Leistikow's DVR Monday: Pass-game problems at Penn State aren't all on Nate Stanley
“This one’s going to hurt,” coach Kirk Ferentz said less than an hour after Iowa’s 30-24 loss to Penn State.
That was true for the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes in the loss column and probably in the film room.
A vocal part of the postgame criticism from the outside was directed at quarterback Nate Stanley for his off night (18-for-49, 205 yards, two key interceptions), and at the coaching staff for some decisions that backfired.
Upon review, this was an entire team loss. The bad plays that stick out from this game were a domino effect of earlier deficiencies. And that was no more evident with Stanley’s game, which goes first under the DVR Monday spotlight.
Penn State's defensive line outplayed Iowa's offensive line.
Early in the ESPN broadcast, sideline reporter Todd McShay — one of the network’s two prominent NFL Draft analysts — called Stanley “one of the more underrated quarterbacks in all of college football. I’ve had him as one of the top three quarterback prospects for the 2019 draft since the start of the season.”
By the end of the game, McShay had knocked Stanley for missing “middle-school throws” and said, “For a guy I think could play at the next level … today has been one of his worst passing performances that I’ve seen in 21 starts.”
It should not be lost how quickly Penn State’s pass rush caved into Stanley's passing pocket ... and how that affected him.
On third-and-goal from Penn State’s 3 on the first drive, Stanley was flattened by defensive tackle Robert Windsor as he threw incomplete. He didn’t have time to see that tight end T.J. Hockenson had broken free on the right side after his defender slipped. It would have been an easy touchdown.
Iowa had the perfect play call on the first snap of its next drive. A right-side screen pass to Ivory Kelly-Martin was there. But right guard Dalton Ferguson whiffed on Penn State defensive tackle Kevin Givens, who was able to charge into Stanley as he threw incomplete.
Stanley rushed a throw to Nick Easley early in the second half after Cole Banwart — who had replaced Ferguson after early struggles — allowed inside pressure. Stanley overshot Easley. With more time to pass and more air under the ball, that would have been a 56-yard touchdown.
Trailing 30-24 in the final minutes from Penn State's 13, Givens got around center Keegan Render. Stanley was hit as he overthrew an open Kyle Groeneweg in the end zone. Three plays later, Stanley was intercepted by Nick Scott at the goal line, on the game’s most defining play.
Stanley's disappointing game stemmed from a collection of breakdowns. For the day, Ferguson, Banwart and Render received Iowa's three worst pass-blocking grades (by a wide margin) from Pro Football Focus.
When the QB clock ticks, mistakes happen.
Stanley missed his share of open throws. That was well-documented. But add that to shaky pass protection and wet field conditions ... and you have a quarterback making hasty decisions, even when he doesn’t have to.
With Iowa leading, 14-7, Stanley went to pass on second-and-9. Keep in mind: On his previous pass attempt on the previous drive, Stanley was sacked by Givens (who beat Ferguson). Now, Banwart was in the game.
This time, Stanley had ample time to throw. But he still stuck with his first read, a deep out to the left sideline even though the target, Easley, was surrounded by two defenders. One of them, John Reid, easily intercepted the floating ball and raced 44 yards to Iowa's 3.
Had Stanley taken time to go through his progressions, he would have seen Fant flashing wide open over the middle for what would have been an easy six to 10 yards.
Instead, it was 14-14 and a whole new ballgame.
Let’s diagnose the fourth-down call at the end of the first half.
I heard from many upset fans about Iowa’s choice to get aggressive (maybe “too cute”) with 44 seconds left in the first half, facing fourth-and-10 from Penn State’s 42-yard line.
Here’s what happened.
Backup quarterback Peyton Mansell, who wears the same number (2) as Iowa’s backup punter, came onto the field. After a shift that sent Stanley out wide as a receiver, Mansell lined up 6½ yards behind Render.
Left tackle Alaric Jackson went in motion and switched sides of the line of scrimmage to become the right tackle. That left Hockenson as an eligible receiver on the left side of the unbalanced line, with guard Ross Reynolds to his immediate right.
Render snapped the ball to Mansell. “Pooch punt,” ESPN analyst Brian Griese predicted. Nope. Stanley stepped back as if ready to receive a backward pass. Fant, lined up on the left, ran deep over the middle to attract safety help. Hockenson dropped to pass block briefly, then slipped into the left flat and waved his hands for the ball. He appeared open.
But Mansell didn’t throw it. He tucked the ball and started to run. Kirk Ferentz said afterward Mansell had an option to punt it there — and he certainly had enough space to get off a running kick. But he instead was tackled for no gain.
I said it on our postgame podcast, and I’ll say it here. If that play had worked, the Hawkeyes probably take a 24-14 lead into halftime and get the second-half kickoff — and “New Kirk” is being hailed by fans as a gambling genius. Instead, he’s getting ripped.
The play was well-designed. It had outs, too, if Hockenson hadn’t been open. The moment might have been too hectic for the player who got the ball in front of 105,000-plus.
Some fans felt Iowa shouldn't have trusted a freshman backup to make a big throw in a big spot. But remember, coaches have trusted their punter to throw three passes over the past two seasons (all of which have been successful completions — including earlier in this game). A reason those plays worked is because of the element of surprise; Mansell was that element on this play.
Penn State was left with only 37 seconds in the half, and its star quarterback, Trace McSorley, was in the locker room. Iowa took a calculated risk that it could keep backup Tommy Stevens off the scoreboard. Unfortunately for Iowa, Penn State did tie the score, 17-17, at halftime with a long Jake Pinegar field goal.
The surprise shot ultimately backfired. Even so, I applaud the aggression, I understand the reasoning, and I liked the play call.
Give credit where credit is due.
Penn State made an adjustment to burn Iowa for maybe the biggest game-changing play: McSorley’s 51-yard touchdown run on third-and-2 to break that 17-17 tie.
With McSorley’s leg ailing, Iowa showed blitz — probably figuring he wasn’t much of a running threat. The Nittany Lions paused, looked to the sideline and received a new play. Out of a shotgun formation, McSorley shifted running back Miles Sanders from his left to his right. Off the snap, safety Jake Gervase and Djimon Colbert indeed blitzed. Middle linebacker Jack Hockaday got lured into the backfield off Sanders’ action to the right, and that allowed McSorley to go left and quickly get into Iowa's secondary on a well-blocked, well-designed play.
Matt Nelson had his best game as a Hawkeye.
Take away that McSorley plus-51 and the minus-25 for a bad punt snap — and Penn State’s rushing totals for the day were 33 carries for 92 yards (2.8 per attempt). That's more than acceptable.
For the day, Penn State gained a season-low 312 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per play. Its previous season lows were 390 and 5.5.
Matt Nelson, Iowa’s pre-medicine student and 6-foot-8 defensive tackle, deserves credit for anchoring the middle of the Hawkeye defense and clogging up the Penn State run game. Nelson was fantastic in limiting the production of Sanders (17 carries, 62 yards).
On Sanders’ first carry of the day, he fought off 325-pound left guard Steven Gonzalez to stop the running back for a 1-yard gain. Later, he stepped back from his blocker, slid to his left and teamed with Hockaday to stuff Sanders for a 1-yard loss.
Nelson's six tackles tied for a team high — unheard of for an interior defensive lineman — and was credited with one pass breakup and a QB hurry.
The Hawkeyes are fourth nationally in rushing defense (84.4 yards a game), and Nelson is quite literally a big reason for that.
They say officials could call holding on every play.
But you do see frequent penalties on kick or punt returns, because the infractions are more visible in space. However, a missed call burned the Hawkeyes late.
One of the fourth quarter’s biggest Penn State plays probably should have been called back. K.J. Hamler’s 67-yard kickoff return — which came immediately after Geno Stone’s pick-six cut the Penn State lead to 27-24 — was benefited by an obvious hold at his own 23-yard line.
Near the right sideline, Penn State's Jonathan Sutherland pulled the jersey of Barrington Wade — which cleared the path for Hamler’s giant runback. To make matters worse, the hold brought both players into the path of Iowa’s Josh Turner. That one hold took out two Hawkeyes.
So instead of first-and-10 at Penn State’s own 13 (if the holding had been called), it was first-and-10 at Iowa’s 31. A 56-yard swing. Penn State went on to take a 30-24 lead. Iowa then needed a touchdown to win, rather than a field goal to tie.
Then, Stanley threw that fateful goal-line interception because ... like all game, he was in too much of a hurry.
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.