Leistikow's DVR Monday: Speed, deception burns Iowa Hawkeyes in crucial Purdue loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

No, I didn't get hazard pay for re-watching and scrutinizing Iowa's crushing 38-36 loss to Purdue.

But as always, it's a nice step-back exercise to understand why things happened the way they did. And in the case of Saturday's Big Ten Conference football game at Ross-Ade Stadium, it boiled down to the well-coached Boilermakers capitalizing (and scheming) around their big-play potential. 

The energy Iowa put forth to stop dynamic Purdue freshman Rondale Moore (4) may have worked on the stat sheet, but not on the scoreboard. Djimon Colbert, left, and the Hawkeyes held Moore to just 31 yards on six receptions but lost, 38-36.

Let's get straight to the review on this week's DVR Monday.

Purdue speed distracts Hawks' eyes.

Rondale Moore gained just 31 of Purdue’s 434 yards from scrimmage Saturday. Yet the dynamic freshman might’ve had as much impact as any Boilermaker in gaming the Iowa secondary to surrender big plays.

That was clear from Purdue’s opening snap, when Jeff Brohm used Moore — the runaway league leader in all-purpose yardage — as a downfield decoy to open up Isaac Zico underneath for a 15-yard pass completion.

Moore typically lined up in the slot position, and that drew extra eyes from Iowa's linebackers and safeties. And when that kind of attention is given to the middle of the field, the sidelines become less cluttered with traffic.

On Saturday, that meant Terry Wright was freed up to beat cornerback Riley Moss for three back-breaking touchdown catches. Wright spoke after the game about his film study that noticed the Hawkeye freshman doesn’t jam receivers off the line of scrimmage.

“We thought we had a speed advantage over there on that side,” Purdue quarterback David Blough would say. “Terry is as fast as anybody on our team and Rondale (is) probably neck and neck in the race.”

So where was Moore on Wright’s 82-yard touchdown catch on Purdue's first play of the second half?

A distraction on the opposite side of the field.

Moore lined up on the right, where he first got coverage from linebacker Djimon Colbert, then free safety Jake Gervase. On the left, Wright was left one-on-one against Moss, and Blough dropped in a beauty. 

In my mind, though, the game’s most important snap was Purdue’s fourth-and-2 call at Iowa’s 30-yard line with 2 minutes remaining and Iowa clinging to a 36-35 lead.

How did Brohm deploy Moore (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) on this critical play? As a lead blocker, of course.

Blough was lined up in shotgun. Two receivers were to his left, with Moore in the slot. It was a quarterback sweep around left end. The player most free to make a solo stop would have been strong safety Geno Stone. But the sophomore was 11 yards off the line of scrimmage on Moore's side of the field — a clear sign of respect, even in a short-yardage situation. 

By the time Stone saw run, it was too late and he was too far away. Moore blocked Amani Hooker out of the play. And Blough gained 7 yards.

If Iowa gets the stop, we're probably talking about a Hawkeyes win.

Instead, the Boilers took control — thanks again to the mere threat of Moore.

Yeah, the defensive holding was that bad. 

Kirk Ferentz rolled his eyes during a meeting with officials late in the first half, and amateur lip-readers could see him pleading his case.

“I mean, they’ve been grabbing all day long!”

Ferentz’s ire in this case was after an end-zone throw to Smith-Marsette, in which the sophomore was clearly held by cornerback Antonio Blackmon on third-and-8. It was indicative of the whole afternoon, Ferentz insinuated in his postgame press conference.

As a result, I got lots of reader requests to examine how egregiously Iowa’s receivers were being held throughout the game.

The short answer: It was prevalent.

On one pass route, freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr. was held almost all the way into the end zone, for a good 10 straight yards. Brandon Smith had his jersey pulled by cornerback Kenneth Major as he sprung free on Iowa’s first two-point conversion attempt. Noah Fant was bear-hugged on Iowa's second two-point try by safety Navon Mosley.

Those are just a few examples of plays that weren't flagged.

So, Ferentz’s frustration was understandable when officials finally called pass interference — but against Iowa — as the game was on the line. That call on Iowa freshman Julius Brents with 1:04 to play has already been re-hashed enough.

All that said, I thought A.J. Epenesa had a good big-picture answer worth sharing.

“You can’t blame a game on the referees,” the sophomore defensive end said, “even though you want to. We’ve still got to play better.”

This loss wasn’t on the offense. But ...

Two negative plays crushed Iowa’s momentum.

Both occurred in the second half. And the domino effect was profound.

Play No. 1: Nate Stanley is sacked by Jacob Thieneman for a 7-yard loss.

Iowa had momentum from a late first-half touchdown that cut Purdue's lead to 21-17, and Smith-Marsette had just uncorked a 40-yard kickoff return to open the second half. But then, the Hawkeyes allowed Purdue's only sack of the day — a case of the wrong call against the safety blitz.

Stanley carried out a play-action fake, and Thieneman ran untouched to tackle Stanley from behind. Tight end T.J. Hockenson was wide open after lining up as a fullback, but that’s because he didn’t block anyone. Anyway, Iowa punted two plays later.

And on Purdue’s first play from scrimmage in the second half, it was Blough-to-Wright for 82 yards and a 28-17 lead. 

Play No. 2:  A high snap from Keegan Render results in a 4-yard loss.

Later, momentum swung back toward Iowa. Gervase’s interception gave the Hawkeyes possession at their own 8-yard line and trailing, 28-23.

Iowa lined up in a shotgun formation, with fullback Austin Kelly to Stanley’s right, running back Ivory Kelly-Martin to his left. Why go shotgun backed up against your goal line? It looked like Kelly-Martin could have had a nice power running lane to the right. Also, Fant had a step on Major (a freshman) on an outside go route, if it was a pass. We’ll never know how it could have turned out, because Stanley had to make a nice leaping effort to save a safety.

Although, as it turned out, maybe a safety would have been better.

Because with second-and-14 from its own 4, Iowa got conservative and punted badly into Moore’s hands for a 24-yard return, and Purdue began its final touchdown drive at Iowa’s 18 ... and grabbed a 35-23 lead.

One bad snap basically became the equivalent to a costly turnover.

Hindsight is 20/20. But vision is an issue.

At times, Iowa’s runners don’t see cutback lanes when they get near the sideline. A few nitpicks:

Kyle Groeneweg’s fantastic 38-yard punt return could have gone for more. The speedy senior ran a fair distance to get the corner turned against a Purdue special teamer at Iowa’s 45-yard line. But with a few yards to spare against the boundary, Groeneweg skipped out of bounds at the 49. If Groeneweg could have slowed enough to change his direction, he would have gained another 10 yards and maybe gone the distance, as Dominique Dafney had the punter well-blocked. Iowa settled for a field goal on that drive.

On the same drive, a jet sweep to Smith-Marsette was well-designed. Kelly pushed his man to the outside. But instead of cutting inside, Smith-Marsette kept running to the outside and into sideline traffic. A possible gain of five to seven yards picked up just one ... and set up an ill-fated third-and-7.

Kelly-Martin’s catch on a third-and-3 screen pass late in the first half should’ve gone for a touchdown. He caught the flare in open space and had one man to beat — but instead of just cutting inside and walking into the end zone, he initiated contact and was tackled at the 2-yard line. No matter on this drive, as Iowa scored two plays later. But it didn’t need to be that difficult.

Let's close with a few positives.

Iowa really didn't play that badly at most positions Saturday.

Left tackle Alaric Jackson had an overpowering game. He's still learning, as a 6-foot-7, 320-pound sophomore. But he had Pro Football Focus' top grade among Iowa's offensive linemen at Purdue. With Tristan Wirfs on the other side, the Hawkeyes' future at tackle is bright.

Mekhi Sargent continues to be the team's most complete running back. His hands out of the backfield and relentless running style without fumbling seal the deal for me. 

Hooker might be Iowa's defensive MVP for the season. The hybrid outside linebacker/safety was PFF's highest-rated Hawkeye defender Saturday. He was a gamer in the fourth quarter, with a splendid interception to set up Iowa's final touchdown and a hard tackle on Moore — on the play just before Brents' disputed pass-interference call.

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.