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The Rewatch: Northwestern

Alex Padilla replaces an injured and ineffective Spencer Petras to spark Iowa’s offense

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s there mentally, but just not really able to throw the ball the way you have to be effective. So I felt it was in everybody’s best interest to get him out of there...Alex stepped in and did a really good job. ” - Kirk Ferentz

Following back-to-back ugly three and out possessions, Iowa went to backup quarterback Alex Padilla. The sophomore quickly led Iowa to consecutive touchdown drives and sparked the offense with big plays and an efficient play action pass game.

Where has this play calling been?

Against Purdue and Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes were only able to generate seven points in each game. The offense was not just stagnant. It sucked. Iowa was not able to pass the ball, run the ball, or hang on to the ball.

This week Iowa began the game with three straight runs, a pass, and then a third and nine pass that was designed for Tyler Goodson to catch the ball four yards behind the line of scrimmage with only one blocker in front of him. Possession number two consisted of three consecutive runs before a punt. The final possession for Petras began with a run, pass to Sam LaPorta, and then a throw into the dirt on third down before punting.

When Alex Padilla entered the game, the game plan flipped on its head. On first down, Brian Ferentz calls a throw back screen to Sam LaPorta off play action. It was a short gain, but a noticeable change from first downs to date. Had Kyler Schott been able to just get a piece of the charging defensive back, this play might have ended in six.

With Iowa facing 2nd and 8, you see the Hawkeyes come out in a traditional run formation with two back and a tight end. Padilla reverse pivots out from center and fakes to the full back before setting his feet and getting his eyes on Keagan Johnson running a scissors route across the field. The ball is an inch from being deflected, but finds its way to Johnson for a big first down. I also want to point out the protection Padilla was afforded to be able to find that longer developing route. Iowa kept LaPorta in to aid right tackle Nick DeJong who has struggled in pass protection lately.

The following play did not pick up any yardage, but the concept will shine later. Iowa mixed up their formation with 20 personnel. This allows Iowa to put three receivers on the field in an effort to reduce the defensive numbers in the box. Iowa races Arland Bruce IV across the field in jet motion before handing to Goodson. While this particular play didn’t work, this is a winning concept for the future.

Facing 2nd and 10, Iowa goes shot gun with Johnson singled to the boundary with the other two receivers and LaPorta to the field. Northwestern keeps a double high safety look, but with three eligible receivers to the field, both safeties are near the hashes. Noticing he will have man coverage on Johnson, Padilla floats a perfectly placed ball to the boundary and lets Johnson make a play high pointing the pass while staying inbounds. Johnson has shined with his balance and body control with the ball in his hands this year. He showed off that same body control and balance making this acrobatic catch.

After a botched quick screen to Tyrone Tracy Jr. where Iowa was lucky it was not called a fumble, Iowa bounces back with a score from Tyler Goodson. On early 2nd and long calls, Iowa went to the air. This time in the red zone, Iowa opts for two tight ends but no fullback. After LaPorta goes in motion, he peels back to take on the unblocked defensive end (split zone concept). This allows Connor Colby and DeJong to get a quick double on a defensive tackle pushing him several yards downfield. Goodson hits the hole between Linderbaum and Colby before anyone is able to close. No one in purple was able to lay a finger on Goodson before he scored.

You are allowed to score on consecutive drives?

Iowa kept going with Padilla’s hot hand following the first score. On 3rd and 7 Iowa goes back to their shot gun formation with Johnson to the boundary and the other three targets to the field. This alignment forces Northwestern’s safeties to be stretched horizontally and leave pockets in the middle of the field. On the snap, Padilla looks to his right with LaPorta running a 5 yard stop route in the middle of the field. The middle linebacker follows Padilla’s eyes to LaPorta creating a crease down the middle. This gives just enough room as for Goodson running down the seam. The outside linebacker gives Goodson an inside release knowing he has help to the field, but Padilla’s eyes moved that help far enough to provide a clear passing window. An on time and on target pass leads to a big gain on 3rd down. The route combination and then eye discipline by Padilla was like that of a seasoned vet.

With all of the success through the air, Northwestern’s safeties were not able to dive into the box so quickly. Because of this, Iowa was able to hit on a big misdirection play using LaPorta as a lead blocker for Goodson as he picked up 41 yards.

The initial step from every Iowa player makes this look like split zone. The backside defensive end, who is unblocked, attempts to scrape alongside the left tackles hip, but is not able to react quick enough to Goodson sharply reversing course. LaPorta does not need to block the end who has run himself out of the play and instead can smother the boundary corner back. Using that block and a nice block from Johnson on the safety, Goodson gets deep into Wildcat territory before being run out of bounds.

In the previous drive, I mentioned I liked the formation and concept where Iowa went 20 personnel using the 3 receivers to stretch the field horizontally. They ran Bruce in motion before giving to Goodson, but the play was topped for no gain. This time, Padilla gives the ball to Bruce on the jet sweep. With Pottebaum has his lead blocker, Bruce sets up the final block with a great hesitation move before bursting into the end zone. You can easily tell Bruce spent much of his prep career as a ball carrier by now he uses his incredible short space quickness to setup his downfield blocks to get those hidden extra yards.

Play Action and WR Screens

One thing that has been evident to this point in the season is a lack of play action success...or even calls. Through the first 8 games, Petras was 23/44 for 262 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions on play action. That’s just 52% and 6 yards per attempt. Add on top of that Petras has been sacked 5 times after faking the run.

Against Northwestern, Padilla was went 8/11 for 59 yards and was sacked once. His yards per attempt weren’t any greater than Petras, but the fluidity of movement and ball placement on the move was a huge bonus.

After missing on a possible big play, his coaches gave him another chance with the same call allowing him to fix his mistake and hit Tyrone Tracy for a big first down. You may notice this is once again out of 20 personnel and the play fake causes all three linebackers to take false steps opening plenty of room for Tracy to run his route. Kudos to the staff coming back to this play following the timeout.

Iowa utilized quick screen passes to their wide receivers much more in this game as well. This does two things this team really needs: give their smaller but quick receivers a chance to make plays in the open field and also doesn’t force the offensive line to protect for any extended time.

What I really liked as well was that Iowa mixed the pre snap looks those screens came from. We saw the traditional tunnel screen from the outside receiver

Later in the game, Iowa threw the tunnel screen, but first the first time I can remember, did so to the slot receiver from that same formation. That subtle difference kept the outside corner from being a part of the play has he was run off by the downfield route. It also allows the play to hit a little quicker keeping the linebackers and safeties from getting outside quite as quick.

Another wrinkle Iowa added was hitting and outside screen off of play action. All three of these screens were to different receivers and slightly different

We even saw what looked like an RPO as the line blocks as if it is a run, but Padilla fires it out to Charlie Jones on the slant as the defensive back is playing several yards off at the snap.

Combine these improvements in the passing game with the known commodity in Tyler Goodson, and there is renewed hope that this offense can get on track. The pessimist says it was still just 17 points against a struggling Northwestern defense. The optimist says beating Northwestern is something we should not take for granted. With Padilla slated to get his first career start against Minnesota, we will see if any of these concepts stick long term.