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The Rewatch: Wisconsin

Iowa flips the script against Wisconsin with big plays on offense and a dominant defensive front

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

“We’re hardly done.” - Kirk Ferentz (post game)

History doesn’t always predict the future, but trends in the Iowa, Wisconsin rivalry tend to hold pretty true. If you win the turnover battle, yards gained rushing, and can protect the quarterback, you have a great chance of winning. Iowa’s two fronts gave them the opportunity to do each of those and took advantage of mistakes by the opposition.

Downfield Success

Finally. FINALLY! FINALLY!!! Iowa’s offense has put up points, run the ball effectively, shown creativity with the Wildcat, but had not been able to connect on downfield passes. That all changed against Wisconsin. Spencer Petras was 3-5 with 2 touchdowns on passes of 25+ yards downfield. Prior to this game, the longest “air yards” completion was 24 yards downfield.

The first comes on 1st and 10, with Iowa in a 3 receiver set. The splits by the receivers are all near the line of scrimmage, which forces Wisconsin’s safeties to have tighter splits as well. As Shaun Beyer sprints up field from his inline tight end position, the safety on his side has to respect his in-breaking route leaving the outside corner one-on-one with Ihmir Smith-Marsette. At 8 yards into the route, Smith-Marsette gives a hard step to the outside flipping the cornerbacks hips. This gives him a clean release inside and up the field. With a windy Kinnick Stadium, Petras puts enough air under the ball to allow Smith-Marsette a chance to make the catch without overthrowing him.

As Iowa faces 3rd and 10 Inside the red zone, the offense hopes to inject some life into this game. To this point the offense is 1-9 on 3rd down. Iowa has three receivers all split to the field side with Nico Ragaini to the inside, then Smith-Marsette, then Tyrone Tracy Jr. on the outside. The formation forces Wisconsin to bring one of their safeties into the box. On the outside, Tracy and Smith-Marsette run a smash fade concept. The single high safety recognizes the concept, but Is not able to cover enough ground to get to Smith-Marsette. The play design and execution match perfectly, as Smith-Marsette’s route keeps him far enough on the inside to give Petras space to place the ball between the numbers and sideline. When you watch it again, notice how hard Smith-Marsette swings his arms to the inside at the line of scrimmage to get the defensive back to take a false step inside. With his speed, that’s all he needs to get open in a one-on-one matchup.

My favorite part about the previous play was the fact that Offensive Coordinator Brian Ferentz went back to a concept that showed promise earlier. On 3rd and 10 in the second quarter Iowa runs a similar smash fade concept but from a different formation. There’s contact between the defensive back and Smith-Marsette that goes uncalled, but he still beats the defender downfield. It goes down as an incompletion, the Brian Ferentz puts this in his back pocket to come back later when the Hawkeyes need to score.

Play of the game

I know most would consider the play of the game to be one of the deep passes to Smith-Marsette, but with Iowa holding a narrow 14-7 lead, they face a critical 3rd and 1. Iowa’s set up in their power formation, 22 personnel. The lone receiver, Ragaini, is split out to the field side and sprints across the field in jet motion bringing his defensive back with him. At the time of the snap, there is not a single Wisconsin defender outside of the hash marks. Petras reverse pivots and fakes a handoff to the fullback with Goodson sprinting out the opposite direction. At this point it’s a race to the corner against an inside linebacker. That’s a race Goodson will win 10 times out of 10.

The Iowa offense has Wisconsin on its heels following the big run by Goodson. Iowa chooses to keep attacking downfield utilizing the mismatch when Smith-Marsette is lined up in the slot. Iowa sets up with two tight ends, Beyer and LaPorta, in line to the boundary side of the formation. The two receivers are split wide to the field side with Smith-Marsette inside of Brandon Smith. The play design goes with max protection with three eligible routes. Iowa’s had a history of struggles with Wisconsin’s complex blitz packages but in this game the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs were in lockstep with communication and execution. Alaric Jackson does an excellent job picking up the blitzing outside linebacker giving Petras space to step up in the pocket and deliver the strike down field for Smith-Marsette’s second touchdown of the game. His defensive back has no over-the-top help because once again Iowa schemes a midfield route by the tight end to take the safety’s eyes. By the time the help is able to recognize it, it’s too late. The result is Iowa’s longest pass play of the season, 53 yards.

Two perfect play calls put Iowa up by two touchdowns. In this rivalry, 14 points can feel like 30.

Goodnight Wisconsin

Iowa just picked off Mertz in the end zone, we’ll come back to that play later. The lead is now 14, with a little over four minutes remaining. Against Illinois, we saw Iowa go to the Wildcat formation to finish the game using clock and picking up first downs. This time it was a more traditional formation, but once again Tyler Goodson closes the door on the opponent.

The play is well blocked from the start, but the magic starts when Goodson breaks arm tackles by a safety and linebacker 4 yards downfield. After that it’s a cutback to make a safety and another linebacker miss. Goodson is off to the races for an 80 yard score.

There are great efforts all around on this play. For one, it’s the athletic skill and excellent vision of Goodson that allows this play to even happen. His ability to make players miss using strength and speed matches up against anyone in the Big Ten.

We also need to highlight the play of right tackle Mark Kallenberger. He makes a fantastic block at the start to get inside of the linebacker and turn that linebacker back to the outside creating the crease for Goodson. Once he recognizes Goodson breaking tackles, he chases him downfield for additional blocks. He even hurdles a defender in the process.

We also see excellent effort from Ragaini to get another block on the safety, and we get to enjoy watching center Tyler Linderbaum chase Goodson downfield for nearly 60 yards. I didn’t get the stopwatch out, but I don’t need to. The effort and speed of someone that size who plays that nasty is impressive. That’s a play that goes on a highlight reel.

Shotgun Runs

We continue to see growth with Iowa’s running game from the shotgun. Two plays I want to highlight involve shotgun runs with Mekhi Sargent. The first, we see Iowa run split zone to create a seam for Sargent to pick up a first down. These split zone concepts are great mesh point between Iowa’s traditional zone blocking and the gap schemes that they sometimes use. It’s a way for Iowa to create a running lane and a quick hitter for the running back to get upfield.

The Hawkeye set up with trips to the field side and Sargent split out wide to the boundary. Pre-snap Sargent motions into the backfield for the handoff. The wide split of the trips formation puts only 6 Wisconsin defenders in the box. Iowa has six blockers of their own and wins at the point of attack as Sargent is tripped up just short of the first down.

An extension of these run plays are quick passes to the perimeter with the offensive line firing off as if they are run-blocking. Without being in the huddle, I don’t know if these are pre-called passes or if Petras has a read at the line, but these screens to receivers on the outside are ways for Iowa to keep linebackers from attacking the line of scrimmage vertically.

Fantastic front four

You don’t beat Wisconsin without being able to neutralize their massive offensive line. The defensive line for Iowa was absolutely spectacular this year. On the interior, Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin consistently held up against double teams and allowed Iowa’s linebackers to make plays attacking the running backs, fullbacks, and receivers who were all used in Wisconsin’s rushing attack.

Nixon faces a combo block to the top of the screen as Wisconsin leaves Chauncey Golston unblocked. The offensive lines attempt is to get up field and get on Iowa’s linebackers before Golston is able to make a play. While the combo block is effective, to the bottom of the screen Heflin faces a one-on-one matchup with Wisconsin’s left guard. Heflin stacks and turns the guard who is not able to get both feet past the line of scrimmage. The running back bounces off of his own lineman and into the awaiting arms of Golston and Barrington Wade.

Heflin isn’t just someone who can only hold the point of attack. On this run, he quickly tosses the left guard to the side making the tackle for loss. It is an excellent example of his strength, technique, and agility to make the play in the backfield.

One-on-one or double-teamed from his two-gap technique, Heflin once again destroys the Wisconsin run game. Alongside Zach VanValkenburg, those two take on the center, left guard, left tackle, and push them three yards into the backfield. The offensive line has no choice but to tackle Heflin and VanValkenberg as Seth Benson makes the big tackle for loss.

Greatness for Golston

Chauncey Golston has gone from a nice complementary piece along the defensive line to an absolute star at defensive end. Iowa uses him both inside and outside depending on the defensive package. Golston has always been a fantastic run defender with great boundary discipline, but his pass rush skills have been on full display the last four weeks.

Traditionally Phil Parker does not switch sides with his defensive ends, but that is exactly what happened when Golston was put across from Wisconsin’s star left tackle Cole Van Lanen. Golston looks like another former standout Iowa defensive end as he slaps Van Lanen’s hands, shoots inside, and is able to sack Metz right as he gets to the top of his drop.

Leaving Golston unblocked in the run game is a mistake multiple teams have made this year. On 3rd and short, Wisconsin crashes their right tackle down into Iowa’s interior defensive line. The interior of the defense does its job to hold up the blocks and Golston quickly gets to the running back. He’s able to wrap and pull the ball carrier straight down not allowing him to fall forward for the first down.

Golston’s stop leads to this fourth down attempt by Wisconsin late in the first half. From their own Wildcat formation, Wisconsin attempts to run wide on the condensed Hawkeye defense. As usual, Golston controls the edge by forcing the right tackle into the backfield.

I don’t know how to describe the next event other than to say there is the closest thing to a freight train on the field. Jack Campbell shoots the gap before the pulling center has any clue he’s there and destroys the play well behind the line of scrimmage. I’ve said it before, but guys who are 6’5” should not move like that. Each week, Campbell does something that leaves me audibly laughing as I rewind to watch it again. He’s special and he is just scratching the surface as to what he will eventually become.

Not only does Campbell possess incredible physical skills, but his mental awareness shines as well. With four and a half minutes remaining, Wisconsin is on the doorstep to making it a one score game. Wisconsin’s top receiving target is tight end Jake Ferguson. He’s lined up to the near side across from Golston. He initial engages Golston before attempting to break into his route following the play action fake. Golston alertly stays with Ferguson, but it would not have mattered as Phil Parker was not going to let their top option beat him near the goal line. Iowa used Wade and Jack Koerner to double Ferguson. With the double team, there is a vulnerability to backside crossing routes. Campbell is able to slide under the backside route and interception the late pass.

The Heartland Trophy is back where it belongs as Iowa now holds all four rivalry trophies and has won six straight games. All is good.

Biggest question of the day. What do you think KF’s gamertag would be on that virtual PS5?