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FOUR FACTORS IN REVIEW: IOWA VS ILLINOIS STATE

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A new Iowa Hawkeyes? It looked like a blend of the best parts of 2013 and 2014. While one game against a FCS team (while probably a rather good FCS team) isn't going to tell us a lot, what we saw on Saturday was at least encouraging.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It started after C.J. Beathard threw a bad pick six against Purdue last year. Iowa has been agressive and kind of dominant against teams that were clearly less talented. That has certainly not always been the case during the Kirk Ferentz era. But as I’ve written a few times, take a look at the score of the games against the bottom half of the B1G last year. Iowa won those games (against Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois) by a combined score of 147-60. If it weren’t for Tevin Coleman being superhuman, then that total would have been even more lopsided.

The Hawkeyes were able to do that by displaying a seemingly un-Ferentz aggressiveness… for instance, by going for it on fourth down, like a lot. In those four games, Ferentz went for it on fourth down nine times. And though they only converted three of those nine attempts, those calls set the tone.

Iowa continued that trend on Saturday. They wasted no time going for it on fourth down. On the first one they faced, a 4th-and-2 on ISU’s 14, Beathard hit Tevaun Smith on a slant for 5 yards. Two plays later, Beathard scored on a draw. The next fourth down?…Iowa faked a field goal! Kirk Ferentz, you dog. A fake field goal?! Maybe it was just to throw something on film for opponents to think about this year. Maybe it was throwing a bone to the fans. And, yeah, it came up two yards short. But it was awesome.

In Review

The Linebackers

Did you notice the linebackers on Saturday? Not really… and that’s a good thing. They played their role in a dominant defensive performance. The defensive line was constantly in the backfield and Drew Ott was practically unblockable. The starting four on the defensive line combined for 16 tackles, 5 TFL, and 3 sacks. When the Redbirds tried to attack the perimeter, the corners were very solid in run support. Greg Mabin had some fantastic tackles.

But there was still work for the LBs to do. In his first start and first really significant playing time, Cole Fisher led the team in tackles with 8. Josey Jewell added 5 tackles and looked comfortable in his MLB role. And finally Ben Niemann…2.5 of his 3 tackles were for a loss. He looked good coming off the edge on the blitz.

They weren’t really tested much in coverage. Tre Roberson barely had time to throw. There was a play early that Fisher was a few steps slow to get to a receiver on a short route, but that the only time I really saw any coverage issues from the linebackers.

Depth

Iowa shut the door on any possible comeback (though really there was never a question of it happening) at the end of the third quarter, when the coaches decided to use their greater conditioning and depth to their advantage and rattled off a 13 play, 6:33 drive. Between almost every play, Iowa did mass substitutions, rotating in fresh players. Then they pounded the ball. 10 runs and just 3 passes. Then the next time they got the ball it was more of the same as they put up a 10 play, 5:22 drive that also ended in a TD. Game over.

This felt a lot like the early part of 2013, before Mark Weisman became overworked and too beaten up to be highly productive. Iowa bowled over opponents by running Weisman over and over and just wearing defenses down. Against Iowa State, they put together a 9-play TD drive, followed by the 15-play drive that pretty much put the game out of reach. Then a few weeks later against Minnesota, they did similar things (though those drives only ended in field goals) with four drives in the second half going over 4=four minutes. It was an offense that really helped the defense by keeping them off the field.

The defense also showed some depth too, rotating guys in along the line and at linebacker. Parker Hesse was a nice surprise as a backup DE. Matt Nelson was also decent. We’ve seen in the past a lack of depth on the line and as a result some pretty tired-looking dudes in the fourth quarter. If Hesse and Nelson can play well, that will give Ott some relief so he’ll be ready to be a terror at the end of games.

All That Talk About Special Teams

Marshall Koehn – he is good. His fake FG was oh so close. And after watching so many college kickers miss 40-yarders this weekend, it is a real luxury to have Koehn, who after some early jitters last year has been really good.

The shield punt was a thing, and it could maybe use a little more work to make it seem less likely that one will get blocked in the future. But for now it worked. Dillon Kidd didn’t have a punt returned and both went for good distance. Now he just has to keep them out of the endzone.

Desmond King as a returner turned out to be a good thing. On his kick return, in hindsight he probably should have kneeled in the end zone. But his two punt returns were very solid. He made the first guy miss and was able to get positive yardage both times. Iowa averaged just 5.1 yards per punt return last year, and King had returns of 17 and 9 yards. I’ll definitely take that.

C.J. Beathard

During the game I was trying to put a label on Beathard’s performance. Game manager? Good? Great? He wasn’t really asked to do a whole lot. He didn’t ever really look to go deep. He rarely took long drops. He mostly threw quick, short passes and let his receivers make plays from there.

It was the kind of offense that Greg Davis and Kirk Ferentz have wanted since they first tried to marry their two philosophies. The running game was basically the same. A bunch of zone plays, a couple power plays, and a mix of QB draws/bootlegs that Beathard does run very well. There were a few more pin-and-pull outside zones, that Iowa has used off and on the past few years. Daniels first big run featured two pulling linemen.

The passing game was also pretty similar in the playcalling. It was somewhat horizontal, mostly using Matt Vandeberg as the quick route target on a couple of effective bubble screens. Even on play-action, the passes were quick. There was a really nice play-action pass to Jacob Hillyer for 18 yards on Iowa’s second drive…it was a run fake to get the linebackers to bite, then a quick pass to Hillyer in the space between the charging LBs and the safeties sitting back in coverage. Had the throw been a little better it might have gone for an extra 15 yards.

But that was really what Beathard brought to this game…the ability to get the ball out quick and mostly on target allowing the receivers time to make plays.

Up Next

I expect a pretty similar game plan for Iowa State. Pound the ball, wear them down, win the game in the fourth quarter. It worked two years ago and Iowa should have the personnel to make it work again. I can’t wait for Saturday.