Leistikow's DVR Monday: Your Hawkeye questions answered on play-calling, refs, punt returns
In Big Ten Conference play, Iowa’s defense has allowed opposing offenses to score (in succession) 19, 17, 16 and 17 points.
Those are winning numbers.
Yet the Hawkeyes are 1-3 in those games.
The offense continues to underwhelm, and that's where we begin another installment of DVR Monday.
Here were some of the topics many of you asked me to examine following Saturday’s 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern:
Running up the middle
I joined the chorus on this topic Saturday: Why is Iowa running Akrum Wadley almost exclusively between the tackles?
Even Iowa broadcaster Ed Podolak grew frustrated with the Hawkeyes’ middle-run approach, saying in the fourth quarter: “I think you have to give up on that.”
Were the complaints justified?
Iowa called 31 running plays Saturday (two sacks for minus-9 are excluded), 26 of them to Wadley. A breakdown of his 90 net yards (3.46 per carry):
- 23 carries went between the tackles for 82 yards; three went outside for eight.
- 20 of the carries began with Nate Stanley under center (for 70 yards); six came out of shotgun (for 20).
Basically, nothing really worked. And it starts up front.
After Wadley’s 22-yard run on the second play of Iowa’s second drive, here were the gains of his final 20 carries (lost yardage in parentheses): 1, 6, 1, 1, 2, 1, (1), 1, 2, 8, 4, 6, (3), 2, 2, 0, 9, 0, 3, 4.
A snapshot example of Iowa's ineffective offensive line was revealed on a fourth-quarter power run to Wadley on second-and-10.
Right guard Sean Welsh pulled to the left, revealing where Iowa intended to go. But the blocks of left tackle Alaric Jackson and left guard Keegan Render were insufficient, and Wadley was swallowed up for a 2-yard gain.
Kirk Ferentz’s first three words in explaining the run-game issues afterward?
“I don’t know.”
In the 66 carries since Wadley's 35-yard touchdown run late against Penn State, 63 have gained fewer than 10 yards.
“What Northwestern is doing is they’re edge blitzing,” ESPN analyst Kelly Stouffer said during Saturday's broadcast. “And they’re blitzing before (Wadley) can get into the line of scrimmage behind that zone-blocking scheme.”
Iowa needs to combat attacking defenses by getting Wadley more involved in the passing game, and not just on screens. He has eight catches for 36 yards since Penn State.
That's not enough.
Coaches have said they plan to unleash freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. Young had two carries Saturday, Kelly-Martin zero.
It's time for both things to change.
Second-and-long play calls
This is a tendency that has seemed predictable under first-year play-caller Brian Ferentz. If Iowa doesn’t get at least 3 yards on first down, the second-and-long play is regularly a run.
The percentages at Ryan Field were in alignment with that theory.
Iowa faced 14 second-down calls with 8 or more yards to go; on nine of them (64.2 percent of the time), the Hawkeyes indeed called run (for a net 33 yards).
Sure. If you can get third-and-short, that’s much better than third-and-long.
But Iowa averaged just 3.67 yards per carry on second-and-long runs Saturday — consistent with its 3.54 average on all runs for the season — and gained just one first down (11.1 percent). A lot of those were the aforementioned middle runs.
Passing was only a slightly better option on second-and-long, with Stanley completing 3 of 5 throws in those situations for 36 yards — and one first down (20 percent).
This all comes back to Iowa’s need to be better on first down. And the evidence Saturday showed that means more first-down passing.
On 23 first-down plays Saturday, Iowa rushed 12 times for 25 yards (2.1 average) — the long being 6 yards on an Ihmir Smith-Marsette end around.
On the 11 passing attempts on first down, Stanley completed 7 of 10 balls for 124 yards and was sacked once for minus-7.
What does that tell us? Less predictability equals more big-play potential.
How was Iowa’s nickel defense?
The Hawkeyes went to that five-defensive backs package nine times Saturday and often produced undesirable results.
This personnel package had cornerback Michael Ojemudia replacing outside linebacker Kevin Ward, and put (from left to right) Anthony Nelson, Garret Jansen, Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa on the defensive line.
The first time Iowa went nickel, Northwestern was facing third-and-4 in Hawkeye territory. Pre-snap, fill-in middle linebacker Ben Niemann scrambled to shadow running back Justin Jackson’s backfield shift to the left side of quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern ran right with Jackson, who gained 9 yards when Bo Bower’s up-the-middle blitz was stonewalled and Niemann was too far out of position.
Thorson’s 21-yard run on a third-and-15 against nickel, a play Kirk Ferentz later said was maybe the biggest of the game, set up Northwestern's tying touchdown. It was either miscommunication or poor decision-making, but Bower chased to help Manny Rugamba (who didn’t need it) in pass coverage instead of identifying Thorson's scramble.
That was Northwestern’s longest play of the day until overtime — when it again struck against the nickel.
In what Niemann later called a miscommunication (safety Amani Hooker pointed him inside at the last minute), Jackson caught a pass over the middle for 23 yards on third-and-9.
Sometimes, it’s easy to complain about the Hawkeyes playing their safe, 4-3 base defense. But maybe there’s a reason the coaching staff trusts the 11-man unit it uses the most. On this day, Northwestern averaged 7.56 yards against Iowa’s nickel defense; 3.71 otherwise.
Did the refs miss two late calls?
Two key rulings went against Iowa, and some readers asked me to examine them. Here’s some information and debatable interpretation on each judgment call.
Fourth and inches. Out of a timeout, Iowa decided to go for a first down from just outside Northwestern’s 25-yard line with 1:35 left in regulation. Three Hawkeyes on the right side of the line — the first being 41-game starter Welsh — moved prematurely.
Iowa players immediately pointed into Northwestern’s defensive backfield, a charge that a player may have disrupted Iowa’s offensive signal calls. On video, it seems that Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher twice barked out something — the second one immediately preceding Iowa’s line jump.
Here’s what the NCAA rule book says about “barking”:
No player shall use words or signals that disconcert opponents when they are preparing to put the ball in play. No player may call defensive signals that simulate the sound or cadence of, or otherwise interfere with, offensive starting signals.
Such an infraction would warrant a defensive delay-of-game. Officials huddled.
False start, Iowa.
If Fisher indeed barked anything resembling a Stanley cadence, it should’ve been a penalty. But if officials didn’t hear it — they didn’t hear it. Certainly in a high-volume, game-on-the-line situation like that, it’s easier to see something than hear something.
Intentional grounding. On second-and-9 in overtime, Thorson threw incomplete over the middle — with no eligible receiver in the area — under pressure by Anthony Nelson.
Here’s an example the rule book uses to define “grounding”:
Quarterback A10, who is not outside the tackle box and is attempting to save yardage, intentionally throws a desperation forward pass that falls incomplete where there is no eligible Team A receiver. RULING: Intentional grounding. PENALTY: Loss of down at the spot of the foul.
First, was it a “desperation” forward pass? That’s a judgment call. But it seemed from referee Don Willard’s announcement after the play that grounding was considered.
“The ball reached the line of scrimmage,” Willard said. “Incomplete pass. Third down.”
The interpretation there is that Willard determined that Thorson was outside the tackle box (outside of which, a pass can legally be thrown away), which the rule book defines as the plane within 5 yards of where the ball is snapped. Again, that’s a visual judgment call. Thorson took three shuffling steps to his right before unloading — not 5 yards in my estimation.
Had intentional grounding been called, Northwestern would have faced third-and-19 from the Iowa 34 instead of third-and-9 from the 24. And on the next play, Jackson’s aforementioned 23-yard catch set the Wildcats up at the 1-yard line for the go-ahead (and winning) touchdown.
Could Iowa have called timeout and asked officials to review the play?
No. Intentional grounding calls are not reviewable.
Both judgment calls were debatable. Iowa went 0-for-2 on them.
Hidden punt yardage
How big was Northwestern’s 80-yard punt early in the second half with Iowa leading, 7-0? And could the Hawkeyes learn from this?
Huge and yes.
Hunter Niswander indeed bombed one with his heels just in front of his own goal line after a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Return man Joshua Jackson couldn’t get to the ball. His letting it bounce not only cost Iowa possible return yardage, but an additional 23 yards of roll to the Iowa 3.
It flipped field position (Iowa didn’t score a touchdown the rest of the way) and was a momentum changer.
Before the punt: Northwestern gained 102 yards on 34 plays (3.0 average) to Iowa's 238 yards on 36 plays (6.6).
After the punt: The Wildcats gained 227 yards on 48 snaps (4.7), to Iowa's 74 on 30 (2.5).
This momentum swing compounded an earlier return misplay by Jackson that cost Iowa 8 yards of field position and ultimately gave Northwestern a short field on its ensuing possession.
Better schematics is the answer going forward.
Here’s an idea: Use both Matt VandeBerg and Jackson back there in most situations. The punt must be caught. VandeBerg probably has the best hands on the team, has punt-return experience and is a heady player. Jackson is a skilled defender who could creep up if needed to help thwart fake attempts.
It worked last year when Iowa tried it with Desmond King and Riley McCarron; it can work again with Jackson and VandeBerg.
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.