“For us to do that, to play that way against them and our DBs really looked quick to the football and good anticipation. We’re veteran back there, so I’m not going to say we expected that, but that really helps us if our veterans play like that.” - Kirk Ferentz
I’m not sure anyone saw Riley Moss outscoring Indiana to open the season, but that’s exactly what happened as fans were packed into Kinnick Stadium for the first time in 18 months. Iowa used bigs play on both sides of the ball to essentially put this game out of reach quickly, and force Indiana to play for the rest of the season by early 4th quarter.
Ball Hawk(eye)ing Defense
Iowa finished the day with 3 interceptions, but had another called back due to a late hit on the quarterback. There were several other passes from Michael Penix Jr that easily could have resulted in interceptions as well. Iowa’s defensive backs were ahead of the game mentally and physically against Indiana.
Phil Parker preaches the importance of not giving up big plays. Against Indiana, this was even more important. Iowa’s defensive backs were able to play with a lot of depth and then break on passes by reading the quarterbacks eyes.
On 3rd down and 6, Riley Moss was able to play off his man. As Penix looked left, he had a route combination to took the inside receiver up the field while the outside receiver ran a 3 yard out. Moss had enough depth to take the route past the sticks away and Penix relocated his eyes to the short route. As that happened, Moss broke on the route to keep the ball short of a first down. With the Indiana receiver slipping and then missing the catch, Moss is in a perfect spot for his second career interception return for a touchdown. Even if it had been caught, Moss would have stopped the play well short of the line-to-gain.
Presnap, Moss is playing 9 yards off the line with the ball positioned between the hashes. He has his eyes on Penix the entire time from presnap to pass. The moment Penix takes the snap, he looks to his left and starts his passing motion. At the instant the ball is released Moss is still five yards from the receiver, but he is able to get to the ball because he understands what Indiana wants to do based on the time and field position. He shows off his quickness to get to the ball and then easily gets to the end zone for the second time in the first half.
On the ensuing drive, Indiana has 2nd and 1. Iowa takes away the first to the boundary side where Indiana is trying to isolate Fryfogle against an Iowa linebacker. Penix saw the boundary corner, Matt Hankins, with his eyes on the underneath route, so he quickly shifted his attention to the other side of the field. When interior pressure came from Lukas Van Ness, Penix was forced to escape to the center of the field. He initially looks as though he wants to run for the first down before seeing Joe Evans in pursuit. He continues to drift to his left where he makes a huge mental mistake of not throwing it out of bounds. Dane Belton is tracking both the scramble and the blocking receiver when Penix throws it right at his facemask. Belton records his first interception in highlight fashion.
It wasn’t just the interceptions, but Iowa also recorded 5 passes broken up. Many of these were a result of great depth, eye discipline, and pressure from the defensive line. Penix was consistently pushed off his drop or was prevented from fully stepping into his pass resulting in off target throws.
While Iowa only recorded one sack against Indiana, they were officially credited with 6 quarterback hurries. When rewatching, I would credit them with closer to a dozen times where the pressure from the defensive line caused Penix to alter what he wanted to do. Penix was hesitant, due to his return from a lead leg ACL tear, to step into throws with pressure coming from the interior. Van Ness recorded that sack, but it was his ability to consistently push the pocket back into Penix that caused so many of the errant throws by Penix.
Throughout the game, we saw disruptive pressure from Zach VanValkenburg, Noah Shannon, and Van Ness.
Is it better? Is it worse? Is it more of the same?
While the story of the day was the Iowa defense, the offense was solid enough to aid in pushing and holding the lead the entire time. The offense used a variety of formations to keep Indiana off balance, but outside of the early run by Goodson were not able to hit on any big plays. Two drives were stalled by dropped passes and two others ended in fumbles by Iowa running backs.
Spencer Petras looked most comfortable on traditional drop backs when he was making quick reads and throws. His passes down the seam were clearly improved from last season where Iowa struggled to utilize the middle of the field.
One area Iowa is continuing to struggle is getting positive outcomes from their play action passing game. On the day, Petras was just 2-7 for 11 yards out of play action. On a positive note, both completions did go for first downs. Iowa gave up one sack on play action, and Petras took big hits on two other play action calls where Iowa was attempting to push the ball downfield. In order to win the Big Ten West, Iowa will need to be more success on these plays to take advantage of teams focusing on Tyler Goodson.
Speaking of Goodson, he started 2021 with a bang ripping off a 56 yard touchdown run on the 4th play from scrimmage.
Iowa committed two tight ends to the boundary and Indiana decided to counter with only a corner and single linebacker. Iowa had four blockers to the right of center Tyler Linderbaum and Indiana only had two defensive lineman, a linebacker, and a defensive back. Those five dominated the four defenders, aided by the defensive back deciding not to try to hold containment, and Goodson was not going to get touched on his way to the end zone.
Goodson also deserves recognition for how well he was picking up blitzers. Not only was he willing, but very effective at stopping oncoming rushers.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz utilized his fullback in new ways to open the season as well. Monte Pottebaum was not only lined up in the backfield as a lead blocker in I-formation, but was occasionally lined up as more of a H-back or tight end outside of the tackle. This allows Iowa to give opposing defenses the look of 21 personnel in the huddle, but formationally a look of 12 personnel. Using these concepts Iowa can influence defensive calls based on past personnel tendencies.
Because we saw Iowa jump out to such an early commanding lead, we didn’t see a lot of new wrinkles or new pieces for much of the game. As I mentioned earlier, the drops and fumbles ended four drives that all had above average expected points based on the down and field position. Ferentz mentioned the fumbles were not shocking considering how little the running backs were actually hit in preseason and with Ivory Kelly-Martin returning from ACL surgery. Beyond the fumble, I thought Kelly-Martin looked really good and was able to generate significant yardage after contact in his first game back.
Keep an eye out
One player that rotated in occasionally on defense was sophomore linebacker Jestin Jacobs. Jacobs has tremendous physical gifts for his size and according to Phil Parker is the best coverage linebacker on the team. If what he showed in space and pursuit in these clips are what his future holds, then we may see Parker forced into finding ways to get him more snaps.
We all know about Jack Campbells ability, but Seth Benson was a star against Indiana. As mentioned with Jacob’s ability in pass coverage, Benson is outstanding in his run fits. He slides along with a play before finding the crease to make the stop or engaging and shedding the offensive lineman.
With Campbell, Benson, and Jacobs, Iowa boasts one of their best linebacking trios of the Phil Parker era.