Leistikow's DVR Monday: What Brian Ferentz revealed (and didn't) in Iowa's opener
A physical, relentless, disciplined defense deservedly received the bulk of the credit for Iowa’s season-opening, 24-3 win against Wyoming on Saturday.
But the Brian Ferentz offense was OK, too.
While Iowa's offense produced plenty of shaky moments, the 2017 season’s first installment of “DVR Monday” — back by popular demand — discovered promise and hidden playmakers.
Before we try to be kind entering Cy-Hawk week, let’s rewind for a final look at how the Hawkeyes got the job done against the Cowboys.
Offense overview, snap counts
For however long his coaching career continues, Brian Ferentz can one day look back on his first quarter as an offensive coordinator with a sense of humor.
Three-and-out. Interception. Three-and-out. Lost fumble.
Iowa’s 15 first-quarter plays resulted in 40 yards and two turnovers. There's a joke about 15 scripted plays in there somewhere.
But looking past some early warts, what did Ferentz show us Saturday?
Variety: The first five plays featured five different personnel groups and formations.
Ferentz’s first career play call was one of two times he used running backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler together. While the result (a 1-yard loss) was a bust, it was well-conceived. Lined up as a slot receiver to the right, Wadley came in motion and took a handoff from Nate Stanley out of a shotgun formation.
The hole was huge. Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, both lined up on the left, blasted defenders toward the sideline. But one missed block — by Butler — foiled the play, as strong safety Andrew Wingard came clean to make the stop.
Lots of tight ends: Iowa only ran 56 total plays Saturday (for 263 yards), one of the lowest outputs in Week 1 in the FBS. But total tight-end snaps were at 87 (Hockenson 47, Fant 38, Peter Pekar 2), and Fant led the team with six targets and scored the Hawkeyes’ first two touchdowns.
He even ran the ball once, on a failed end-around. Double tight ends were common under Greg Davis, too, but it was practically an every-down thing for Ferentz in Week 1. And Fant looks like a potential star.
Limited WR rotation: Except for sprinkling in freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette (one snap; he fumbled a reverse) and walk-on Dominique Dafney late as a blocker (two snaps), Iowa stuck with a three-receiver rotation.
Nick Easley and Matt VandeBerg rarely left the field, playing 46 snaps apiece, and Devonte Young (12 snaps) was inserted whenever Iowa went to a three-wide formation.
What we learned: In a three-hour game re-watch, I found it most notable what we didn’t see. There were no designed screens to Wadley, who hauled in 25 catches in Iowa’s last six games a year ago. And Hockenson, a record-setting pass-catcher in high school who played more than any skill-position Hawkeye except quarterback Saturday, was only targeted once.
It seemed like Ferentz was saving those two cards, and many more, in his hand. He'll play them eventually.
“For the most part our (offensive) operation was pretty smooth, with a new quarterback, new coordinator, a lot of new faces,” the boss, head coach Kirk Ferentz, said Sunday night on the university’s website. “… For the first time out, I thought that went pretty well.”
The best of Brian
Stuck without a third-down conversion (0-for-7) midway through the third quarter, Brian Ferentz sent in a notable and needed two-play sequence (from the press box, in case you missed that decision).
On third-and-5 from Iowa’s 29: He sent Fant, Stanley’s most regular target of the day, in motion — but kept the sophomore tight end in the backfield to block. Fant's presence sucked in three Wyoming defenders, and that allowed Easley to slip behind them.
Stanley found Easley for a crisp 11-yard completion, which turned into a 26-yard gain after a late-hit penalty.
On first-and-10 from Wyoming's 45: Ferentz went to what he said on media day was his favorite formation. It’s called “Green,” and it includes two tight ends, one fullback, one running back and one receiver.
It’s a formation that Iowa would typically run out of, but on this occasion, Stanley dropped back to pass. And Easley — who started out wide on the left side — went on a diagonal line downfield and caught a gorgeous ball from Stanley at the 12, then broke the tackle attempt of Wyoming’s Rico Gafford to jump into the end zone for his first career touchdown.
Why was Easley in one-on-one coverage? Because criss-crossing him in the middle of the field was none other than Fant, who again drew an extra safety.
Brian Ferentz has talked of his offense finding advantageous matchups. In this case, he created them. And it added up to 7 points and a 21-3 Hawkeye lead that essentially sealed a Week 1 win.
“We had to keep pushing, keep grinding,” Wadley said. “Coach Brian keeps talking about keep grinding, keep swinging, one time it’s going to crack.”
It was his first career start, so mistakes from Stanley were understandable. But he’ll absolutely have to improve his ball security. He knows that. Stanley fumbled three times, losing two of them, and was intercepted once (on a tipped ball) in his debut. It was concerning how easily the ball popped out of Stanley’s hand upon contact.
But there was a lot to be excited about, too. The stats were solid: 8-of-15 for 125 yards and three scores. Upon review, two smooth plays that aren’t reflected in the box score also stood out.
Play 1: At the start of Iowa’s second drive of the game, Stanley faked handoffs to fullback Drake Kulick and Wadley then looped a deep ball up the right side to Fant. He couldn’t have placed the throw in a better spot — between two defenders, right in Fant’s hands as he high-pointed the ball. Unfortunately, Fant couldn’t hold on after taking contact, so it was incomplete instead of a 28-yard gain.
The throw showed Stanley’s impressive arm. He ended up 2-for-3 for 72 yards and two TDs on balls thrown over 20 yards — and would've been 3-for-3 for 100 yards if Fant had hung onto this incompletion.
Play 2: Stanley didn't change plays at the line of scrimmage often. But he did with Iowa trailing, 3-0, and facing second-and-4 from the Wyoming 29. In this case — despite a missed block by fill-in center Keegan Render — the audible worked.
A handoff to Wadley went for a crowd-pleasing, high-stepping 19 yards, and Iowa was in first-and-goal business.
I liked the resiliency Stanley showed Saturday. I liked what Kirk Ferentz said about Stanley afterward. I liked what Stanley said about himself, regarding the mistakes.
“Just take a deep breath, kind of relax. Just learn from it, and flush it,” Stanley said. “That’s really all you can do in the heat of the moment.”
Hidden yardage found in tackles
The numbers (3.3 yards allowed per play) say the defense was terrific against Josh Allen and Co. The sterling performance doesn’t happen, though, without some outstanding, sound tackles just in front of the first-down markers.
Three first-quarter stuffs stood out, all with the score 0-0:
After Stanley’s interception: Wyoming was on the move on its second drive of the game, and Allen threw to Austin Conway on third-and-7 for what looked like a sure first down. But fill-in starting corner Michael Ojemudia slammed into Conway, and linebacker Ben Niemann finished him off 1 yard shy of the sticks.
On the next play: Defensive tackle Nathan Bazata blew up Wyoming’s fourth-and-1 attempt from Iowa’s 34, and Iowa swarmed Milo Hall for a 2-yard loss. “Low man wins,” BTN’s Matt Millen said, “and leverage won the day right there.”
On the next series: With third-and-1 from Wyoming’s 39, Nico Evans had his run attempt stacked up with a textbook solo tackle by free safety Jake Gervase for a 3-yard loss. Wyoming punted.
Without those stops, the Iowa defense and Wyoming’s future NFL quarterback would’ve been on the field a lot longer. And it gave Stanley and Brian Ferentz more clean-slate opportunities to find their footing.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.