Leistikow's DVR Monday: Clever run game, educated defense helped Iowa stump Maryland
For the second straight DVR Monday, let’s revisit the preseason words of Brian Ferentz.
In August, the Iowa offensive coordinator said this: “If we’re going to be successful here, we need to be able to run the football. And we need to be able to do it when everyone knows we’re going to do it.”
Saturday’s 23-0 win against Maryland at Kinnick Stadium was that time.
With heavy winds eliminating half of a play-caller’s passing sheet, the Terrapins knew Iowa would run the football. The 69,250 in attendance knew Iowa would run the football.
And the Hawkeyes did, cranking out season highs of 52 rushing attempts and 224 rushing yards. How did they succeed against the Big Ten Conferences’s third-ranked defense? Let’s dive in.
Iowa's own window dressing
Last week, we examined Ferentz’s comments about the importance of taking deep shots downfield. Those weren’t an option Saturday.
So Ferentz had to get creative within the running game. While he leaned heavily on two personnel groups, the assortment of formations was constantly changing.
A breakdown of Iowa’s 48 called running plays by personnel group:
1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR (“12” personnel) — 19 rushes, 90 yards.
The fact that this was Iowa’s most used and most effective group should be encouraging. When the Hawkeyes deploy two tight ends (T.J. Hockenson, paired with either Noah Fant or Nate Wieting), the pass and run are equally in play.
The Hawkeyes opened the game with back-to-back running plays out of “12.” The first lined up Fant and Hockenson to the left, and Ivory Kelly-Martin ran that way for seven yards. The next, the tight ends were split up and Kelly-Martin ran for six yards up the middle.
They ran right, left, up the middle, out of shotgun ... there was no pattern, and that kept Maryland guessing.
2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR (“21”) — Nine rushes, 39 yards.
Kelly-Martin’s longest run, 10 yards, came out of this set after he followed Hockenson (who came in motion) to the right. Iowa deployed fullback Austin Kelly, in for injured Brady Ross, for 27 snaps.
2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR (“22”) — 16 rushes, 48 yards.
Fant was split out as a wide receiver the first time this personnel group was used; and Sargent picked up three yards.
As the game got more and more settled, this became the run-out-the-clock formation, but Ferentz constantly varied the looks and which way the ball went. Six went left, seven went up the middle, three went right.
“Others” — Four rushes, 33 yards.
Two of the most clever run-play designs came out of rarely used formations. One, you’ll read about in the next section. The other was the only play Iowa ran without a tight end on the field.
On third-and-10 on Iowa’s first possession, quarterback Nate Stanley held up four fingers — for four wide receivers plus Sargent to come onto the field. And Iowa ran a jet sweep to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on the play around the left end. Sargent delivered a key block on the edge, and this became Iowa's longest running play of the day — 16 yards.
For how much was made about Maryland’s sophisticated run offense, Ferentz broke out his own window dressing Saturday with repeated, winning success.
What made the QB draw work?
The quarterback draw is something C.J. Beathard used from time to time during his two-plus seasons as an Iowa starter. But it’s not Stanley’s game. That’s why it was so unexpected to see the 6-foot-4, 242-pound junior lumber for a career-long 13-yard rush late in the second quarter.
It was one of Iowa’ biggest offensive plays of the day, because it led to its only offensive touchdown — a 10-yard reception by Brandon Smith with 8 seconds left in the first half.
Beyond the element of surprise, what made the call work? Let’s set the stage.
Iowa lined up with three receivers lined up on the left (including Hockenson), one to the right (Smith). Stanley took a shotgun snap, with Sargent to his right.
Maryland showed blitz but rushed only four linemen. A sensible move on a third-and-9 play with heavy winds, but it proved to be a mistake. Because when those four pass rushers were sucked into the backfield, center Keegan Render was left without anyone to initially block.
After Render briefly dropped back as if to pass block, he ran forward and essentially became a 307-pound fullback. Hockenson, Sargent and Smith became downfield blockers, too, while receivers Nick Easley and Smith-Marsette lured their defenders away with deep pass routes.
Stanley’s running path was up the middle. Sargent cleared out the right with a crunching block on safety Darnell Savage Jr.
But the beauty of the blocking was how Iowa handled inside linebacker Tre Watson, the primary guy that could stop Stanley short of a first down. Hockenson darted forward and made initial contact with Watson, knocking him off course. Hockenson then headed further downfield to handle safety Deon Jones, leaving Watson to find — you guessed it — Render charging his way. Render's finishing block on Watson helped Stanley gain the first down.
It was a great call, but only because of the great execution.
Vision, patience pay off
Aggression is usually the name of the game for defensive ends, who are tasked more than anyone to get to the opposing quarterback. But patience paid off in two third-quarter instances for Hawkeye veterans Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson.
First, Hesse — whose 41st career start might have been his best.
Two punishing tackles for loss were his highlight plays. But a brilliant read of quarterback Kasim Hill snuffed out a well-designed shovel pass to top Maryland playmaker Ty Johnson. Hill ran left, the aim being to take Hesse with him. But the senior didn’t bite. He stayed in perfect position, almost equidistant from Hill and Johnson, waiting for Hill to act first.
As soon as Johnson caught the short flip, Hesse took him to the ground.
Next, Nelson — with focus on his first career touchdown.
When backup quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome fumbled a snap, Nelson was in position to pounce because of his eyes. Nelson was keyed on the jet-sweep action to Brian Cobbs and crept unblocked into the backfield. Once he saw Pigrome boot the ball backward into the South end zone, he took off and beat everyone to the ball.
It will be the easiest touchdown of his life, but he made it happen by being well-prepared.
Was Epenesa robbed of a sack?
Sophomore A.J. Epenesa contended after the game that he should’ve had a sack of Hill in the second quarter. Epenesa hit Hill as he wound up to throw, and the ball went forward a few yards, where a Maryland lineman recovered.
Officials ruled it incomplete.
Upon review, I thought Hill’s arm was going forward at the time of the hit. Thus, officials probably got it right. It was a close call and, frankly, became a moot point because Maryland was punting from about the same spot either way. That’s probably why the replay official didn’t bother to review the play.
So, Epenesa has six sacks for the season instead of seven. That ranks second in the Big Ten to Minnesota’s Carter Coughlin (who has eight).
By the way, Epenesa did play more snaps (25) than Hesse (23) for the first time this season — if anyone’s still wondering.
Kristian Welch is making a strong case to remain Iowa’s starting middle linebacker.
The junior had his best game as a Hawkeye and was a big reason Maryland couldn’t uncork a single big play that its running game depends on.
With Iowa’s lead a precarious 6-0 midway through the second quarter, Welch stepped up with two strong tackles in space.
A jet sweep to Brian Cobbs to the left gained only 2 yards after Welch took a perfect angle to the runner. It looked like a replay two plays later, as Welch again perfectly read a jet-sweep left, this time to McFarland, and filled the open hole and tackled him for just 2 yards.
Welch later was able to track down McFarland on Maryland’s longest play of the day, a 19-yarder on third-and-2 up the left sideline.
Hawkeye coaches will have a decision to make once Jack Hockaday is ready to go. Hockaday did excellent work in Iowa’s first five games at middle linebacker but hasn’t played in either of the last two because of a knee injury. He was back on this week’s depth chart, listed as a backup to Welch.
Iowa has allowed just 16 points in two games with Welch at middle linebacker; the junior has earned a starting spot somewhere.
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.