Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa's weaknesses, strengths revealed in Wisconsin loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It didn’t take a DVR review of Iowa’s 28-17 loss to Wisconsin to reveal that this was a missed Hawkeyes' opportunity.

The home team had so many chances to put the game away, but couldn’t get that one big play in the fourth quarter.

You don’t want to think about those frustrations again. I get it.

T.J. Hockenson (38) had catches of 46 and 45 yards Saturday night; fellow tight end Noah Fant (87) scored both Hawkeye touchdowns.

So, this Hawkeye Hangover edition of DVR Monday puts the focus on what areas were exposed for Iowa and what it can do moving forward as it enters its lone bye week of the season.

The Hawkeyes are back in action Oct. 6 at Minnesota, which on Monday was set as a 2:30 p.m. kickoff to be televised on Big Ten Network.

Always a good Iowa decision: Throw the ball up to the tight ends.

In one of the most remarkable plays by an Iowa quarterback that I can remember, Nate Stanley’s long second-quarter completion to T.J. Hockenson on third-and-9 served as a “wow” moment.

The scramble itself was nice; the 6-foot-4, 242-pound junior spun out of pressure and rolled to his left to buy extra time. Then, without even setting his feet, he whipped a towering pass that traveled 57 yards through the air (and seemed to almost reach press-box height) down the middle of the field. There, the 6-5, 250 Hockenson boxed out 5-10, 184 freshman cornerback Faion Hicks to secure a 46-yard gain.


It’s a lesson Stanley and the Hawkeyes should have used, though, on what became the two most ill-fated play calls of the game.

Give your tall, talented tight ends a chance to make more plays.

On fourth-and-1 from Wisconsin’s 5 in the first quarter, Iowa motioned preseason all-American Noah Fant (6-5, 241) to the left, where he had isolated coverage with Hicks. That’s a seven-inch height advantage with the most prolific touchdown-scoring tight end in school history. Yet Iowa tried a quarterback sneak with Stanley, and it failed.

In the third quarter of a 7-7 game, Iowa went with the same exact look (three tight ends, bunched formation) on third-and-goal from the 2. This time, Fant’s motion to the left drew one-on-one coverage with safety D’Cota Dixon. Again, Iowa tried a running play, and Ivory Kelly-Martin was clobbered for a 4-yard loss.

It’s perplexing that Iowa got such a favorable matchup twice and didn’t capitalize. Instead of 14 points on those drives, Iowa got three in a game that came down to the final minute. Fant scored both Iowa touchdowns Saturday; he could’ve had at least one more.

Wisconsin's linebackers made the plays Iowa's didn't.

When it comes to making third-down stops, it often requires a linebacker to step up and make a play.

Wisconsin’s superior linebackers were evident on back-to-back possessions in the first half that resulted in seven points for the Badgers, and zero for the Hawkeyes.

On a third-and-2 from Iowa’s 39, Hawkeye junior linebacker Kristian Welch was fooled by fullback Alec Ingold, who scooted around the left edge and was wide open for a 33-yard pass reception up the left sideline. Wisconsin scored on the next play.

As Iowa tried to answer, it marched to the Wisconsin 39 and had third-and-6. The call: A sweep to the left, out of an empty backfield, to Mekhi Sargent. Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards, a Butkus Award finalist (over Josey Jewell) last year, wasn’t fooled. He darted into the Iowa backfield and tackled Sargent for a 3-yard loss.

Instead of a first down or a long field goal, Iowa had to punt.

Later on the aforementioned third-and-goal from Wisconsin’s 2, linebacker Ryan Connelly blew up a running play to force a field goal.

Then, for good linebacking measure, it was Edwards who was in the right spot to haul in the game-clinching interception with 38 seconds to go.

Iowa’s spotty linebacker play was evident throughout the game; Welch was benched in favor of Djimon Colbert in the second half. Afterward, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said both guys might continue to rotate.

Outside linebacker Nick Niemann had two especially regrettable moments; the most obvious one was allowing A.J. Taylor to get inside him on the go-ahead, 17-yard touchdown pass with 52 seconds left. But an earlier non-tackle in the fourth quarter was strange.

With Iowa leading 17-14 and Wisconsin facing second-and-15 from its own 31, Alex Hornibrook found Taylor near the left sideline. As Niemann approached Taylor, he didn’t follow through with the tackle — instead giving him an ineffective shove. Taylor stayed on his feet and gained 18 yards when he probably should’ve been held to 11. It was a quietly big first down that helped Wisconsin’s path to victory.

Because they kept moving the chains, the Badgers held the ball for 10:29 of the fourth quarter to Iowa’s 4:31.

After the game, Ferentz defended his linebackers, saying they’ve been “one of the pleasant things over four weeks" of the season so far. I agree it's been good ... but it's certainly far from great.

Ferentz added: “We're seeing a lot of growth all over our football team. But some of it gets hidden (Saturday) because of a couple critical plays that we weren't able to execute cleanly enough.”

Fair point. Let’s look at some of those growth areas.

The offensive line is playing at an elite level.

One of the reasons this Iowa loss was so frustrating: The Hawkeyes' offensive line was in control of its business.

Despite only 54 snaps, Iowa gained 404 yards for the night.

The Hawkeyes pushed for an average of 4.8 yards a carry and didn’t allow a sack. A year ago against the Badgers, those numbers were 1.0 and four sacks.

Center Keegan Render continues to impress. This was just his fifth career start at that position, but he’s mowing down defenders. On one back-to-back sequence in the third quarter, as Toren Young plowed ahead for gains of nine and 10 yards, Render was so effective with downfield blocks that he was there to help Young to his feet.

Iowa’s tackle play also has been sturdy. Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs aren’t freshmen anymore. Their progression as sophomores has been a big reason the Hawkeyes have allowed just four sacks this season.

One of those sacks was allowed by second-teamers; another was on Stanley.

Still, it’s a 1.0 per game clip that is more than acceptable. The past three seasons, Iowa’s offensive line combined to allow 85 sacks (25 in 2017, 30 each in 2015 and 2016). Against Wisconsin, known for its attacking defense, the Hawkeyes' line plugged most of the leaks they’ve had in the past.

Credit to Tim Polasek, in his second year as offensive line coach. Despite the loss, the Wisconsin native should be pretty happy with how his guys played Saturday night.

Play-action passes can be a thing of beauty.

You saw Wisconsin burn Iowa with excellent play action. And because of its effective run game Saturday, Iowa burned Wisconsin, too.

By my count, Stanley threw out of play-action six times Saturday. The sequence:

  • A 24-yarder to Hockenson on Iowa’s first pass attempt.
  • A 13-yarder to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on a cross.
  • A pass-interference flag on a throw to Brandon Smith, good for 10 yards.
  • A beautifully thrown 45-yard deep shot to Hockenson on third-and-2 that set up Fant’s second TD.
  • A 14-yarder to Smith over the middle.
  • And an overthrow to Hockenson in the fourth quarter, Stanley’s only real bad throw of the night.

The totals: Six snaps, 106 yards, five first downs.

And that’s a snapshot of what's possible with this Hawkeye offense when the offensive line and run game are clicking.

On A.J. Epenesa: Play the man.

Fox’s Joel Klatt gave us the reminder during the broadcast: Epenesa was the only five-star recruit on either roster Saturday night. And the sophomore continues to live up to the hype.

His pass pressure caused an incompletion late in the second quarter, though, again, I think that should’ve been reviewed because it looked like a fumble to me and a clear Iowa recovery by Welch at Wisconsin’s 33.

That can't be changed. What can be is Epenesa’s snap count.

Of Wisconsin’s 66 official plays from scrimmage, Epenesa was only on the field for 22 of them (33 percent): 12 in the first half, 10 in the second.

He needs more — especially when you see the increasing number of double-teams being thrown his way to slow him down.

The coaches have been cautious with Epenesa’s workload because he hasn't proven himself against the run like starters Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse have.

But on Saturday, Epenesa sure looked like a full-service defensive end. An example: On a second-and-5 (two plays after Kyle Groeneweg’s punt-return fumble), Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor took a handoff and ran left ... toward Epenesa.

Epenesa stood up left tackle Cole Van Lanen, broke free and wrapped up Taylor for a 1-yard gain.

That was his only tackle. He remains largely a third-down regular who leads the team with four sacks.

I’m guessing that, as coaches evaluate things during the bye week, they’ll conclude that it’s time to get one of the program’s top talents more playing time.

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.