“I don’t know if I want to call it a dominant performance, but we played at a high level out there” - Kirk Ferentz
While Kirk Ferentz wouldn’t say it was dominant, I sure will. Iowa forced seven Maryland turnovers and successful used their ground and air attacks to put up 51 points. The Iowa Hawkeyes had a prime time spot on Friday night and used it to show the nation what they were capable of against a previously undefeated Maryland team who had everything to play for in front of a full blackout crowd.
If you throw it, Iowa defenders will come
Iowa’s defense under Phil Parker has been known to be stingy and tough to score on during his tenure as the defensive coordinator. In recent years, that has even been extended to be difficult to move the ball through the air without turning it over. For the third time this season, a hyped quarterback spent the 4th quarter of a game watching from the sidelines due to a plethora of interceptions.
What makes consistent success so amazing to me is Iowa isn’t sacrificing the opportunity for big offensive plays to try to create big defensive plays. They consistently sit with two high safeties at the snap and alternate a few “simple” zone concepts.
Riley Moss gets the pick party started due to an errant throw from Taulia Tagovailoa while he was facing pressure from the defensive line. On the back end, Iowa appears to be in Cover-2 with Moss sitting short on the underneath route and safety Jack Koerner taking the corner route. Upfront, Iowa ran a twist with tackles Lukas VanNess and John Waggoner. VanNess does a great job of crashing into the left guard and center allowing Waggoner to come free around the other side. With the interior pressure, Tagovailoa was no able to step into his throw on the corner route and the ball fluttered as Moss retreated following Tulia’s eyes.
Early second quarter with a 10 point deficit, Maryland starts to get impatient and attempts to push the ball downfield with Iowa in a Cover-4 look as both corners and safeties drop deep into coverage. Linebacker Jack Campbell does a great job of reading Tagovailoa’s eyes and knowing the guy he handed off is trying to work the middle of the field. Using his 6’5” frame he is able to leap and tip the ball right to Koerner.
Maryland scored a touchdown early by mixing in more of their short pass attack, but could not stay patient as Iowa stretched the lead. Iowa continued to drop defensive backs in coverage who were able to watch routes develop and read the quarterback’s eyes to make plays on the ball.
Off play action Tagovailoa drift to his left waiting for his deep routes to develop. Dane Belton and Jack Koerner do an amazing job of swapping routes as their players cross and exchange depth. Tulia thinks Belton will stay with his man and throws to the middle depth and Belton wins the race to the ball. This is a perfect example of two players who have been on the field a together for multiple seasons and know exactly how to work their zones. This begins the pose I will now refer to as “The Tagovailoa” - where one puts their hands on their head in disbelief.
Just because Iowa had a dominant halftime lead, it didn’t keep them from continuing to ruin Maryland’s night. This time Iowa was in Cover-3 with both corners and Merriweather dropping into deep coverage. Free safety Quinn Schulte comes forward to roam the middle of the field. Even with backup corner Jermari Harris and backup safety Sebastion Castro, we see a perfectly executed redirect from Castro and exchange by Harris. Tagovailoa isn’t able to put enough on the ball to fit his tight window between Harris and Merriweather as the later is able to step in front of the receiver to record his first career interception. And there it is again, another Tagovailoa pose.
Iowa wanted to make sure all Maryland quarterbacks got to experience the joy of giving, as Schulte was next on the list to take one away. At the snap, Schulte is actually playing the far hash and the backup quarterback attempts to look his way to keep him in the middle of the field. Despite that effort, he still gets all of the way to the opposite sideline in time to score the interception. I also want to take the time to highlight Louie Stec who pressures the quarterback forcing him to rush his throw a little. Because of this he attempts to put more air under it and floats it too far. Reggie Bracy throws his man so far out of bounds blocking for the return he actually gets called for a sideline penalty.
The Iowa passing game earned its highest marks for the season as Spencer Petras completed 70% of his passes for 259 yards and 3 touchdowns. Iowa successfully integrated their screen game, intermediate route, and downfield passing to force Maryland to pick their poison following each route combination.
During the season, I’ve taken portions of The Rewatch to focus on Iowa’s play action passing attack. Early on, it was ugly. Very ugly. Iowa seems to have found their stride over the past two weeks. This week, it felt like Sam LaPorta was going to pick up a first down every time Iowa ran play action his way. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz utilized motion to put LaPorta in the backfield allowing him to cross the field against the grain much easier than when he is inline. He was consistently able to outrace his defender to the flat and then get upfield. The scheme is better, and Petras has improved his ability to get the ball to LaPorta in a timely manner and allow him to get upfield for additional yards after the catch.
On the first play, watch Lachey as he pulls a Kittle and drives his man into the turf with his downfield blocking
Why was this look so effective all game when it is the same action each time? It is because the offensive line and LaPorta mirrored their movements whether it was a run or pass. Here are two examples on back-to-back plays where Iowa runs split zone. This is a zone blocking scheme where the offensive line all blocks in one direction and LaPorta (or Tracy on the final clip) comes across the formation to block off the backside pursuit.
The only thing that changed on the pass plays was LaPorta would fake his block and slip to the flat. You can see how this stresses the backside defender who sees everything happen in front of him the same regardless of run or pass.
Iowa didn’t just use the running backs as decoys with the play action but also threw to both Tyler Goodson and Ivory Kelly-Martin multiple times. To this point in the season, Iowa had been having their running backs roll to the flat in the passing game as a release value in the event of pressure or downfield coverage. This week, Iowa was able to isolate Goodson on a single defender coming out of the backfield and get upfield instead of horizontal toward the sideline. I’m not sure if it was an option route where Goodson has the choice between those routes, but it looks like what is known as a Texas route where Goodson arrows toward the sideline before cutting back upfield. A linebacker doesn’t have a chance to stay with Goodson as he is caught either flatfooted or off balance biting on Goodson’s fake to the outside. Once again we see Petras deliver on time and in a location that allows Goodson to protect himself and gain additional yards after the catch.
Off schedule but on target
To date, Petras has struggled when the play gets off schedule and he’s pushed off his spot during his drop back. This week we saw two plays were the play’s timing got off, but he stuck with it and delivered an accurate pass.
On the first, the pocket is pushed in from his right side so Petras drifts to his right but keeps his eyes downfield. Even though he drifts right and back, Petras utilizes his arm strength and release to hit Charlie Jones near the sideline for the first down.
With the second clip, Petras is not forced out of the pocket, but the Arland Bruce has not come out of his break when Petras wants to throw. He double clutches the ball, but still keeps his footwork underneath him and rips the ball to Bruce on the slow developing crossing route.
In full command
We are accustomed to seeing Petras come to the line of scrimmage and call to the Mike linebacker so he and the offensive line are on the same page with the blocking scheme. We have even watched him get the offense out of a potentially bad play by audibling to a safe run play.
For one of the first times I can remember, we see Petras either audibles to an aggressive pass play or at minimum communicates a sight adjust with the receivers. As he sees Maryland with a single high safety, he knows he will have Charlie Jones with 1-on-1 coverage downfield. The outside receiver sits with a short hitch route as Jones works his way deep toward the sideline in what is known as a Smash-Fade route combination. The single safety cannot get to the sideline and the outside corner is staying short with the outside receiver. Jones does the rest and makes the highlight reel catch.
On the All Eyes Podcast, Rob Donaldson and I have been discussing how having arm strength like Petras can really open up the passing options. This isn’t just about an ability to throw deep downfield, but also the ability to stretch the field horizontally. Iowa’s offense is open to sideline throws from the far hash because Petras has the ability to keep that ball on a line and not allow the defender to break underneath the long pass.
Speaking of the All Eyes Podcast and my co-host Rob, I’m going to link the video he posted this week highlighting the aggressive nature of this Hawkeye offensive line and all of their pancake blocks. None of this offensive explosion is possible without the work the offensive line is doing for both the run and pass games.