There was so much going on during Iowa's 48-31 victory at Minnesota, it became difficult to sort it all out.
But looking back on Saturday's game at TCF Bank Stadium from a Hawkeyes perspective, there should be a sense of accomplishment and growth, especially on the edges — at wide receiver and cornerback.
This week's "Slow the Boat" version of DVR Monday takes a look at those areas and much more.
It was 'Separation' Saturday
For the 2016 and 2017 seasons in particular, you probably heard (or had) some version of this complaint: Why can’t Iowa’s receivers ever get open?
You probably haven’t heard that one as much lately.
That’s because this group of Hawkeye receivers is running good routes and catching on-time passes. They’re finding the elusive “s” word — separation. That was especially evident on Iowa’s first drive of the game.
Senior Nick Easley, Iowa’s best route runner, executed a crisp quick out to gain 13 yards on the Hawkeyes’ first snap.
Brandon Smith was met with the football on his 8-yard curl route two snaps later.
On a fourth-and-2, Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the lone target — and he ran a sharp, quick out to the right that gained nine yards. (Remember this play later.)
Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin flattened a defender then kept his balance to pick up 15 yards on a screen pass.
All four guys were open by several yards of space. They created separation with their feet. And for the first time all year, Iowa scored on its opening drive — on a 3-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson.
Later, when Iowa faced third-and-5 from Minnesota’s 18, Smith ran a tight comeback route to the sideline and collected 12 crucial yards that led to the fake field goal.
And maybe the sweetest route of the game was executed by Easley on his 21-yard touchdown catch that pushed Iowa’s lead to 28-10. Known for being Iowa’s underneath guy, he sold a short drag route over the middle, dug his left foot into the turf, and darted straight up-field — speeding past fooled linebacker Thomas Barber. Quarterback Nate Stanley delivered maybe his best throw of the game, a touch pass that Easley caught as he received contact.
Credit to Iowa’s growth at this position; credit to second-year receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who is transforming this room; and credit the timing and execution carried out by Stanley. Maybe Iowa's maligned receivers group is becoming a strength.
Speaking of receivers …
Several people asked me whether Stanley was beyond the line of scrimmage when he uncorked a 60-yard touchdown pass to Smith-Marsette up the left sideline in the first quarter.
By rule, no.
In college football, it is only an illegal forward pass if "it is thrown by a Team A player whose entire body is beyond the neutral zone when he releases the ball."
The entire body.
That’s the key phrase. Iowa started the play from about its own 39½-yard line. Even though Stanley’s arm was past the 40-yard line when he released the ball, his back (left) leg was still hovering over the 39. Good no-call. Very good touchdown.
And by the way, a tip of the cap to running back Mekhi Sargent, who made just enough contact with a blitzing Minnesota linebacker to afford Stanley the extra time he needed to scramble and find No. 6 (Smith-Marsette) for six.
Was the targeting call on Amani Jones justified?
This was the most common question I got. The hit in the final minute that will suspend Jones for the first half of this week's game at Indiana certainly landed in the gray area of targeting.
Iowa's junior middle linebacker clearly hit defenseless wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell in the shoulder area with his right shoulder. Clean, right? Not so fast.
Targeting is not only defined as helmet-to-helmet contact. It is defined to be when a player "takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball."
So, a judgment call.
And the language is so broad that it adds, "When in question, it is a foul."
Realizing that, the ruling was understandable but not necessarily correct.
It was all a clever set-up
Hat-tip to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz for this one.
Twice on third-and-medium, Stanley had rolled out to complete key conversions to Smith-Marsette on a simple out pattern.
With Iowa nursing its 41-31 lead late in the fourth quarter on third-and-9, this time Max Cooper was the apparent target. He went through the same pre-snap motion that saw Smith-Marsette go for nine yards three plays earlier.
This time, when Stanley rolled left, three Gophers — no kidding — followed Cooper's out route. The bait was taken.
Stanley saw this and planted his feet and lobbed a pass to the right (a la Brad Banks to Dallas Clark vs. Purdue in 2002) to Hockenson, who had perfectly carried out a fake pass block and sneaked into the secondary. He gained 30 yards to Minnesota's 1-yard line, and the game was essentially over.
It was a reminder that Iowa can and does use its "predictable" label to its play-calling advantage.
No. 77 wasn't as bad as you thought
It’s easy to pile on an offensive lineman who gives up a sack. Especially when it results in the quarterback getting clocked for a lost fumble that sets up a short opponent touchdown.
At first blush, it looked like left tackle Alaric Jackson had a rough day. He also whiffed on the same 245-pound defensive end, Carter Coughlin, that fouled up a second-quarter screen pass.
But worth noting, the snap after that sack-fumble that Jackson surely felt terrible about, the 320-pound sophomore was primarily responsible for Iowa’s longest running play of the day. With Minnesota having cut the Iowa lead to 31-24, Ivory Kelly-Martin ran around the left end for 15 clean yards — this time with Jackson powering Coughlin out of the play.
Also worth noting: Pro Football Focus gave Jackson the highest pass-blocking grade on Iowa’s offensive line Saturday; and third-highest overall (behind Ross Reynolds and Tristan Wirfs).
Sometimes it’s easy to pick on a guy because of one play without looking at the whole body of work. Jackson didn’t have his best day, but he certainly wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
How did Iowa’s freshmen corners play?
Julius Brents looked like a future star. Riley Moss got picked on early, had the last laugh — twice — late.
The pregame story of the day was that both 18-year-olds were starting in place of Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia. The postgame story was their three combined interceptions against some of the best receivers the Hawkeyes will face all season.
Let’s give extra focus to Moss, who early in the game looked like he was just trying too hard not to make a mistake. After some teaching moments, it seemed he gained confidence after sticking stride-for-stride with Autman-Bell as Minnesota tried a fake punt — throwing a deep pass Moss' way, up the left sideline.
As Big Ten Network's Glen Mason pointed out, it would’ve been easy for Moss to take a pass interference penalty, thinking he was probably blocking for a punt return. Instead, Moss identified what was going on and was in position to make a play even if the ball hadn't been overthrown.
Suddenly, he had confidence. The very next time he was tested, he looked for the ball — and came down with an interception in the end zone against Autman-Bell.
In university-supplied quotes (because media aren’t allowed to talk to true freshmen), Moss said of Saturday’s biggest challenge: “Definitely the speed of the game. Then, building confidence, like, 'I can do this. I’m meant to be here. I’m here for a reason.' It was mostly mental. Once that mental barrier was overcome, the game went a little bit better.”
That played out on his second interception, when he looked like a seasoned veteran. With the Gophers’ top receiver, Tyler Johnson, trying to run a seam route out of the slot, Moss expertly let safety Amani Hooker handle the outside receiver. He read the deep throw and beat Johnson to the ball — and not only caught it, but (thanks to a flattening hit by Jake Gervase) returned it 36 yards to the Minnesota 9-yard line — helping the Hawkeyes push the lead to three scores.
When the day ended?
Brents had the highest PFF grade of any Iowa defensive back; Moss had the third-best ... and the team lead in interceptions for the season.
Overall, it was a good day.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with the Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.