Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert look at the Hawkeyes' 31-14 win over North Texas and how some newcomers stepped up.
After experiencing a game as weird as Iowa's 31-14 Saturday victory vs. North Texas, it probably requires an extra step back to unpack the real story.
Underneath a laughable number of flags and video reviews (more on that later), there were more encouraging trends for the Hawkeyes' offense and some concerning ones for the defense.
Stanley's a gamer
The guy that didn’t earn Iowa's starting-quarterback job until a week before the season opener is now leading the Big Ten Conference in touchdown passes (10).
Nate Stanley hasn’t been perfect, of course. You’ve seen missed deep balls, not to mention the three turnovers in Week 1 against Wyoming. You even saw him goof Saturday, when he lined up accidentally underneath left guard Boone Myers instead of the center, causing a red-zone timeout.
But so far, he’s proven to be clutch.
He showed it a week earlier at Iowa State, helping Iowa rally from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, his fifth touchdown pass in overtime securing a 44-41 win.
Against North Texas, Stanley's clutch gene flashed on one key play.
The game was tense. Trailing 14-10 in the third quarter, Iowa faced fourth-and-5 from the Mean Green 23.
“Felt like we just had to do something,” Kirk Ferentz would say.
The box score shows Stanley connected with Noah Fant for a 23-yard touchdown. But the video showed it wasn’t so easy.
Stanley first had to catch a low shotgun snap from center James Daniels, which threw off the play's timing. Then, as the pass rush closed in, Stanley cocked and was ready to throw — but as he pushed off his back foot, Fant hadn’t quite broken open on his dig route.
So Stanley hesitated briefly, then uncorked a laser off his front foot, the ball spiraling in between the “8” and “7” of Fant’s jersey, and the young tight end took care of the rest.
Iowa's quarterback praises the play call and execution
“That was a read for the coverage they were in,” Stanley said afterward. “He ran a great route.”
Earlier in the game, Stanley made a similarly impressive read, checking off two receivers before delivering a strike to tightly covered T.J. Hockenson for a third-and-3 conversion.
It's too early to anoint Stanley as great. He hasn’t faced Penn State yet — he will at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (ABC) — or Ohio State or Wisconsin. But three games in, appreciate what he’s done, not what he hasn’t.
“The improvement he’s made is encouraging for us, and there are a couple of bumps coming, we all know that,” Ferentz said. “But he’s done some impressive things so far. (On Saturday), he could have got rattled; last week (in Ames) was a week to get rattled. But he gives you that same (calm) look all the time, which is OK with me.”
More Brian creativity
First-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz continues to unveil more layers to his approach.
On the game’s fourth and fifth snaps, new-to-Iowa plays were born.
Snap 4: Working out of shotgun, Stanley called Fant into motion. Fant stopped in the backfield and became a fullback, leading the way for James Butler to take a handoff straight ahead for 11 yards.
Snap 5: Fant again lined up in the backfield — this time behind left tackle Alaric Jackson — with receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette a few steps to his left. Fant and Smith-Marsette have each run end-arounds this season. But on this play, they darted right to fake end-around action — Fant going in front of Stanley and Smith-Marsette behind him. Decoys in place, Butler took a handoff left. A gaping hole and 8 yards awaited him.
Later on that same drive, on a fourth-and-3, Ferentz went back to the Snap 5 formation. This time, Stanley zipped a left-side screen to Fant, who sped for 7 yards.
In the fourth quarter, Iowa came back to that Snap 4 look — except with Hockenson leading the way for Ivory Kelly-Martin — and converted a third-and-7.
Earlier in the week, I picked up on something new offensive line coach Tim Polasek said during an interview on the university’s website.
“Game-planning is different,” Polasek said. “Every week, there’s some adjustments being made to our schemes and how we want to attack a defense.”
Predictability has long been a valid criticism of the Hawkeye offense. Week by week, Brian Ferentz is starting to change that label.
Officials under review
Of the many curious penalties and reviews that took place Saturday, two 15-yard flags against Iowa stood out. (There were plenty against North Texas, too, but we'll focus on these.)
No. 1: Akrum Wadley’s high step. The Iowa running back’s apparent 74-yard touchdown reception was, by the letter of the NCAA rulebook law, correctly called back.
Wadley took two exaggerated high steps in the final yards before crossing the goal line, a violation of Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1 (e), which calls for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for “an unopposed ball carrier obviously altering stride as he approaches the opponent’s goal line or diving into the end zone.”
Yep, Wadley did that. And the 15-yarder was correctly enforced from the North Texas 6.
But here’s the interesting thing. When DVR Monday dug into last year’s game films, it showed that Wadley did essentially the exact same thing at the end of long touchdown runs against Minnesota (imagine if that game-winner had been called back) and Nebraska (a 75-yarder that opened the scoring).
Yes, indeed, he high-stepped twice each time as he was about to score.
That doesn’t make it right. But it is understandable that Wadley didn’t think he was doing anything to warrant a penalty. And it underscores how officiating is incredibly subjective, depending on the crew.
Imagine if every hand check in basketball was called — we’d see 100 fouls a game.
Kirk Ferentz illustrated the absurdity of this “point of emphasis” after the win: “Although I thought pants over the knees was a point of emphasis, too, and I saw a game on TV (Friday) night and the guys looked like they had shorts on. I’m not sure how that works.”
(Pretty sure he was talking about South Florida vs. Illinois.)
No. 2: A.J. Epenesa’s roughing-the-passer low tackle. This one changed the course of the game, with a North Texas incompletion turning into a 15-yard penalty gain instead of third-and-10.
From Rule 9, Section 1, Article 9 (b): “When an offensive player is in a passing posture with one or both feet on the ground, no defensive player rushing unabated shall hit him.” However, the rule does include exceptions, including this one: “It is not a foul if the defender is not rushing unabated or is blocked or fouled into this opponent.”
That’s where the official was in a tough spot. The DVR showed Epenesa was turned and shoved downward by left tackle Jordan Murray, and that momentum directed Epenesa into North Texas quarterback Mason Fine’s knee.
It was borderline, at best. It certainly wasn’t a dirty play by the Iowa freshman.
“Our perception of that play was he got blocked into the quarterback.” Ferentz said.
The defensive line isn’t getting pressure. North Texas averaged 6.6 yards per play Saturday, a week after Iowa State averaged 6.5. Only once did an opponent top those numbers in 2016 (Penn State, at 8.6 per play in that humbling 41-14 defeat).
Is middle linebacker Josey Jewell healthy? He didn’t show his usual closing speed, a week after turning his ankle in the fourth quarter at Iowa State.
“It’s getting better every day,” Jewell told me afterward. “You’re never 100 percent after the first game.”
Read into that what you will.
The Hawkeyes were not thrilled overall but happier with their second half in a 31-14 win vs. North Texas.
But one guy that was quietly impressive on DVR review was cornerback Manny Rugamba. Yeah, he got dinged for a 15-yard late hit (another iffy call), but he made back-to-back key plays after Iowa took a 17-14 lead.
With precision and speed, Rugamba knocked away a deep ball, then undercut a third-down dig route to force a punt. What followed? Iowa’s 16-play, 87-yard drive that chewed up almost 9 minutes of game clock.
It’s easy to forget this was just Rugamba's third full college game. He played great against Michigan in his first career start last year. He got hurt against Nebraska, missed the bowl game, was suspended for the Wyoming opener, then got pulled for Michael Ojemudia at Iowa State.
Getting benched, he said, was defensive coordinator Phil Parker “holding me accountable like everybody else. When he did that, it definitely lit a fire under me. I tried to have extreme focus throughout the week and tried to carry it out on the game field.”
“He’s in the Army now,” Ferentz said of 6-foot-5, 315-pound true freshman Tristan Wirfs, who burned his redshirt Saturday.
Wirfs replaced Sean Welsh at right tackle with just over 3½ minutes to go.
His first snap? He moved his opponent impressively, but Kelly-Martin was stopped for a 1-yard gain.
The next? He blocked air, but Kelly-Martin squirted ahead for 10 yards.
Wirfs did have a notable block on Kelly-Martin’s 6-yard touchdown run. He bulldozed his man out of the play on a 13-yard Toren Young run. Not counting the final kneel-down, Wirfs' eight real snaps produced 52 rushing yards.
“He didn’t jump offsides, looked like he blocked his guy,” Ferentz said, “and it’s a start for him.”
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.