Leistikow's DVR Monday: Bison capitalized on Iowa's stubbornness
If you’re among the many Iowa football fans I know who record the games, you deleted Saturday’s 23-21 loss to North Dakota State from your queue the first chance you got after officials signaled Cam Pedersen’s 37-yard field goal good.
And that’s OK. Because Week 3 of DVR Monday has you covered.
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t pleasant to watch. It didn’t look like Hawkeye football out there — overthrown or dropped passes, mental mistakes, and poor blocking and tackling.
But as coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward, “the only value for us is if we learn” from the steady stream of mistakes that were made in stumbling at home to an FCS program.
Let’s see if we can identify some underlying problems and possible solutions. Roll tape …
High snap counts
I asked Hawkeye defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson after the loss: Did your defense get tired?
The boilerplate answer would be, “Our job isn’t to get tired.”
But after hesitating, he couldn’t help but state what was obvious in person and on film: “Fatigue kind of kicked in. Maybe that’s why they gained so many yards; maybe not.”
High snap counts led to Iowa’s defensive fade down the stretch a year ago, and in this game it jumped off the screen. The Hawkeye defenders lost their legs in the fourth quarter, and coaches were either too stubborn to substitute or they just don’t feel good about their depth.
I charted Iowa’s defensive personnel on all 68 North Dakota State scrimmage plays, and here were the alarming snap counts by position group with commentary:
Defensive ends: Anthony Nelson, 47; Parker Hesse, 45; Matt Nelson, 44. (The workload was well-balanced, but it was obvious on North Dakota State’s final two drives there was zero push from the defensive line. Anthony Nelson was on the field for the Bison's final 23 offensive plays.)
Defensive tackles: Johnson, 55; Nathan Bazata, 42; Faith Ekakatie, 41; Garret Jansen, 2. (Jansen got his two snaps in Iowa’s goal-line package; Johnson was very effective when fresh in the first half.)
Linebackers: Bo Bower, 68; Josey Jewell, 68; Ben Niemann, 68. (The zero-sub strategy took a toll Saturday, and it could show up later in the season, too.)
Defensive backs: Desmond King, 68; Brandon Snyder, 68; Greg Mabin, 66; Miles Taylor, 66. (This was a day where Iowa went with its base 4-3 defense, no matter what. Other than special teams, not one sighting of Manny Rugamba, Josh Jackson or Anthony Gair.)
I won’t pretend to be inside meeting rooms and huddles to know who’s a bit dinged or who’s not mentally ready. But my general viewpoint is that Iowa’s defense could benefit from occasional fresh bodies.
That's especially true on long drives, like NDSU’s 15-play, 80-yard march that covered nearly nine minutes in the fourth quarter and ended on a third-down touchdown pass that was completed because Hawkeye defenders were too slow to react.
Give me one series from Jack Hockaday or Aaron Mends or Amani Jones at linebacker, and maybe Bower or Jewell or Niemann come back out next series with that much more fire. I know Iowa does what it does, but on Saturday, the short-bench approach didn’t hold up.
The smartest thing North Dakota State did Saturday? Turn Desmond King, Iowa’s Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback, into primarily a run defender.
The Bison knew before-hand that King lines up on the right side, and in Iowa’s scheme he stays there — matching up on whoever comes his way. So to negate King, North Dakota State repeatedly sent the wide receiver on King’s side in motion, and a safety would pick that receiver up.
In turn, King was taking on blockers and ball-carriers instead of receivers (he had six tackles, a high number for a shut-down corner).
One key play in the fourth quarter underscored the smart NDSU scheme. After his receiver left him pre-snap, King was met on a power-run play by pulling 6-foot-7, 322-pound senior guard Jack Plankers. The result was a 16-yard jaunt around left end by Bruce Anderson — the longest gainer on that 15-play TD drive.
On his Sunday video interview at the university’s website, Ferentz praised North Dakota State for “making us play left-handed.”
“They’ve got an excellent scheme,” Ferentz added. “Threw a couple wrinkles in there that didn’t decide the game, but a couple wrinkles that were very creative and tried to take advantage of some of the things we do.”
Iowa’s opponents will see this on film. It’ll be up to the Hawkeye staff to find a way to increase King's impact.
Sidenote (unrelated?): I counted zero blitzes on 68 plays Saturday.
Second-guessing is easy to do, especially from behind a keyboard and not from the perspective of a 222-pound linebacker running full speed from behind you.
But C.J. Beathard was one move away from avoiding seven gift-wrapped Bison points. He never sensed Bison linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker charging on a backside blitz in the first quarter, and the play turned into a pick-six interception — not to mention a punishing blow to the Hawkeyes’ most important player.
TV sideline reporter Rocky Boiman provided an interesting tidbit shortly thereafter, noting that he had spoken with ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay earlier that morning. McShay had given Beathard a “Day 2 grade” (second/third round), but pointed out one of the fifth-year senior’s top weaknesses: “He doesn’t feel the backside pressure.”
Left tackle Cole Croston was the closest man to Gee-Tucker — “that should have been picked up,” Beathard correctly noted afterward.
At Big Ten Media Days, opposing players when talking about Beathard were most worried about his ability to scramble out of trouble. When I talked to former Hawkeye great Chuck Long this summer, he noted that Beathard is most dangerous when throwing on the run. But we haven’t seen much, if any, of that in three games.
He's only tried to run five times this season (one was a QB sneak, two were designed QB draws), with a long of 7 yards.
With his receivers struggling to get open and the line seeming leaky in pass protection, Beathard may need to look more urgently at using his legs to buy time to throw.
Stanley provides spark
After Iowa took a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter, the offense stopped working. The Hawkeyes gained 57 yards the rest of the afternoon on 24 plays.
And 50 of those yards came on the five snaps that true freshman Nathan Stanley was quarterbacking the team after Beathard was briefly sidelined with a left shoulder-collarbone injury (a scan came back negative, so he’s good to go).
That’s a compliment to how poised Stanley looked running the team (2-for-2 passing, 45 yards), and how the players around him responded. It was a small sample size, but it was a little reassurance that if Beathard were to go down for a longer period of time, the entire Hawkeye ship might not sink as some have feared.
Sign of respect
A small thing that I thought spoke volumes: In the moments after North Dakota State converted the walk-off field goal, ESPN cameras panned to a section of elated Bison fans. There was one Hawkeye fan in the frame, and he was shown turning around to extend a handshake to a nearby North Dakota State backer as if to say, “Congratulations. The better team won today.”
That type of respect and politeness was not only a good look for Iowans, but for sportsmanship as a whole. Good job, unidentified Hawkeye fan.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.