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The Rewatch: Penn State

Iowa capitalizes on 4 interceptions and 8 false starts

Syndication: HawkCentral Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

“I felt like our tempo, for parts of the game, was really good. I thought our offensive line grew a week ago, and they did some things today that were impressive ” - Kirk Ferentz

It was advertised as the type of game the Hawkeyes had not hosted in a generation. These top 4 ranked teams faced off in historic Kinnick Stadium, and the Iowa Hawkeyes came out victorious. While the lofty rankings were unusual, the game played out in the most Iowa way a game could be played. It came down to turnovers, special teams, sound defense, and timely offense.

Spend 5 games (or seasons) setting up one play

Anyone who watches a half of Iowa football recognizes the play. The quarterback fakes a wide handoff to the left before rolling back to his right. The tight end(s) and receivers all cross the field with the quarterback providing targets at various levels for the defense to cover. Only this time, it isn’t. As slot receiver Nico Ragaini begins across the field, he gives quick head snap toward Petras and shoulder lean to the right. The defensive back takes the bait attempting to beat Ragaini to his spot on the crossing route. Ragaini quickly plants his right foot before breaking his route back to the left. Petras sets his feet and lets it fly all the way across the field. A few seconds later a frenzied Kinnick Stadium is deafening and 100+ Hawkeyes are celebrating on the sideline.

Kudos to the Iowa media staff for collecting amazing football of this iconic play. These various angles bring the play back to life.

A tradition of physicality

Through six games, Iowa has not put up wild rushing numbers, but they have remained committed to using the ground game. While they get the occasional splash play, the continued pressure it puts on the defense to face lineman, tight ends, and fullbacks getting downhill wears on the defense. As teams bring more defenders into the box, this helps open the play action passes that help spark the air attack.

Iowa uses nearly as many two tight end sets as any team in the country. With this heavy personnel, the Penn State defense rolls a safety into the box and rotates the other center to a center field position. While doing this two of the linebackers shift to the boundary side of the formation. The outside linebacker attempts to beat the blockers to the edge, but is met by Sam LaPorta who is working off his tandem block on the defensive end. This creates enough of a seam for Goodson who works through a gap created as interior lineman Tyler Linderbaum and Kyler Schott flow play side.

It is a cumulative effect of getting smacked by blockers that changes the ends of the game, but it starts from the opening kick.

For the second play of the game Iowa is again in a heavy personnel with two tight ends and a fullback. In a formation we are seeing a lot this season, Monte Pottebaum starts out flexed out as a tight end before motioning into the backfield. Linebacker Brandon Smith will likely see Pottebaum in his dreams nightmares due to how many times they collided. The interior of the line gets a great push and Pottebaum blasts Smith leading to a nice pickup on second down against the 8-man box.

At times Penn State was able to get backside pursuit to knock Goodson down for a loss, but when the backside defender could not get to Goodson it often led to a big run.

Even against 8-man boxes, Iowa was able to generate push at the point of attack to move the chains. This commitment to running the ball with heavy formations and against heavy fronts does not produce jaw dropping numbers, but is a winning formula for this team.

I cannot have a section about physicality and not include clips of All-American center Tyler Linderbaum. He brings the fight, and he finishes the fight.

Update: Smith is going to be seeing Pottebaum AND Linderbaum in his nightmares.

Stand and deliver

It is no secret that Penn State has a history of tremendous linebacker and defensive line play. This team, and scheme, highlights that again and they produce plenty of problems for opposing offenses. They will bring players from different spots and different angles to confuse the lineman and the quarterback. At times, players are going to get through the protection and the quarterback will need to deliver a pass knowing the big hit is coming.

Toughness isn’t just for the blockers in Iowa’s system, but also for the quarterback. Facing key third downs throughout the game, Spencer Petras stood tall and delivered accurate passes while defenders were fiercely closing.

With a clear passing situation needing 9 yards on 3rd down, Penn State dials up a zone blitz bringing the middle linebacker and dropping the boundary defensive edge. Petras is waiting for Ragaini to clear his intermediate crossing route with LaPorta as the linebacker avoids a block from Goodson. Knowing he is going to get crushed, Petras waits until the last second before hitting Ragaini who picks up additional yardage after the catch to set Iowa up for a score.

Backed up near their own end zone, Iowa is in need of a first down to help flip the field position battle back in their favor. Once again Penn State sends an interior linebacker up the middle to generate pressure. Petras sees it and is able to hit Charlie Jones on his short crossing route. Jones makes a quick move to fall across the first down line to keep the drive alive.

Freshman receivers continue accent

While true freshman Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV didn’t reach the end zone as they had in recent games, both flashed their play making ability against one of the nations premier secondaries.

Going with an empty set on first down, Penn State stays in their shell defense only putting one defensive back directly over to two Iowa receivers set to the field. This numbers advantage allows Petras to quickly hit Bruce on a tunnel screen and he follows blocks from LaPorta and Ragaini for the first down. Iowa’s lineman are also hunting blocks downfield as left guard Cody Ince lays a thundering hit on the safety.

Early in the fourth quarter Iowa has reached midfield and needs a touchdown to tie the game. Facing second down and long, Iowa lines up Johnson to the boundary with LaPorta, Ragaini, and Jones out wide to the field. While it look like Penn State is in a two high safety look, right before the snap the corner covering Johnson retreats from his press coverage. On the snap the boundary safety quickly looks to LaPorta, who leads the team in targets, on the other side of the field while rotating to the deep middle.

Petras recognizes he has an easy completion to Johnson due to the cushion left by the retreating corner. On the catch Johnson peaks over his inside shoulder before quickly turning to the sideline. After breaking the tackle he tiptoes along the sideline before running through additional arm tackles on his way to his third 40+ yard reception on the season. I love how at the end of the run Johnson seeks out the nearby defender and initiates the contact.

Taketh and taketh again

It wouldn’t be a Rewatch without multiple Hawkeye interceptions to look at and marvel at how they continue to create turnovers.

Following a terrific punt by Tory Taylor, Penn State begins their first possession in the shadow of their own end zone. On a designed rollout, Jestin Jacobs covers the dangerous Jahan Dotson in the flat. Inside linebacker Seth Benson sees the rollout and immediately takes the crease in the offensive line and attacks Clifford. Trying to avoid a safety, Clifford panics and attempts to throw the ball to Dotson but throws it right to Jacobs. It took one play for Iowa to record their first interception of the game.

Iowa’s defense is willing to concede the short passing game, but offensive coordinators and quarterbacks routinely become impatient and take an ill advised downfield shots. Here Clifford is attempting to hit Dotson on a double move. Dotson initially routes inside of Benson and looks as though he will attack the middle of the field before he abruptly heads straight upfield. This does not fool veteran safety Jack Koerner who identifies the route immediately and beats Dotson to the ball near the end zone. These Iowa defenders not only read the play mentally, but finish the play by actually recording the interception at an incredible rate.

Before halftime Penn State is looking to add to their lead while once again starting deep in their own territory. Positioning Dotson by himself to the field with two receivers and tight end to the boundary, Penn State has isolated Dotson creating one-on-one coverage. They decide to take a shot with one of the best deep threats in college football, but Riley Moss recognizes the post route immediately and just like Koerner did before him finishes the play and drive with his fourth interception of the season.

At Iowa, “Punting is winning” is not a catchy phrase, it is a lifestyle. A large part of Iowa’s philosophy of using all three phases working harmoniously requires punting and punt coverage to help control field position. This Iowa team does that as well as any team nationally, or honestly, historically. The trio of punter Tory Taylor with gunners Terry Roberts and Ivory Kelly-Martin make this look far easier than it actually is.