Leistikow's DVR Monday: 'Decisiveness' delivers Illinois shutout
Iowa’s 28-0 shutout of Illinois was all about the “D.”
Sure, defense. But head coach Kirk Ferentz brought three other “D” words that exemplified a stingy effort in conditions better suited for outdoor ice hockey:
“They played with a lot of determination,” Ferentz said. “A lot of discipline; a lot of decisiveness.”
That was a new term from Ferentz, and one that showed up on this week’s DVR Monday review after the Hawkeyes improved to 7-4.
In interviews with Hawkeye defenders, you regularly hear a key credo behind Iowa’s 4-3 scheme: Limit the big plays.
Saturday was a clinic on why that's so important.
Almost every time Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt completed a pass, there was a Hawkeye ready to make a solid tackle and limit the damage.
Lunt completed 19 balls Saturday. On 11 of them, receivers gained zero yards after the catch. On the other eight, the yards-after-catch total was 43 yards.
Do the math: That’s a 2.26 yards-after-catch average. (And most of those yards were after short third-down passes where Iowa was content to keep Illinois in front of the first-down sticks.)
“That’s trust,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “Believing in everybody else.”
Illinois’ first play from scrimmage Saturday was a 16-yard run to the left side by Kendrick Foster. Iowa linebacker Bo Bower got caught in no-man’s land.
After that, Illinois rushed for 45 yards on 23 carries.
“Made a correction. That was honestly on me,” Bower said. “After that, we were good to go.”
The very next play, Lunt rolled out in play-action. Senior safety Anthony Gair, making his third career start, saw what was happening and started running full-speed ahead. As soon as Lunt found tight end Tyler White at the line of scrimmage, Gair pounded him to the ground for no gain.
That was decisiveness. The tone was set. Illinois punted on its first 10 possessions.
The Week 11 decisiveness shown from linebackers Bower, Jewell and Ben Niemann and safeties Gair and Brandon Snyder is a big improvement from Week 1.
If you recall, against Miami of Ohio — despite a 45-21 win — the Hawkeyes gave up 158 yards rushing. A red flag that, on that day, caused Ferentz to say, “Maybe we were overthinking.”
That wasn’t an issue Saturday.
Clutch into-the-wind moments
Much was made of Iowa electing to kick off both halves to capture the 25-mph wind advantage in the first and third quarters.
But without two key second-quarter plays against the wind, that strategy might have backfired.
Play No. 1 happened after C.J. Beathard’s pass went off Riley McCarron’s hands for an interception, putting Illinois in business at Iowa’s 44-yard line. (Heady play from Adrian Falconer, by the way, to tackle interceptor Dillan Cazley for no gain — another case of zero yards after the catch.)
Anyway, the key play: On third-and-2 from Iowa’s 36, Jewell knifed inside a gap created by Nathan Bazata to stuff Foster for a 1-yard loss. Illinois chose to punt, and Ryan Frain’s boot went into the end zone for a touchback and 17-yard net. A potential disaster averted.
Play No. 2 came after Iowa had taken a 7-0 lead. This time, Frain had cornered the Hawkeyes on their own 2 with 1:48 left in the first half. Iowa went three-and-out and had to punt from the 11 into the stiff wind.
But Ron Coluzzi — what a gift his grad-transfer arrival from Central Michigan has been — hit a low punt like a golfer hits a knock-down 5-iron into a stiff breeze and got a straight-ahead bounce. Instead of a 20- or 25-yard punt (which would be expected given the conditions), Coluzzi’s kick rolled dead for a net of 42.
“I’m kind of used to it, growing up in the Midwest. I like to kick in the snow,” the quotable Naperville, Ill., native explained. “It helps you prepare for games like this, so you’re not whining about the ball being really hard.”
The Hawkeyes held the Illini from there, then took advantage of the wind in the third quarter to start pulling away.
Tight ends were busy
It looked like Beathard might have targeted Peter Pekar once Saturday, but that was tipped incomplete, and the target officially went to underneath-man Noah Fant.
Pekar is still looking for his first career catch, but his usage as Iowa’s starting tight end with George Kittle sidelined has been significant anyway. In fact, the Hawkeyes seem to be involving more tight-end options with Kittle out.
I charted 112 tight-end snaps on Iowa’s 66 offensive plays Saturday.
Pekar played 55 snaps, almost exclusively as a blocker. Backup Nate Wieting also got 32 snaps in multiple-tight end sets, also primarily as a blocker. And Fant, the true freshman, got the most pass-game action with a team-best three receptions for 25 yards on his 22 snaps. (Fourth-stringer Nate Vejvoda got the final three snaps, when Iowa ran out the clock.)
Iowa would love to get Kittle back, but its makeshift combinations are 2-0 without him. That was evident on a flare pass to Fant — it went for 10 yards, in large part because Pekar blocked strong safety Taylor Barton all the way into the Illini bench.
The first time running back Akrum Wadley lined up as a slot receiver with LeShun Daniels Jr. in the backfield Saturday — a combination Iowa first used two weeks earlier at Penn State to gain five yards on three rushing plays — it became a 50-yard touchdown.
Illinois had seen film of Wadley in that formation, taking a jet-sweep handoff. That’s what happened three out of the four times he came in motion against Penn State and Michigan.
But the fake action to Wadley completely hood-winked Illinois’ Cameron Watkins. When the handoff went to Daniels, that left five Hawkeye blockers on six remaining Illini in the box. That meant Daniels just had to beat one man to get into the secondary, and he did — whizzing past free safety Stanley Green.
Daniels broke the tackle of cornerback Jaylen Dunlap to lunge into the end zone, and Iowa led 21-0 early in the fourth quarter.
A good job by the Hawkeyes to use their own predictability to set a trap.
McCarron’s 55-yard punt-return touchdown was in part a testament to several first- and second-year Hawkeye players.
The senior from Dubuque, who, because of the wind, lined up deep alongside usual return man Desmond King, went untouched into the end zone to give Iowa a 7-0 lead.
The blocking was superb. And here are the nine other guys on the punt-return unit that deserve some props: true freshmen Amani Jones, Kristian Welch and Devonte Young; redshirt freshman Michael Ojemudia; true sophomore Jack Hockaday; redshirt sophomores Jake Gervase, Josh Jackson and Aaron Mends; and walk-on junior Kevin Ward.
Iowa’s had a special-teams advantage against opponents in 2016, and that’s especially true in the punt-return game. Behind King and McCarron, the Hawkeyes have 311 yards on 26 punt returns for an 11.96 average that ranks 14th in FBS.
On the flip side, Iowa has allowed only seven of its 61 punts (58 by Coluzzi) to be returned, period, for a total of 85 yards. Only three Power Five schools — Auburn, Baylor and Southern California — have allowed fewer total returns.
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.