Hawkeyes must get inventive in pass game to move football against 'unique' Cyclone defense

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

AMES, Ia. — Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz used the word “unique” five times in his Tuesday news conference when trying to explain how challenging it is to prepare for the Iowa State defense.

The Cyclones line up with three defensive linemen. Senior Ray Lima, a 305-pound moving mountain, is right in the middle. He’ll clog up a running lane (or three).

Iowa State deploys four linebackers, with Greg Eisworth at the hybrid “star” position. Sophomore Mike Rose has the freedom to roam, and he does so as well as anyone in the nation.

The No. 18 Hawkeyes (2-0, 1-0 Big Ten Conference) want to establish a strong running game in Saturday’s 3 p.m. meeting with the Cyclones (1-0) at Jack Trice Stadium (FS1). That’s no secret. But intentions extend only as far as the line of scrimmage. After that, Iowa running backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young will need to find some daylight in order to move the chains.

And that won’t be easy, especially with Iowa minus excellent run-blocking tackle Alaric Jackson.

“You've just got to try to hang in there for the whole 60 minutes and see if you can find a way to work something out,” Ferentz said.

Iowa has won four consecutive Cy-Hawk games, but the past two have provided a stark contrast in styles.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent (10) followed a Tyler Linderbaum block for 41 yards on this pass play vs. Miami (Ohio) on Aug. 31. Sargent's ability to catch the football could be a big key Saturday vs. Iowa State.

The constant has been difficulty breaking off big gains on the ground for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have averaged 3.5 yards per rush attempt in 44-41 wins in Ames in 2017 and 13-3 in Iowa City a year ago.

What was different was how Iowa used its running backs in the pass game, and that may be a key again Saturday.

Everyone remembers Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s two touchdown catches in 2017, including the overtime game-winner.

But Iowa’s three longest pass plays that game all came out of the backfield. Akrum Wadley tore through the Cyclone defense for a 46-yard touchdown that will be featured on Hawkeye highlight reels for decades to come. Running back James Butler had a big 26-yard pass reception in the first half. Even fullback Drake Kulick caught Iowa State by surprise and rambled for 26 yards with a Nate Stanley pass on a third-quarter scoring drive.

In all, Iowa running backs accounted for 127 of Stanley’s 333 passing yards that game. The Hawkeyes wouldn’t have kept pace without them.

Last year, with Wadley, Butler and Kulick all out of eligibility, the Hawkeyes found themselves in a defensive slog. Stanley passed for just 166 yards and no touchdowns. Brady Ross’ 4-yard catch was the only one recorded by a running back.

Nothing about this game is that simple, of course. But it’s worth noting that the 2019 Hawkeyes are again finding ways to get running backs involved in the pass game, particularly Sargent. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has shown some new formations, including seven plays in last Saturday’s 30-0 win over Rutgers in which two running backs were on the field at once. On one occasion, the Hawkeyes had an empty backfield, but Sargent and fullback Ross both split wide on the line of scrimmage.

Against an Iowa State defense that is stingy against the run (115 yards per game last season to rank 14th nationally), look for Brian Ferentz to find different ways to seek big gains in the pass game.

Here are the prime options:

  • “It just makes it challenging on defenses to get two running backs out there, create some confusion. They don’t know what play we can be running,” Young said of Iowa’s dual-back look. The formation is intended to force opposing defenses to commit more players to the line of scrimmage. But Iowa will use play-action and pass out of it. Young even hinted that there are other variations of plays the Hawkeyes will run that they haven’t yet shown.

Sargent is the more accomplished receiver in Iowa’s backfield, with six catches for 77 yards this season, including a 41-yarder in the opener vs. Miami (Ohio). Iowa State will need to account for him.

“He’s got very good hands and he runs good routes,” Stanley said of Sargent. “And then obviously he can make plays when he has the ball in his hands. He has the ability to make tacklers miss and he has the ability to break tackles as well.”

  • Smith-Marsette, now a junior, is off to a strong start, leading the Hawkeyes with eight catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns. Opposite him, Brandon Smith has been tough to handle in one-on-one matchups, using his size (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) to come up with five catches and one touchdown. Iowa receivers have also forced six pass-interference penalties, with Smith typically the biggest mismatch. The weakness of Iowa State’s defense is at the corners, where sophomores Anthony Johnson and Datrone Young are still trying to establish themselves. Look for Stanley to try to exploit them.

“Last year, our best talent was at the tight end position. So you kind of go where your talent is, in some ways, and then everybody else has to fill in around it,” Kirk Ferentz said.

“So we're a little bit more able to make people respect us, I think, out wide now than we were two years ago.”

  • This is odd to say, but the Hawkeyes have de-emphasized tight ends in the pass game this season. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant combined for 10 catches against Iowa State last year but are both in the NFL now. Iowa starts Nate Wieting, but he has yet to catch a pass this season. This could be the week that changes if the Cyclones devote too much attention to the wideouts and tailbacks.

“It all just depends on what the defense gives us. They haven’t been taken out of the progression,” Stanley insisted, speaking of Wieting and backup Shaun Beyer (three catches, 30 yards).

“If they’re open, I’ll throw them the ball.”

Wieting said he’s ready when called on. But that’s been out of his hands so far. Literally.

“We’re just focused on doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, whether that’s running off safeties, whether that’s trying to get open on 'backers or cornerbacks trying to find a mismatch. Winning in the run game. Protecting Stanley when he’s dropping back,” Wieting said. “Coach Brian asks a lot of the tight ends.”

Perhaps Ferentz will ask a little more of them Saturday. One big play by an unlikely receiver could mean the difference between winning and losing.

No. 18 IOWA (2-0) at IOWA STATE (1-0)

When: 3:05 p.m. Saturday

Where: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames

TV: FS1 (Brian Custer, Robert Smith, Sarah Kustok)

Line: Hawkeyes by 1.5

Weather: Partly cloudy and 79 degrees; 15 percent chance of rain; winds from south-southwest at 15 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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