Leistikow's DVR Monday: A closer look at play-calling, linebackers in Iowa's Week 1 win

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — What will get a bit lost as time passes from Kirk Ferentz’s historic 144th coaching victory at Iowa was that the final score — 33-7 against Northern Illinois — was not at all reflective of the first 2½ quarters of Saturday’s season opener at Kinnick Stadium.

This was a battle.

And it took a lot of clutch, key moments — and decisions — to send Ferentz past Hayden Fry for the school’s all-time wins lead.

Iowa scored its first two touchdowns of the 2018 season out of three-tight end personnel, including this 2-yard run by Ivory Kelly-Martin.

“It wasn't easy … but it was good team football,” Ferentz said.

The first 2018 installment of DVR Monday takes a closer look at the early struggles against the Huskies, and how the Hawkeyes settled in to eventually dominate and improve to 1-0.

Power formations + inventive play-calling = A winning finish.

A month ago at Iowa’s media day, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was talking personnel philosophy.

“At the end of the day, you always have to think about: What can we do well?” he said then. “What can we do better than anyone else?”

As the game wore on, that meant deploying a fullback and multiple tight ends on almost every snap.

In the second half, when Iowa's lead morphed from 3-0 to 33-0 — Iowa almost exclusively used power formations. Brian Ferentz put at least two running backs (one being a fullback) and two tight ends on the field together for 33 of Iowa’s 37 second-half snaps.

Yet it wasn’t all vanilla.

A two-play sequence out of the exact same formation with the same motion turned a 3-0 game in Iowa’s favor midway through the third quarter.

On first-and-21 after a penalty (more on that later), the lone receiver for Iowa, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, came in pre-snap motion from right to left. Once the ball was snapped, the fastest player on the team dug his feet into the turf and reversed his action. He was wide open on a rollout pass from Nate Stanley and picked up 17 key yards.

On the next play, it was Kyle Groeneweg who came in motion, just like Smith-Marsette did. But instead of going out for a pass, Groeneweg delivered the key block — sealing safety Trequan Smith to hold the outside edge — to pave the way for Toren Young’s 40-yard run around left end.

For the day, Brian Ferentz put a ton on film for Iowa State coaches to wonder about heading into Saturday’s Cy-Hawk showdown.

A breakdown of personnel and production:

“21” personnel (two RBs, one TE,  two WRs) — 16 plays, 100 yards. This included two of the day’s bigger gainers, a 24-yard pass to T.J. Hockenson and a 24-yard run by Young.

“12” personnel (one RB, two TEs, two WRs) — 14 plays, 89 yards. This counts a 30-yard pickup on Peyton Mansell’s first career snap and throw to tight end Nate Wieting … and should’ve counted a long-gainer from Stanley to Fant (dropped) on the game’s third play.

“13” personnel (one RB, three TEs, one WR) — 6 plays, 25 yards. One time, Stanley threw out of shotgun with three tight ends … and converted a third-and-2 for a first down to Noah Fant. You don't see shotgun out of "13" too often.

“11” personnel (one RB, one TE, three WRs) — 7 plays, 12 yards. Iowa’s least productive formation also included the only time Stanley was sacked. The Hawkeye receivers didn't have a great day.

“22” personnel (two RBs, two TEs, one WR) — 30 snaps, 123 yards, 2 TDs. Iowa’s chew-the-clock personnel also included what had to be one of the Hawkeyes’ most satisfying moments in Sunday's film session — first-time starting tackle Dalton Ferguson pancaking all-American Sutton Smith to clear Young’s 6-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.

“23” personnel (two RBs, three TEs) — 2 snaps, 3 yards, 2 TDs. Gotta like that touchdown-conversion rate.

Why did Amani Jones get benched?

After getting a lot of offseason praise, Amani Jones’ hold on Iowa’s middle-linebacker job lasted all of 14 snaps. He was pulled in favor of Jack Hockaday and didn’t return until late in the game as the leader of Iowa’s second-string defense.

Upon review, Jones made mistakes, absolutely. On NIU’s third possession, Jones got sucked out of position that allowed Jordan Nettles to run for 15 yards.

Two plays later, he drifted out of zone-coverage responsibility and allowed D.J. Brown to catch a 10-yard pass over the middle. That was the play that got him benched.

But I didn’t think he was as bad as it seemed. On an early 19-yard run that looked like Jones’ fault, Iowa’s defensive line was owned. On another mix-up, a teammate (Kristian Welch) took him out. He also incorrectly got blamed for a face-mask penalty (Chauncey Golston was the culprit).

Maybe it was a case of the jitters of replacing Josey Jewell. Let’s not bury Jones, even though he was listed as the No. 2 behind Hockaday on Monday’s depth chart. Jones showed his closing speed and physical power when he came back with the 2s late in the game.

As mentioned, this game wasn’t a breeze.

In a slugfest in which Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey correctly noted the Huskies probably outplayed Iowa in the first half, there was one play that changed the game more than any other.

A punt.

In a 3-0 game and Iowa having just gone three-and-out to start the second half, things felt awfully tenuous at Kinnick. Until Colten Rastetter, Iowa’s maligned punter from a year ago, uncorked a career-long 57-yard, game-changing punt — from Iowa’s 23 to Northern Illinois’ 20.

That flipped the field, and after Iowa’s defense forced a three-and-out … and Kyle Groeneweg’s 11-yard punt return put Iowa at its own 42 … a 19-yard difference from where it punted from just a minute earlier.

The Hawkeyes put their first of four second-half touchdowns on the board in their ensuing drive.

Later, Rastetter set a new career long with his 69-yard punt that set up a fourth-quarter safety.

Punting was winning on Saturday.

Former Hawkeyes Desmond King, left, and Josh Jackson chat before the Hawkeyes' game against Northern Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Satuday, Sept. 1, 2018.

Iowa's inexperienced corners pass first test.  

Desmond King and Josh Jackson — cornerbacks now with the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay Packers — were among former Hawkeyes on the sidelines Saturday to soak in Kirk Ferentz’s 144th career win at Iowa, to be sure. But they had to be proud of what their successors did, too.

While there will be anointing of Matt Hankins or Michael Ojemudia as the next Hawkeye consensus all-Americans (as King and Jackson were), the duo was quietly dominant Saturday.

Ojemudia, a redshirt junior, seemed to always be in perfect position. And he made a fantastic tackle (though he didn’t get credit for it) on a second-and-4 in the second quarter, in which he undercut Leon Payne for a 1-yard gain after a reception in the flat. That led to a turnover on downs two plays later in a 0-0 game.

Hankins, meanwhile, flashed excellent instincts on a third-and-3 play early in the third quarter. Iowa’s lead was only 3-0. Quarterback Marcus Childers was in shotgun, with Payne flanked to the right, one-on-one with Hankins.

Initially, Hankins was lined up 7 yards off the line of scrimmage. As the play clock wound down, he crept back another 2 yards — perhaps enticing Childers to look Payne’s way. An easy pitch and catch, right? But Hankins read the play perfectly, and broke on the ball before Payne even made his cut and broke up the pass attempt.

These two will be tested more fiercely this week against Iowa State, but their excellent coverage Saturday shouldn’t be overlooked in Iowa’s first-team defense allowing just 4.0 yards per pass attempt … not to mention the five sacks of Childers by the front seven.

Was the low-blocking penalty legit?

A new rule in college football is bound to rankle Kirk Ferentz this year, who memorably spoke up on a low-blocking penalty after Iowa’s win at Rutgers in 2016.

I had a lot of folks ask about the 15-yard penalty assessed to left guard Ross Reynolds for an illegal low block, which canceled a 45-yard gain by Ivory Kelly-Martin up the right sideline.

Here’s the rule:

Linemen with initial position completely inside the tackle box ... may legally block below the waist inside the tackle box until the ball leaves the tackle box. All other Team A players are allowed to block below the waist only if the force of the initial contact is directed from the front. “Directed from the front” is defined as within the clock face region between “10 o’clock and 2 o’clock” forward ... of the player being blocked.

Further, the rule states that no low blocks are allowed five yards or more beyond the neutral zone.

Let’s look at the film.

Reynolds’ block of Antonio Jones-Davis occurred four yards past the line of scrimmage; so nothing illegal there.

Was it within “10 and 2” requirement? It was close, but not egregious enough to throw a flag.

Was the runner still inside the tackle box? It did look to me that Kelly-Martin was narrowly outside right tackle Levi Paulsen’s initial alignment. So, Iowa was probably correctly penalized, by rule. But the umpire who threw the flag didn’t appear to be positioned to see all of those things at once.

So, it’s a gray area that puts officials in a tough position. They’re going to miss a lot of these and call a few throughout the season. And it'll probably frustrate Ferentz. 

One pet peeve … Iowa coaches, take note.

There was an egregiously bad spot in the first quarter, when Noah Fant caught a short pass and tumbled ahead to the Iowa 29-yard line. Except the official marked him down at the 27.

It was clear as could be that the ball was two yards past the 27 when Fant was chopped to the ground (his right elbow was first to hit the ground, at the 29). And this happened directly in front of several Hawkeye coaches, including Brian Ferentz. Somebody should have noticed this and — if not challenged the spot — asked officials for an explanation, which might have enticed a video review. The replay official fell asleep on this one, too.

The 2 yards didn't make a difference Saturday, but everyone with skin in the game needs to keep a closer eye on these details.

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.