Iowa has been struggling to establish an identity since the new coordinators started in 2012. The offense has been an ineffective attempt to mesh Kirk Ferentz’s run concepts with Greg Davis’s passing schemes. The defense has been somewhat more aggressive under Phil Parker than Norm, but has also lost something there and has been bent and broken too often, allowing long plays. There has been some weird tinkering…a strange mix of conservatism and aggressiveness. We saw some more 4th down attempts, the Raider package, etc… But the play calling was still bland, "safe" players were winning the larger roles, all of the classic stuff we like to joke about with Kirk Ferentz.
In the off-season though, we’ve heard KF talk a lot about the reevaluation of what they do, and who they are. And I think we saw a glimpse into a stable identity of the Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s not a far departure. They still want to pound the ball, control the tempo and the clock, dominate in the trenches, wear a team down, and have more left in the tank to out-execute a team down the stretch. The big change is a larger emphasis on aggression. Going for it more often on fourth down. Running fake field goals. Playing lots of starters on special teams. Calling timeouts to get the ball back with enough time to take a shot before half time. Blitzing at the right time on defense. Going after the QB instead of sitting back in contain.
Last Saturday felt like the best parts of 2013, taken to the next level. I expect Iowa to have a similar game plan against Iowa State as 2013 as well, when Mark Weisman had about a million carries and Iowa tried to hold on to the ball the entire second half with loooong drives. So what are the keys to having the same success tomorrow?
#1 Continue Success With The Running Back Rotation
In 2013 Iowa ran the ball 60 times against Iowa State! Weisman had 35 touches. He was overworked in the beginning of the year and Iowa paid for it later in the season when he was banged up. The duo of LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri should be able to keep a situation like that from happening again. Against the other ISU, the coaches rotated the two intelligently and got the most out of both. Daniels was the every down back, pounding the ball and picking up yards after contact. Canzeri was the third down and change of pace back. He was super effective catching the ball out of the backfield. If Iowa can get a similar production out of each of them, then the offense should be in good shape.
#2 Stretch The Field Some Vertically, Too
Iowa didn’t need to take any shots down the field last Saturday. The horizontal offense worked as well as it ever has. C.J. Beathard got the ball out quick and gave the receivers a chance to make a play… and the receivers did! But the Hawks won’t be able to rely on only the short passing game forever. Iowa State’s secondary, arguably their best unit (definitely their best on defense), has the talent to play press coverage on the receivers and be aggressive in the box. To loosen up the defense, Iowa will to stretch the field more than just horizontally. We’ve seen C.J. chuck it deep plenty of times before. It’s time to bust it out again.
#3 Directional Punting
Iowa State only out-gained UNI by 8 yards and the teams both had two turnovers… and yet the Cyclones won by 24. A very large part of that was thanks to a significant field position advantage due to punting and punt returns. Allen Lazard and Trever Ryen combined for 193 yards and a TD on 8 punt returns. That is nuts -- 24.1 yards per return. Only Maryland (who sadly had Will Likely break Nile Kinnick’s punt return record) has more punt returns yards so far this season.
Punting wasn’t a factor for Iowa last week. Dillon Kidd knocked both of his punts for touchbacks and showed a decent leg averaging 47 yards. But they were not the best-looking punts… The second was kind of a line drive just over the shield, which could have been pretty dangerous if Lazard was the one fielding it. After all the talk about improving special teams, especially punt coverage, the punting needs to live up to its end of the bargain, too.
#4 The Ott Monster
Do we have a better nickname than that? Anyway, Drew Ott could have a chance to build on his two sack performance from last weekend. He’ll be going up against a much more experienced offensive tackle in Jake Campos. But Iowa State as a whole did not protect Sam Richardson all that well last week. He was sacked four times. I expect Iowa to try to apply a lot of pressure on Richardson and get him out of rhythm. When he did have time against UNI, he was quite efficient and completed 72% of his throws. The Hawkeyes need to be disruptive and not give him time to take shots downfield. That disruption will start with Ott getting in the backfield.
#5 Clean Up The Penalties
Iowa had 5 against Illinois State. That is not huge concern, but it could hurt Iowa in a closer game. Given the type of offense Iowa wants to play (where almost every play is a 3-4 yard run or a 7-8 yard pass), a 5-yard false start can be difficult to overcome. The two pass interference penalties on defense last week were almost a big momentum shifter for Illinois State. It was the only time they really had a chance at scoring before the backups were put in. But then Nate Meier had a sack and Nathan Bazata blocked a FG attempt. In a closer, more defensive game (like tomorrow's game could be), giving up free first downs could be be costly.
#6 Make The Right Reads
Iowa State’s defense has made a move to be a base 3-4 to better match up with Big 12 offensse. However, Paul Rhoads said they’ll probably play a lot more 4-3 tomorrow. We’ll see if that's true, though. I expect to see plenty of 3-4 with a lot of blitzing coming from different linebackers. You’d think that Iowa would have a distinct advantage running the ball against 3-man fronts, but it is something that has caused Iowa some troubles in the past. I’m not sure if it's due to having to deal with different looks that they aren’t as used to blocking or if its's due to the more athletic players in the box, but there hasn’t always been the success I’d expect to see.
#7 The Red Zone
We wrote about Iowa’s red zone woes a lot last year. It was pretty bad. Iowa finished tied for 89th in the country in red zone scoring percent and came up empty 12 times in 56 trips. Last Saturda, though, Iowa rolled out a new trips look in the redzone that was pretty successful. When the Redbirds loaded the box, Beathard threw a quick bubble screen to Matt VandeBerg who got some decent blocks and was able to score. When the Redbirds stayed at home and Iowa had number inside, Beathard ran a QB draw for another touchdown. In all, Iowa was 5 for 5 with 4 touchdowns in the redzone. That’ll do.
Iowa State wasn’t nearly as successful week one. They had some kicking troubles as Cole Netten missed two field goals (one from inside the red zone). Quenton Bundrage also fumbled while reaching for the pylon. In all, ISU was 3 of 5 with 2 touchdowns in the red zone. That’ll also do for the Hawks.
#8 Safety Play
Iowa State really made its living against UNI with big plays through the air. They couldn’t run the ball (just 77 yards on 32 attempts). They were awful sustaining drives on 3rd down (they converted just 3 of 13). The Cyclones had the ball 16 times, and only twice did they have drives of over 5 plays – a 10-play drive to open the game that ended in a missed field goal, and a 7-play drive that only went 20 yards and ended in a field goal. But they had 6 passes go for 15+ yards. So the Iowa safeties need to be on alert and keep the ball in front of them. I’d take a multi-interception performance for Jordan Lomax or Miles Tayler, too. It’d be fitting.
Kirk Ferentz likes to compare teams to the past…we did the same a few weeks ago and I said 2006. But I see more 2013 in this team and I think this game will go a lot like the 2013 game. Iowa is going to run the ball a lot and run it effectively. They’ll have some long, clock-chewing drives that will shorten the game. And I think for the most part the defense will keep Sam Richardson in check. The game won’t feel all that close, but somehow the score will be. Maybe a late score by Iowa State will make the final a 1-score game and make us all overly uncomfortable. But Iowa wins and Iowa looks pretty good doing so.
Final Score: Iowa 28 - Iowa State 23