For 10 weeks, Iowa players and coaches have stressed, over and over, that insufficient execution was separating the 2016 team from the success levels it experienced in 2015.
On Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes’ relentless focus on the little things turned into one, giant victory.
Iowa’s 14-13 upset of previously unbeaten Michigan as a 24-point underdog was more about playing 60 minutes of assignment football (and, sure, getting a few breaks).
As this week’s much more upbeat DVR Monday confirmed, this Iowa win was no fluke.
A hidden key
Jaleel Johnson could ship this game film to 32 NFL scouting departments. The 310-pound Iowa senior had the best game of his career -- recording a safety, a sack and nine tackles. The result was being named Monday as the Big Ten Conference’s defensive player of the week.
Johnson played 100 percent of Iowa’s defensive snaps. That’s almost unheard of for a defensive tackle.
How did he do it?
Because Michigan only ran 61 plays.
That’s a season low for any Iowa opponent, and it unlocks a hidden key as to why things hadn’t gone so great for the Hawkeye defense this fall.
An inconsistent offense and leaky rush defense have kept Iowa defenders on the field way too much this season. But on Saturday, as linebacker Bo Bower said afterward, “Everyone played with a lot more passion.”
Here's how and why the defense looked so fresh:
An effective ground game. Iowa executed well in double-tight end packages and was able to pound Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. up the middle of Michigan’s defense. Four of Iowa’s 49 rushing attempts were “explosive” (12-plus yards), which contributed to 32 minutes, 45 seconds of possession time.
Third-down effectiveness. Iowa’s calculated blitzes worked. On a third-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter, Phil Parker sent Josey Jewell and Anthony Gair on a blitz. Good call to hurry quarterback Wilton Speight and keep him from finding playmakers Amara Darboh (one catch, five yards) and Jehu Chesson (two catches, 30 yards) outside. Another earlier Jewell/Gair blitz resulted in a 3-yard loss. Also, Ben Niemann played his best game at outside linebacker. The Hawkeyes finished an acceptable 5-for-15 against third down.
Next men in. It was worrisome to hear pregame that senior cornerback Greg Mabin’s 31-game starting streak would end. And then strong safety Miles Taylor got hurt on Michigan’s first play. But those injuries actually brought fresh legs into the fold. Gently used defensive backs Gair and Manny Rugamba played their first full games of the season, and they gave the Hawkeyes a faster look in run support -- not to mention Rugamba collecting a fantastic fourth-quarter interception in defense of Chesson.
Rugamba looks like the cornerback of Iowa’s future; on Monday he was named co-Big Ten freshman of the week. Only three other true freshmen in 18 seasons have started in Kirk Ferentz’s secondary: Benny Sapp and Bob Sanders in 2000, and Desmond King in 2013. Good company.
Small things equaling big things aren’t as easy to find when you get beat, 41-14. But in another tight home game, I couldn’t help remember while re-watching Desmond King's final punt return how officials didn’t call a borderline face-mask violation against Northwestern’s Ifeadi Odenigbo on Oct. 1. The no-call on a sack of C.J. Beathard changed that game, and Iowa lost, 38-31.
So maybe it was just (for Iowa) that officials called a face mask on King’s runback that set up Keith Duncan’s winning field goal. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t think Mike McCray did enough to warrant the 15-yard flag; neither did ABC broadcasters Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit.
Nevertheless, Iowa will take this one.
Here are some other seemingly little plays I thought really mattered Saturday:
- On third-and-goal on Michigan’s second drive, Speight threw toward Darboh in the end zone. But free safety Brandon Snyder, tied up with tight end Jake Butt, saw the ball headed past his head, so he stuck out his left hand, and tipped the ball for an incomplete pass. Three Michigan points instead of seven.
- Leading Iowa receiver Riley McCarron made one catch for four yards Saturday. But don’t underestimate the importance of that leaping, difficult grab with Jourdan Lewis crushing him as the ball arrived. It put the Hawkeyes at Michigan’s 3; if he doesn’t make that tough grab, do they even attempt the fourth-and-goal touchdown pass to Wadley two plays later? Iowa probably would’ve elected to kick the field goal from the 7. Six points instead of three.
- Breaks help. But you have to make your luck. On the second half’s opening kickoff -- a pop-fly boot by Ron Coluzzi -- 263-pound fullback Khalid Hill fumbled after running into a teammate. But a heads-up and athletic play by Iowa fullback Brady Ross secured the takeaway. Ross hurdled Hill to dive after the bouncing ball and tipped it to himself and was able to recover just inside the boundary. If it had squirted out of bounds, it’s Michigan’s ball near midfield. Instead, Iowa took over at the Wolverines’ 43, and the offense turned that turnover into a field goal. Three points and an 11-10 Iowa lead.
Iowa won by one point. If any of those little things don’t happen, we’re probably talking about a 5-5 Iowa team that came up short again. Instead, 6-4 and on to Illinois.
The Register's Chris Cuellar, Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert take a look at Iowa's 14-13 win over No. 3 Michigan.
Coaches appreciation, Part I
I’ve been pretty tough on Iowa’s coaching staff, especially offensive coordinator Greg Davis, in the past few weeks.
One of many things I like about Ferentz is that he’s fair. He understands that he’s subject to media criticism, as long as it’s fair and not personal. In exchange, it’s important for me to be fair about offering praise when it’s deserved.
So, plain and simple: Iowa outcoached Michigan on Saturday.
Davis deserves credit for a creative gameplan that helped the Hawkeyes stay close. Twelve offensive points may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but consider that Hawaii scored three points, Penn State 10, Wisconsin seven, Rutgers zero, Illinois eight and Maryland three against Don Brown’s No. 1-in-FBS defense.
Some of my favorite Davis play calls Saturday:
- The deep ball off play-action on Iowa’s fifth play from scrimmage. The pass from C.J. Beathard to Jerminic Smith fell incomplete -- looked like the receiver’s mistake -- but it was open. Did it loosen Michigan's suffocating defense up a little bit? Couldn't hurt. Iowa took zero deep shots against Penn State.
- The screen pass to Wadley to open the winning drive. After the Hawkeyes had attempted just five passes in the entire second half, the quick flip to the right side put Wadley in space to gain 10 yards and position Iowa in field-goal range at Michigan’s 26.
- The quarterback draw to make Duncan’s kick a chip shot. On third-and-7, backup right guard Levi Paulsen helped seal the middle and, as Beathard said afterward, his focus became, “just do not fumble the ball. I had two hands on it the entire time.”
Wadley gained 167 yards (72.6 percent of Iowa's total offense) on a career-high 28 touches, and they came in a variety of ways after Davis deployed a very predictable approach at Penn State.
Wadley touched the football on 28 of his 36 snaps.
The Wadley breakdown: Five receptions for 52 yards; two pitch-left runs for 18; two handoff-left runs for 11; 13 up-the-middle handoffs for 59; two handoff-right runs for 17 (one had fake action to the left); two pitch-right runs for 10; one shotgun handoff for 1; one jet-sweep handoff for minus-1.
That’s how you use your most explosive offensive player.
Good job, Greg Davis.
And props to run-game coordinator Brian Ferentz credit, too. Surely his hands were also in the mixing bowl.
Coaches appreciation, Part II
On fourth-and-goal from the 3 late in the first half, I tweeted my support for taking the three points. Kirk Ferentz, though, proved me and a lot of fans wrong by going for the TD -- and getting it.
He also went for a fourth-and-1 (and got it) after Ross’ fumble recovery, a development that maintained Iowa's momentum.
Ferentz’s clock management was perfect on the final drive, too.
It was all good to see after a play-not-to-lose strategy was apparent at Penn State.
One of the best game-management moves Ferentz made Saturday was calling timeout after King’s unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty in the first quarter. Instead of third-and-11, that unforced mental error by a senior gave Michigan first-and-goal.
Instead of letting one bad development turn into another, the timeout gave defensive coordinator Parker time to calm down the troops. The Hawkeyes then held Michigan to a field goal.
The Hawkeyes stunned Michigan, 14-13, at Kinnick Stadium.
Ferentz held back tears in a postgame interview with Sam Ponder, but they were released once he reached the locker room, as images from the university later showed.
Clearly, this has been an emotional season for coaches, players and fans. And Saturday was a visual reminder that it’s not over yet, that the Hawkeyes have some fight left in them.
When I asked Jewell afterward how they pulled off such a reversal -- giving up 201 yards to mighty Michigan after allowing 599 to Penn State -- he responded by saying, "Just doing our jobs. I keep saying it over and over again. But I think that was a huge thing. We didn’t do our jobs in the last couple games that we lost.”
In summary: Little things are the huge thing.
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.