Leistikow's DVR Monday: Complete or not, deep passes pay off for Iowa's sizzling offense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Nate Stanley was more than willing to air it out in Bloomington, Indiana. The Iowa junior quarterback attempted 12 deep shots among his 33 attempts, and finished with 320 yards passing.

Maybe the Iowa football team understood its identity before Saturday’s 42-16 win at Indiana.

But now everybody knows. This is a group of coaches and players who are constantly on the attack, even with a four-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter.

That was especially apparent with the Hawkeyes’ air-it-out passing game, which saw Nate Stanley throw for a career-high six touchdowns.

And with Iowa hitting its halfway point of the regular season at 5-1 overall, that’s where this week’s DVR Monday begins.

Digging the long ball

As I re-watched Stanley repeatedly launch long throws against Indiana’s defense, I was reminded of something offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said back in August:

“If you cannot throw the ball down the field or you’re unwilling to throw it down the field, it gets really hard, offensively, to move the football.”

Ferentz and Stanley are certainly willing … and able.

I charted each deep shot Saturday. I considered it "deep" if the ball was still in the air at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. So that didn’t count touchdown passes of 12 yards to Nick Easley (on a ball that traveled more than 30) or 54 yards to T.J. Hockenson.

And, still, Stanley took 12 deep shots Saturday.

The breakdown:

Six tries fell incomplete. Hockenson could've had a 21-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, but appeared to lose the ball in the sun.

Three passes were complete for 109 yards. All came against one-on-one coverage. The gains went for 23 yards (to Brandon Smith, on a jump ball), 28 (to Noah Fant for a touchdown on maybe Stanley’s best throw of the day) and 58 (to Fant again).

Three drew penalties totaling 45 yards. Two tosses to Ihmir Smith-Marsette and one to Hockenson caused two calls for defensive holding and one for pass interference (which also caused an additional unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on a fuming Indiana coach).

So, in total, the deep shots were 50 percent successful — 6-for-12 — and gained 154 yards’ worth of field position.

Not only is that super-productive (12.8 yards per attempt, five first downs, one TD), but remember Ferentz’s quote — just being willing to go deep is crucial to unlocking the entire playbook.

Seven of Stanley’s deep shots took place in the first quarter. That might as well have been a message broadcast to the rest of the Big Ten: If you’re going to crowd the line of scrimmage, we are more than willing to throw the ball behind you.

Iowa averaged 5.0 yards per rushing attempt Saturday, good for 9.7 per passing attempt. Ten different Hawkeyes were targeted with passes, and nine caught them.

When Iowa has the football, it’s anybody’s guess where it’s going next.

“I just love how the whole team’s coming around,” Smith-Marsette said. “We can pass, we can run, the whole team’s blocking — it’s all working in our favor.”

Beating a Blitz 101

From the get-go, Indiana made it known it planned to attack Iowa’s offense. The Hoosiers blitzed on almost every play in the first quarter. But the offensive line held strong — and made them pay.

One first-quarter running play, in particular, accentuated this point.

Indiana crashed six defenders into the line of scrimmage against a called Iowa draw play. With five offensive linemen and a fullback, that meant Iowa had to go 6-for-6 in blocking to make the play work.

Right guard Dalton Ferguson and right tackle Tristan Wirfs took pass drops and turned their defensive linemen out and to the right. Two down, four to go.

Left guard Ross Reynolds and left tackle Alaric Jackson did the same on the other side. Four down, two to go.

The beauty of the execution, though, happened up the middle. Center Keegan Render absorbed blitzing linebacker Raekwon Jones, who came from his right. Render’s eyes were up the whole time, and he saw it coming. Five down, the toughest one to go.

The final blitzing linebacker was en route. Dameon Willis Jr. charged behind Jones, hoping to overwhelm the middle of Iowa’s line — which is where this play was headed. But because Render made such quick work of his man, fullback Brady Ross had a clean look at his foe. And he planted Willis Jr.'s knees into the ground.

By that time, Toren Young had the football. And the middle of the field was vacant. Young scampered for 16 yards — Iowa’s second-longest run of the day.

Render cited “eye discipline and eye placement” as the key to tracking Indiana’s variety of blitzes. For the day, Iowa gained 479 yards — and allowed just one sack, which was largely inconsequential on a Hail Mary attempt to end the first half.

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Toren Young making his case

A nondescript 2-yard run in the third quarter exemplified why Young has earned a more prominent role going forward — even with Ivory Kelly-Martin (concussion) set to return this week against Maryland (11 a.m., ESPN2).

On this play, Young received a straight-ahead handoff — and the blocking broke down. With a running start, linebacker Thomas Allen (6-foot-3, 236 pounds) hit Young a yard behind the line of scrimmage. But Young (5-11, 221) stayed sturdy and upright — and even pushed back 285-pound defensive tackle Brandon Wilson — to surge forward for a 2-yard gain.

With so much emphasis on Iowa getting at least 4 yards on first down, a guy who can get 3 after first contact when there’s nowhere to run? That’s invaluable. Young wasn't tackled for a loss on any his 19 carries for 96 yards.

On his 11-yard touchdown catch earlier in the game, Young was first hit at the 8-yard line — but kept his balance long enough to stumble into the end zone. That prompted ESPN's Anthony Becht to say, “That’s like an old-school Mike Alstott run there” — a reference to the tough-to-tackle former Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback.

Young remains Iowa’s leading rusher (73 carries, 382 yards) despite being used more as a second-half battering ram. After Kelly-Martin returned from an ankle injury, Young only received 11 combined carries (for 52 yards) against Wisconsin and Minnesota, compared with 34 for Kelly-Martin and 15 for Mekhi Sargent.

Bottom line: When Young is in the game, he seems to produce.

Hockey line change freezes momentum

The benefit of rotating eight defensive linemen — often four at a time — paid dividends as Iowa tried to hang onto its 21-10 lead in the final minutes of the first half.

After Indiana running back Stevie Scott ran for 6 yards to create a second-and-4 at Iowa’s 31-yard line, the Hawkeyes shuttled in their entire starting unit of Anthony Nelson, Matt Nelson, Sam Brincks and Parker Hesse to replace the backup quartet of Chauncey Golston, Brady Reiff, Cedrick Lattimore and A.J. Epenesa.

A quick incomplete pass was followed by up-the-middle pressure from Matt Nelson that hurried Peyton Ramsey into a throw of just 3 yards to set up a fourth-and-1. After a video review, Iowa brought out its short-yardage unit, and Amani Hooker broke up Ramsey’s fourth-down attempt.

It may have gone unnoticed, but the fresh legs help. Had Indiana’s momentum continued, maybe the score would've been 21-13 or 21-17 at halftime. Instead, Iowa stayed in control.

Saturday’s final snap counts on the D-line, according to Pro Football Focus: Anthony Nelson had 57, Hesse had 54, Brincks had 41, Matt Nelson had 40, Epenesa had 33, Golston had 30, Lattimore had 16 and Reiff had 13.

Not only are the Hawkeyes staying fresher in games, but they're also reducing individual wear-and-tear. That should be a benefit come November.

And by the way, unlike the back seven, none of those eight defensive linemen have missed a game due to injury this season.

The death of two Hawkeye narratives

"The all-business Hawkeyes never show any emotion on the sideline."

"And how come they never blitz?"

Those statements were shown to be myths Saturday.

I really enjoyed seeing the enthusiasm of Hawkeye players and coaches that were shown on the broadcast. Even stodgy (another myth) head coach Kirk Ferentz was seen firing his team up to get a defensive stop, up 26 points late in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Phil Parker continued to show creativity in attacking the opposing backfield. On separate plays on Indiana's opening drive, inside linebacker Djimon Colbert, strong safety Geno Stone and outside linebacker Hooker were sent on blitzes. Later, cornerback Riley Moss got home on a blitz — and probably should've shared the sack that was credited to Golston.

Much was made about Iowa's offense keeping its foot on the gas Saturday. But the defense did, too — from start to finish.

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.