Leistikow's DVR Monday: 'Attack' epitomizes Iowa's humiliation of Ohio State Buckeyes
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The theme of perhaps the greatest single-game performance by an Iowa football team in the Kirk Ferentz era can be summed up in one, six-letter word.
The Hawkeyes were relentless in shellacking then-No. 3 Ohio State, 55-24, Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium. It’s maybe not the style Hawkeye fans are accustomed to seeing. And certainly Ohio State’s Urban Meyer wasn’t expecting it, either. It matched his worst margin of defeat as a head coach.
From aggressive play-calling to well-timed linebacker blitzes, DVR Monday saw an all-out attack mentality and signs of very positive things to come.
The Brian Game
Near the end of the ESPN broadcast, Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was shown beaming on the sideline — yes, he came down from the press box after Iowa’s lead became insurmountable. He shared a long embrace with tight ends coach LeVar Woods and a laugh with quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe.
“He did a great job,” the boss, Kirk Ferentz, said. “I think our whole staff did a good job putting a plan together.”
Did they ever. And it clearly had the fingerprints of the first-year coordinator.
Brian Ferentz has emphasized his love for using tight ends, something he harnessed while on Bill Belichick’s staff for four years with the New England Patriots. Saturday, he unleashed them as the focal point of his beat-the-Bucks plan.
First, the stats.
Iowa ran out multiple tight ends on 39 of its 70 offensive snaps Saturday — 19 rushes (including 11 in the fourth quarter), 20 passes. Iowa gained 269 yards and scored all SIX offensive touchdowns out of those formations.
Now, the details.
Ferentz went exclusively with two-tight end sets on all seven plays in an 89-yard touchdown drive that broke open a 17-17 game in the second quarter.
Backed up with a first-and-20 at its own 12, Iowa stretched Ohio State's defense with an empty backfield — and freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson beat safety Damon Webb over the middle for a significant 22-yard gain.
On the next play, Iowa started Hockenson and sophomore Noah Fant on the left side of the line of scrimmage, then moved the tight ends to the right. Fant then went in motion again to attract attention as a wide receiver. That seemed to perplex linebacker Jerome Baker, who let Hockenson roam free up the middle of the field, and Nate Stanley found him again for 22 yards.
Then, one play after star Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa was ejected for targeting, Ferentz went for the kill.
Again, Iowa used the double shift to swing both tight ends to the right side of the line of scrimmage. But this time, Fant was Stanley's prime target. He drew one-on-one coverage with safety Jordan Fuller, and Stanley’s throw was a beauty for a 25-yard touchdown.
For the game, Stanley finished 14 of 19 passing for 151 yards and five touchdowns out of multiple-tight end sets. Those are Patriots-type numbers.
“If we could draw up the way we want to look," Kirk Ferentz told the university Sunday, "that pretty much was it.”
The “attack” theme was borrowed by Phil Parker. The defensive coordinator made a key change in strategy, too, and it changed the game.
With Ohio State seemingly moving up and down the field at will, one blitz by outside linebacker Ben Niemann altered the Buckeyes’ success.
The Buckeyes had a second-and-10 from Iowa’s 45 in a 17-17 game. To that point, they had gained 253 yards on 29 snaps — 8.7 per play. But Parker noted that three plays earlier, senior left tackle Jamarco Jones left the game with an injury.
Iowa attacked his replacement, sophomore Joshua Alabi.
Right defensive end A.J. Epenesa absorbed two defenders, and Alabi failed to see Niemann crashing from the right side. He blind-sided quarterback J.T. Barrett for a 9-yard sack and fumble (which Alabi recovered). Jones returned on the next play, but the damage was done.
Ohio State punted. Iowa then delivered the aforementioned 89-yard touchdown drive.
The attack was on, from every angle.
Niemann would blitz five times in the game, none more impactful than the sack-fumble. Starting with that play, Ohio State’s offense gained 21 total yards and committed three turnovers on 18 offensive snaps. Iowa unleashed a 31-0 run in that defensive stretch of dominance over the nation’s second-ranked offense.
“We had to change some stuff up,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “Early on, they kept gashing us.”
The Hawkeyes also benefitted from a curious strategy shift by Ohio State, too. After the first half, star running back J.K. Dobbins received just one carry (he had only six for the game, for 57 yards). Iowa’s two-touchdown lead had something to do with that, but the attacking presence of Niemann certainly left a mark.
The freshmen tackles
Early in the ABC broadcast, analyst Brian Griese said of Ohio State defensive ends Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes: “You’d be hard-pressed to find four better rush guys in college football all on one team.”
Yet two Hawkeye freshmen basically manhandled them.
Left tackle Alaric Jackson and right tackle Tristan Wirfs had outstanding afternoons. Stanley was barely touched, sacked only once when Lewis got the best of Wirfs for a harmless 3-yard loss late in the third quarter.
I picked out one play from each rookie that was especially impressive.
Jackson: On an outside zone run to the right with Iowa ahead, 38-17, Jackson powered Holmes (a 270-pound senior) against his will into the defensive backfield — and, for good measure, cleared out linebacker Tuf Borland along the way. That one-on-two success sealed a gaping cutback lane for running back James Butler. And the senior saw it, scampering 53 yards up the left sideline.
Wirfs: Two plays after Jackson’s bulldozing run block, the Mount Vernon product showed his brute strength. Defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones (6-3, 285) got a great jump off the line of scrimmage, one that should’ve gotten him into the Hawkeye backfield. But Wirfs exploded from his three-point stance and made Jones stand up like a blocking sled. That sealed the pocket for Stanley to fire a 2-yard TD pass to fullback Drake Kulick, good for a 45-17 Iowa lead.
Though a lot of excitement is around sophomore playmakers like Stanley, Fant and Hockenson, the future is just as bright on the ends of Iowa’s offensive line.
My Hawkeye coverage teammate, Mark Emmert, wrote about Iowa’s stunning fake field goal — an 18-yard completion from holder Colten Rastetter to long snapper Tyler Kluver — at length following the game. But the play they call “Polecat” deserves as much ink as is humanly allowed.
The formation, of all places, appears to have originated in the 1950s with Tiger Ellison, the father of the run-and-shoot offense.
There were three elements of genius in the design and execution.
No. 1: Getting four Buckeyes to foolishly cover ineligible receivers. Four offensive linemen (Keegan Render, Levi Paulsen, Jackson and Wirfs) plus kicker Miguel Recinos lined up near the left sideline, their sole job to be at the line of scrimmage to get Iowa five-sevenths of the way to a legal formation. Only Recinos, figuratively as a tight end in this circumstance, was an eligible receiver.
No. 2: The motion of A.J. Epenesa. Iowa had faked a field goal throw to Epenesa, a defensive end, earlier this year at Michigan State. He came in motion from the left side, and befuddled Ohio State defenders were drawn to this 275-pound decoy. As the ball is snapped, almost every remaining Buckeye drifts left — a fatal move that opened up the middle of the field for Kluver, who became an eligible receiver as the right bookend of the seven men along the line of scrimmage.
No. 3: Kluver’s hesitation. The fifth-year senior from Marshalltown delivered a snap that traveled 8 yards to Rastetter and didn’t move for a one count. That sucked the eyes of linebacker Borland toward rolling-out Rastetter, who then pulled up and threw to Kluver running uncovered down the middle of the field.
One play after the completion, Hockenson scored his second TD, breaking 12-plus scoreless second-half minutes. Iowa suddenly had a 38-17 lead, having humiliated a college football behemoth in the process.
Credit the execution of all 11 players on the field (Others out there: Lineman Dalton Ferguson — who was to Kluver's left — and tight ends Peter Pekar and Hockenson). Credit special-teams coach Woods and quality-control assistant Kevin Spencer for finding and installing the play. But also give credit to Kirk Ferentz’s cagy memory and, yes, the Iowa fans (I'll explain).
Earlier this week, Ferentz was asked what he remembered about the 2006 Outback Bowl — the only previous time he’d coached against Urban Meyer. All he remembered he said, was a (successful) fake punt Florida ran from deep in its own territory.
“That's a head coach's call right there,” Ferentz said. “I mean, that's filed away.”
See? He even told us this was coming.
Why credit the fans? I’m serious. In 2015, Ferentz faked field goals in back-to-back games to start the season. Neither was successful. But fans applauded him anyway, something he would joke about the rest of a 12-2 season: That he didn’t realize all he had to do to get fans behind him was call fake kicks that didn’t work.
If you’ve got widespread support to try something crazy, whether it fails or not: What is there to lose?
That philosophy was on display Saturday: Attack.
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.