“How we play offensively affects our defense, too,” - Kirk Ferentz (post game)
Iowa’s offense and defense started slowly, but eventually turned it around to dominate the final 40 minutes at Illinois.
The first three possessions were about as ugly as it gets for both the offense and the defense. The offense began the day with consecutive 3 and outs totaling 3 yards. On the other end, Illinois scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions with quarterback Brandon Peters dropping dimes throw-after-throw. It looked like Iowa’s streak of allowing less than 25 points was about to end before halftime.
Then Phil Parker hit the button he’s hit frequently during his 9 years as Iowa’s defensive coordinator. All of a sudden, the defense turns it around to force Illinois into three consecutive 3 and outs. The quick stops allowed Iowa to flip the field position game and give the offense short fields to chip away at the 14-0 deficit.
Wildcat is for closers
Each week, I’ve highlighted how the use of the Wildcat formation has helped Iowa improve from a three year stretch of short yardage struggles. Against Illinois, the Wildcat shined through as a late game weapon to help put a game away while keeping the clock running. With about seven and a half minutes remaining, Iowa took over deep in their own territory following a fourth down stop inside the red zone. After picking up an early 3rd and 4 conversion through the air, Iowa went to a ground attack with Tyler Goodson playing Wildcat quarterback.
It started with a few basic looks with Iowa stretching the defense horizontally.
Iowa kept a nice mix of formations with their Wildcat package. The previous two plays had all three running backs Goodson, Mekhi Sargent, and Ivory Kelly-Martin in the backfield. Keeping with that backfield, put both wide receivers to the field side. As Goodson hands to Kelly-Martin, the entire defense flows to the field, but does not account for Ihmir Smith-Marsette coming back for a reverse. He is led downfield by Tyler Linderbaum and Jack Plumb on his way to a 31 yard pickup.
Iowa also mixed wide receivers into the backfield and kept the defense off balance with Goodson mixing keeping the ball with handoffs. Following a fake to Tracy and nice pickup on first down, Goodson gives to Tracy on the next play for a near touchdown up the left side. Illinois simply has no answer for the tempo and physicality Iowa is playing with out of these formations.
In the red zone, Iowa goes back to a traditional set, but gives to Smith-Marsette on the jet sweep for the strong finish to the drive. Brandon Smith and Monte Pottebaum lead the way for the score and continue to be exceptional with their run blocking.
By the time the drive had concluded, Iowa had polished off 35 straight points and there was under two minutes remaining in the game. Iowa’s version of the four minute offense didn’t just salt the game away, it threw it right into Illinois’ wounds.
Signs of progress
As Iowa’s pass attack has a struggled this season, many of us are just hoping to see the foundational steps of improvement from Spencer Petras at quarterback. There have been times this season where it feels like it has been more regression than progress. This week, Iowa took advantage of a porous Illini pass defense as Petras threw for three touchdowns.
Beyond the touchdowns, it was nice to play passes made that were not being made earlier in the year. Over the past three weeks the only plays that seemed to work in the passing game were play action waggle, play action swap boot, play action skinny post, and dig routes. Iowa mixed those in this week.
Early in the season, Brian Ferentz called several running back screen plays that were well timed and designed. A lack of execution from Petras though kept any of them from connecting and kept Iowa from key first downs and possibly scores. This week, Iowa went back to those screens and Petras looked much more comfortable making those throws. The first lead to a nice pickup on third down to set up a fourth and manageable. Two plays later, Iowa is in the end zone sparking life into the offense.
Iowa went back to the screen pass to the other side again in the quarter. Early in the season Petras let the pass rush get to close and and could not accurately locate the screen pass. He looks much more confident with his eyes and throwing motion at this point. Another opportunity to get Goodson touches with open space will help this offense continue in the right direction.
Through the first part of the season, Petras really struggled over the middle of the field to find the right combination of velocity and trajectory. Against Illinois, Petras found the combination hitting the seams of the defense and managing to find gaps in the zone by hitting tight ends inside the numbers. Prior to this game, the only passes Petras was hitting with consistency were the digs on the outside of the numbers.
Like most quarterbacks, Petras has found his best success staying on schedule with his timing and footwork. For one of the first times this season, Petras found connections past his back foot hitting the ground and cutting loose on that initial read.
No play highlights this more than his touchdown pass to Shaun Beyer. Petras has to wait for the play to develop as Beyer breaks outside and then up the field. With pressure in his face, Petras drops it in the bucket where only Beyer can come down with it earning his (well overdue) first career touchdown.
Another excellent example was Iowa’s two point conversion. Petras is looking to the inside at Nico Ragaini, but when coverage slides his direction, he quickly flips his hips to the outside and decisively delivers a strike to Goodson. Because he does so quickly, Goodson has enough time to dive in before the defense can converge.
Best of play design
Earlier in the game, Iowa found their way inside the Illini 10 yard line. Following three consecutive perimeter passes that were not close, Iowa had to settle for a disappointing field goal before halftime.
This time Brian Ferentz let Smith-Marsette, one of Iowa’s top weapons, make the play without forcing Petras to need to do anything special. Petras does a great job of putting the ball on the lead hip so Smith-Marsette does not need to change speed or direction. With Brandon Smith’s tight split, the field corner does not have positional leverage to contain the play with Smith-Marsette’s head of steam from going in motion. Easy pitch and catch this time.
On a 4th down that was immediately followed by a touchdown pass, Iowa drew up another perfect play design. Iowa catches Illinois in a single high safety look. One safety has come down into the box over Iowa’s inline tight end. By putting Smith-Marsette in motion, he gets a clean release and finds the zone transition space between the linebacker and corner. As Beyer releases to the outside, the safety follows and the field corner plays well outside of Smith-Marsette who is able to release inside holding the linebackers before he turns outside finding himself in the empty zone gap.
Obligatory Nixon highlight
Each week we could go in depth on the excellent play of Daviyon Nixon. This week, we go with one play that represents Iowa’s play on defense over the final 40 minutes of the game. Nixon and Golston meet for the sack and Joe Evans is close behind. Iowa’s defensive front continues to dominate with those three along with Jack Heflin and Zach VanValkenburg getting the bulk of the snaps. Whether against the run or pass, Iowa’s defensive ranks in the upper echelon in all of college football.
Nixon and Golston are a nightmare for opposing interior lines in these pass rush scenarios.
After scoring two touchdowns in three possessions to start the game, Illinois only totaled 49 yards on their next 6 possessions before getting a few bonus garbage yards and points at the end of the game.