Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa football's rotating defensive line picking up push
With intense focus surrounding Iowa’s offensive woes during a recent three-loss stretch in four games, it’s time to give the defense its due.
The Hawkeyes have been stingy on the scoreboard in Big Ten Conference play. Opposing offenses have scored (in succession) 19, 17, 16, 17 and 10 points against Iowa’s defense.
As far as I can tell, that’s the first time since the 2002 season that Iowa’s defense has held an opposing offense below 20 points in five straight Big Ten games. Now, I realize Penn State did score a 21-19 win against Iowa in Week 4 — but two of those points were on a safety. Hence, 19 against the defense.
In reviewing Iowa’s 17-10 win against Minnesota, DVR Monday looks at reasons Iowa is showing strength under defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
Minnesota entered Saturday’s game having allowed just four sacks all season — by far the fewest in the Big Ten Conference.
Iowa, without blitzing, sacked Demry Croft four times in the win.
Good pass coverage from an improving secondary. And, more importantly, fresh legs on the defensive line.
The Hawkeyes continue to shuttle defensive linemen in and out — almost like hockey line changes. They play eight regularly, with a ninth (Garret Jansen) getting time in long-yardage packages.
How they parceled out the snaps on Minnesota’s 72 plays from scrimmage:
Defensive end: Anthony Nelson 49 snaps, Parker Hesse 43, A.J. Epenesa 29, Sam Brincks 23.
Defensive tackle: Nathan Bazata 44 snaps, Matt Nelson 41, Cedrick Lattimore 26, Brady Reiff 23, Hesse 7, Jansen 7.
It’s almost like a baseball manager working a pitch count worked to perfection: Hesse’s 50 total snaps included 25 in each half. He had an important third-quarter sequence, in which he forced an intentional-grounding flag before stuffing Croft for a 3-yard loss.
Lattimore probably had his best game as a Hawkeye. The sophomore was able to get his second career sack thanks to pressure first applied by Brincks.
Iowa’s No. 2 grouping (Epenesa, Reiff, Lattimore and Brincks) was probably more effective than the starting unit Saturday. But when the game was on the line and Iowa needed a final stop, top sack man Anthony Nelson finished off the Gophers.
Nelson blew past right tackle Sam Schlueter on a speed rush to drop Croft for a 2-yard sack on Minnesota’s final play.
“It’s helping keep everyone fresh,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said during his Sunday interview on the university’s website. “Anthony Nelson had a lot of energy left.”
It’s a lesson Iowa’s staff learned after seeing the defensive line run out of gas toward the end of the 2015 season. And in 2016, Iowa only trusted a six-man rotation. Now, the position group coached by Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell is essentially nine strong.
Hopefully for the Hawkeyes, that makes a difference in November.
Big Ben’s impact
He probably won’t end up first-team all-Big Ten or get the recognition he deserves, but Ben Niemann showed against Minnesota why he continues to quietly be one of the Hawkeyes’ best players.
The 6-foot-3, 233-pound outside linebacker crashed Minnesota’s plans in a variety of ways. Here are three varying examples of his essential hybrid role in Parker’s 4-3 defense:
► Stopping Minnesota’s middle runs were a high priority for Iowa’s defense. On the Gophers’ second play from scrimmage, Niemann lined up as a defensive end and beat tight end Brandon Lingen to the inside, bogging down the Gophers’ running play to Rodney Smith for no gain. Niemann didn’t get the tackle (Hesse and Anthony Nelson shared official credit), but he was chiefly responsible for blowing up the play.
► On fourth-and-short from Iowa’s 7-yard line, Minnesota’s play call was excellent. A play-action fake, then a pass from Croft to 6-10 tight end Nate Wozniak looked like a sure touchdown. But Niemann scrambled back into coverage just enough to disrupt Wozniak’s concentration, and Croft’s pass flew over incomplete for a turnover on downs.
► Iowa’s linebackers are film-study addicts. And Niemann did his homework on a second-quarter toss sweep to Shannon Brooks. Lined up outside left, Niemann read it all the way and stuffed Brooks for a loss of 6 yards. That play blew up Minnesota’s drive and helped change momentum after Iowa's offense had stalled with five straight possessions of three plays or less.
More run-game variety
Last week’s DVR Monday reviewed Iowa’s frustrating lack of variety in the run game. This week, Iowa's showing on that front was much improved.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz even threw in a few toss sweeps (just for us?) to get Akrum Wadley and James Butler outside.
How Iowa’s designed runs went by personnel group:
2 WR, 2 TE: Seven rushes (all to Wadley) for 21 yards.
3 WR, 1 TE: Six rushes for 29 yards, including Wadley’s 12-yard touchdown on the left — with three receivers lined up right — in the first quarter.
2 WR, 1 TE, 1 FB: Six rushes for 41 yards. A 17-yard jet sweep to Ihmir Smith-Marsette out of this personnel was Iowa’s longest run of the day; a well-designed play that got great blocks from fullback Drake Kulick and receiver Matt VandeBerg. The next time Iowa went to this group? It faked jet-sweep action and ran Wadley up the middle for 6 yards. Good stuff.
1 WR, 2 TE, 1 FB: Brian Ferentz’s favorite group netted 31 rushing yards on 10 attempts. A lot of this yardage was Iowa trying to salt away clock in the fourth quarter.
For the day, Iowa averaged 4.2 yards on 29 designed run calls (kneel-downs and scrambles not included). It’s not where the Hawkeyes need to be, but it’s better.
Stanley needs help
Why is Iowa’s offense sputtering? Don’t look at the quarterback.
Fox Sports announcer Brady Quinn and I agree: Quarterback Nate Stanley is playing very good football.
Stanley finished 15 of 27 for 190 yards and wasn’t sacked, his pocket awareness improving by the week. But he could’ve been even better if his teammates were catching the ball.
I counted four significant drops by Hawkeye receivers, all of which would have resulted in first-down yardage. Two were by tight end T.J. Hockenson, for what I counted as 23 lost yards; one by Smith-Marsette that would’ve gone for at least 40 but bounced off his facemask for Stanley’s lone interception; and one by VandeBerg for 13.
The normally sure-handed senior had a terrific third-and-8 throw deflect off his hands.
“VandeBerg’s got to be able to catch that. That’s exactly where you want to put it,” Quinn said during the broadcast. “ … You couldn’t ask for much more from your quarterback.”
All four drops were drive-killers. And if you were to replace the drops with catches, Stanley’s revised numbers would (conservatively) be 19 of 27 for 256 yards.
Hold on... penalties
Drops were drive-stoppers. So were three offensive holding calls against Iowa.
Were they legit?
Officiating, for the second straight week, goes under DVR Monday review. Let’s check them out by offender:
No. 1: Keegan Render. His flag negated Butler's 13-yard run in the second quarter. Replays showed Render’s right hand on the back of defensive lineman Merrick Jackson before Jackson goes to the ground.
The rulebook offers this exception for holding — when the opponent turns his back to the blocker — but also says hands should be open and not used to “grasp, pull, hook, clamp or encircle in any way.”
Ruling: Inconclusive. It's too hard to tell if Render grabbed Jackson with an open hand. Quinn said on the broadcast: “There’s not a ton there, in my opinion.”
No. 2: Sean Welsh. His flag wiped out a Stanley 4-yard scramble, making it first-and-20 instead of second-and-6.
On the replay, it appeared defensive lineman Andrew Stelter ran over the Iowa right guard, rather than being pulled down by him.
Ruling: Bad call. Umpire Ken Zelmanski could only see Stelter go down — he didn't see Welsh was already off balance before both players crashed to the ground.
No. 3: Hockenson. Back judge Scott Buchanan threw the flag from well behind the play, ruling that Hockenson held linebacker Carter Coughlin before going out for a pass that resulted in a 9-yard gain.
Quinn again questioned the call. “Not so sure about this one,” he said of Iowa's first scrimmage play after Minnesota had cut the lead to 14-7.
Ruling: Good call. Hockenson pulled Coughlin, a prospective pass rusher, to the ground before flaring out to the right. That's why it was a holding call, and not pass interference.
Bottom line: If Iowa can cure drops and ill-timed penalties, the offense still might have a chance to get good.
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.