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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz saw some good things in practice Wednesday. He was right, as the Hawkeyes rolled UNI, 38-14. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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Progress in Iowa’s passing game was evident within the details of the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 win against Northern Iowa on Saturday night.

Remember the very first play call of Iowa’s season against Northern Illinois? A quick drop by Nate Stanley, and a simple throw to the outside to receiver Brandon Smith.

In Week 1, though, the timing was off. Smith curled, Stanley threw it off the mark to the left. The ball bounced off the sophomore’s hands incomplete.

Second-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz went back to that play to start Iowa’s second half — albeit to the right side of the field this time. Three-step drop, Smith curl, a perfect connection. Smith caught the ball and turned upfield for an 8-yard gain.

What a second-and-2 makes vs. second-and-10.

Simple execution makes a big difference in what the Hawkeyes can do. They rolled up 545 yards, all but 59 of it coming in the first three quarters, Saturday night after gaining an uninspiring total of 613 in eight quarters in wins against Northern Illinois and Iowa State.

What else got the offense untracked against the Panthers? DVR Monday examines the little things.

The Hawkeyes’ hurry-up offense sends a message.

In the preseason, Brian Ferentz dropped a hint about using selective bits of tempo. Saturday, it proved to be a nice wrinkle to keep the Panthers back-pedaling.

Iowa went fast to the line of scrimmage eight times Saturday. Once, a UNI player injury thwarted the attempt. On the other seven times, Iowa gained a total of 61 yards.

The best use of tempo was after Stanley connected with Noah Fant for 19 yards on third-and-8. Iowa hustled to the line, snapped the ball with 28 seconds left on the play clock, and Stanley zipped another one to a wide-open Fant for a 29-yard pickup.

The quick-strike Hawkeyes?

It’s a nice variation that is helped by having an experienced quarterback. It also keeps the defense from substituting.

“It's hard to quantify,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward about the tempo. “But we thought it might help us a little about bit, and it seemed to be effective.”

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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley discusses the contributions of his wide receiver Nick Easley and looks forward to next week's game vs. Wisconsin Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Welcome back, wide-receiver screen.

When it gets blown up, it looks ugly. When it works, it’s a thing of beauty.

The so-called “tunnel” screen was a staple of the Hawkeye offense in the early years of Ken O’Keefe. C.J. Jones turned that play into an early, long touchdown at Michigan in 2002. And the rout was on that day in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Saturday, Iowa made a concerted effort to get this quick, often-safe play going.

The numbers? Stanley was 4-for-4 for 30 yards on wide-receiver screens (5-for-5 for 78 yards if you count a later swing pass to Mekhi Sargent).

Why was it effective?

One, it’s something Stanley identifies at the line of scrimmage. On three of the four completions, Stanley started under center and had the option of handing off.

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On the first one of the day, Stanley made a one-step drop and bullet pass to the left. Nick Easley (10 catches, 103 yards) made the catch and bolted 11 yards upfield, with good blocking from Smith. Stanley-to-Easley gained 12 yards on a similar second-half play.

As mentioned in the intro, when Iowa executes these simple timing plays, it opens up the playbook.

And that’s how you get 55-24 against Ohio State, 56-14 against Nebraska and 545 yards (a new high under Brian Ferentz) against Northern Iowa.

Sargent’s hard running also helps the play-calling.

Getting an extra few yards here and there certainly help an offensive coordinator, too.

And Sargent has been sneaky physical despite a smallish frame (he’s listed 5-foot-10, but probably closer to 5-8). Of his 120 yards from scrimmage Saturday, I charted 76 of them coming after first contact.

Even on his first of two touchdown runs, a 2-yarder, Sargent (200 pounds) lowered his shoulder into cornerback Xavior Williams at the 1 and plowed into the end zone.

“He's kind of a deceptive guy,” Kirk Ferentz said. “He's a little tougher than you might give him credit for. He breaks tackles, and if you don't get him down, he'll keep going.”

Impressive. Iowa will need that type of toughness next week against Wisconsin, especially if starter Ivory Kelly-Martin (ankle) remains sidelined.

By the way: Iowa hasn’t had a single running-back fumble this season in 116 carries.

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Fact check: True. Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa and the Hawkeyes held Northern Iowa to six rushing yards in a 38-14 win. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Was the Hawkeye defense exposed late in the game?

With Iowa’s lead at 24-0, the suffocating defense was on display even as Eli Dunne threw to Terrell Carey to convert a third-and-3. But at the end of that 9-yard gain, safety Jake Gervase hammered Carey to knock the ball lose. Almost instantly, four Hawkeye defenders pounced to the ball — a sign of the excellent team defense to start the season.

Four plays later, Iowa’s lead was 31-0. At that point, midway through the third quarter, UNI had just 38 yards on 26 snaps.

But over the next 29 plays, UNI gained 182 yards — with many of Iowa’s starters still in the game. What happened? A few observations:

  • Veteran defensive ends Anthony Nelson (with exception of a few snaps) and Parker Hesse (no snaps) were mostly on the sidelines. Their bookend presence typically limits mistakes.
  • A combination of Iowa’s less-aggressive pass coverage and UNI quarterback Eli Dunne getting into a rhythm with short passes helped the Panthers move the chains. Michael Ojemudia was beaten for the first touchdown and a later 40-yard gain, but he wasn’t egregiously out of position. Dunne just made precise throws.
  • Safeties Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker sat out the second UNI touchdown drive, which was a swift six-play, 65-yard march. Again, those are two guys that typically clean up mistakes elsewhere.

It was a finish the rankled Iowa’s defenders. But upon further review, it’s not a major concern. Despite the slip-ups, the Hawkeyes still enter Big Ten Conference play ranked second nationally in total defense (209.0 yards per game); tied for second in scoring (8.0 ppg) and rushing (42.0 ypg) defense; and tied for third in sacks (12).

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Add the latest low block to the list of puzzling calls.

Kirk Ferentz has gotten agitated at how inconsistently and inaccurately the NCAA’s new low-blocking rule is enforced. And he had to be burning again with the latest call against one of his offensive linemen.

Right guard Levi Paulsen was flagged for a 15-yarder for his first-quarter block on UNI linebacker Chris Kolarevic. On review, I have no idea what the official was thinking.

From every angle, Paulsen’s block was 100 percent legal. Textbook, actually.

He was, at most, three yards past the line of scrimmage when the block was executed. (Linemen low blocks are legal within five yards of the neutral zone.)

Sargent was still inside the tackle box with the football (another requirement for a legal block under the new rule).

And the defender was certainly squared up to Paulsen, well inside the “10 and 2” (o’clock) angle required for a clean block. (I would argue it was closer to high noon.)

Ferentz has said he isn’t going to change the way he teaches the block. Nor should he. This was a bad call that unnecessarily cost Iowa 15 yards.

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.

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