more balance than that.” - Kirk Ferentz (Postgame)
The Iowa Hawkeyes threw the ball 50 times, and only gave their running backs 17 carries. There are times when that works, but last Saturday was not one of them. A concern would be that 5 of those 17 resulted in a negative yardage play. Those negative plays put the inconsistent offense in a place that often leads to a punt. However, Iowa experienced enough winning battles on the line to warrant more carries for the running backs who ran so effective against Purdue the previous week.
Winning Box Numbers
Iowa’s most effective carries came out of looks where Iowa could win the “numbers” game. Tyler Goodson’s touchdown run came out of a shotgun set with 3 receivers and a tight end all set off of the line. These 2-by-2 stacked looks forced the linebackers and safeties wider than their traditional sets. Spencer Petras gives a quick pump fake, giving time for Tyler Linderbaum to wipe out the middle linebacker. At this point, it just comes down to Goodson making the first guy miss. From there he finishes in the end zone with power.
Goodson also generates a positive rush near the end zone when Iowa goes Wildcat inside the 10 yard line. I mentioned last week how effective that look can be in short yardage situations, and any time you are inside the 10 you will take any advantage you can get. By faking to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, all three linebackers flow horizontally initially. That false movement helps the offensive line generate extra push and create a seal for a nice run that sets up a great chance to score.
It is no secret that Northwestern’s strength on defense is their outstanding linebacker corps. As previously shown, some of Iowa’s best looks were from shotgun formations. Iowa was able to move at least one of those linebackers away from the play and give their line a chance to work against defensive line without having three nearby linebackers knifing into the backfield. Here is a compilation of 3 runs out of shotgun. Notice that the first one wasn’t even well blocked, but there is just less traffic and Goodson is able to wiggle forward for the first down. On the others, it is again the increased running room due to fewer defenders in the box that allows Iowa success on the ground.
This doesn’t mean that Iowa cannot run from different formations. It also doesn’t mean that Iowa always has success out of shotgun, but it does show that they need to continue to find ways to allow these backs opportunities to get one-on-one with a defender and let them make plays.
When you are the man under center, you are going to get praise you don’t deserve, and criticism you don’t deserve. Spencer Petras, in his second start, has been on both sides of the coin. In both starts, Petras has shown the tools needed to be a really successful Big Ten quarterback, but has also struggled with accuracy and pocket presence. The later, is expected for a young quarterback who is thrust straight into a conference schedule.
In the first half, Petras put up numbers that no Iowa fan would complain about. He was 14-25 for 147 yards, 1 touchdown, and 0 turnovers. One could argue that it is too many passes for a half, but for the most part the offense was moving the ball successfully. In 6 first half possessions, the Hawkeyes scored two touchdowns, made two field goals, and had another kick bounce off the right upright and miss just before half. If you’re doing the mental math, that is just 1 first half punt. He was not perfect and plays were left out on the field, but the first half passing game showed promise.
There were also missed passes that could have helped push the offense forward. The deep miss to Smith is a difficult pass considering the wind conditions, but I’d like to see him find a way to at least allow someone with Smith’s ability to make a catch while “covered” an opportunity at the ball.
These misses come from miscommunication, missed blocking assignments, or flat out misses by the quarterback. All of these lead to the same thing, a lack of points.
The second half was a combination of each of those. Add in the lack of run support and a quarterback who late in the game felt pressure that wasn’t there and the recipe dishes out another disappointing loss. There were drops, poor passes, and poor decisions. Each of those items needs to improve with no gimme games in sight.
One area that would help the offense is an improved play action game. Currently Petras is 8-16 on play action passes with 1 interception. On those longer developing plays, he does not appear comfortable with his reads at this stage of the season. Iowa’s 17% play action rate on passes is one of the lowest in the conference.
Defense does its part
During the game, Northwestern’s rushing attack felt like death by 1000 needle pokes. Going back through the game, I was much more impressed by Iowa’s overall defensive performance. Iowa held the Wildcats to 2.7 yards per carry and that number only goes to 3.3 yards per carry when sacks are excluded. Ramsey’s first half scrambles were cut off and Iowa’s defense gave the offense multiple opportunities to go out and win this game.
That started with the outstanding play of the two defensive tackles, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin. Nixon continues to make plays for the Hawkeye defense and Heflin looked more like what we saw on film from his days at Northern Illinois.
We come to expect outstanding play from a Phil Parker defense, but we are seeing an individual performance from Nixon that rivals any interior defensive player in the last 20 years at Iowa.
Nixon is powering through double teams with ease and finishing with remarkable explosion.
Normally defensive tackles are a non-factor on misdirection outside runs. Here, Nixon is able to not just beat the reach block attempt, but then has the quickness to get to the running back who has both a step and the angle to start.
Physically, Nixon’s combination of quickness and agility for a defender of his size is unique. As a 3rd year player at Iowa, he is now developing his moves and hands as well. He is capable of giving a quick shake and then violently slaps the hands of the right guard out of his way. Once he does that, it’s his ability to close on the quarterback and finish the play that stand out beyond so many others at his position. Interior lineman are rarely capable of putting up the numbers Nixon did: 11 tackles, 3 TFL, and 1.5 sacks.
Early in the game Northwestern tried to take advantage of his quickness by trapping Nixon. He does an excellent job of reading the play and not getting removed by over aggressiveness. Once again, his ability to close on the ball jumps off the film.
Next to Nixon on many of the snaps is graduate transfer Jack Heflin. Heflin is a big bodied tackle, who specializes in his ability to hold the point of attack. While not as explosive as Nixon, Heflin eats up double teams and is capable of finishing the play.
Having a player like Heflin makes everyone on the defense more effective as he contains lineman with impressive strength and leverage. At nearly 320 pounds, he is going to win a large percentage of his one-on-one matchups. Here he shows that strength and also his ability to make plays in the backfield like Nixon.
His steadiness at the point of attack will allow Iowa to be more creative with Nixon and allow him to shoot gaps at times.
For one, don’t expect Spencer Petras to be asked to carry the load in windy conditions again (or any conditions). The message was sent pretty clearly by Kirk Ferentz that Iowa needs to utilize the run game to support the offense and the defense.
Northwestern dropped 7 to 8 defenders in passing situations during the 2nd half and Iowa had no clean answer for their defense. With young quarterbacks, those experiences need to be quickly absorbed and processed to be able to counter the looks that will be duplicated by future opponents.