Leistikow's DVR Monday: Widespread blame warranted in Iowa's loss to Northwestern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

As is typically the case in losses, blame is widespread. College football is played by 22 players per snap, with 11 full-time coaches on each side.

In Iowa’s 14-10 loss to Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium, fingers could be pointed at coaching, offense, defense and special teams.

The punt game was terrible for a second straight week.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson juked his way around Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa, left, for a key eight-yard gain on third-and-7 during a 14-10 Wildcats win in Iowa City.

The offense was marred by its worst rushing performance of the season.

And the defense had its focus in the wrong place on critical plays. That’s where this week’s DVR Monday begins.

And yes, we’ll get to Noah Fant.

Trailing 3-0 at halftime, Northwestern’s offense flipped its script.

And Phil Parker’s defense didn’t adjust until it was too late.

The Wildcats were easy to read in the first half. On first down (not counting kneel-downs), they rushed 10 times and never passed. On third down, they threw five times and never ran. The first-half totals: 75 yards, 2.0 per carry, 2.78 per play; 11:36 time of possession.

The second-half splits: Nine runs, 10 passes on first down; 10 runs, three passes on third down. The second-half totals: 231 yards, 5.17 per carry, 4.71 per play; 19:30 time of possession.

Why the reversal?

The Wildcats realized they could run into standard Iowa defenses that typically put six defenders (and sometimes five) in the so-called “box” around the line of scrimmage.

Northwestern ran power plays out of spread formations, and freshman Isaiah Bowser (31 carries, 165 yards) was the main beneficiary.

“We knew that they were going to run the ball on first and second (downs),” safety Geno Stone said afterward, “but we thought they were going to pass on third.”

Two third-and-long conversions underscore how perfectly Northwestern executed surprise runs.

On a third-and-7 late in the third quarter, quarterback Clayton Thorson faked a handoff to Chad Hanaoka up the middle, but held the ball long enough to draw crashing right defensive end A.J. Epenesa inside. Thorson then scooted around left end — eluding Epenesa’s fingertips — for an 8-yard gain.

That extended a 19-play, defense-taxing drive that resulted in a missed field goal. But Northwestern came back to the same look for an even bigger payoff in the fourth quarter.

This time on third-and-9, Thorson gave the ball to Hanaoka — who scooted 13 yards up the middle on his 11th carry of 2018. On the next play, Thorson threw a 32-yard touchdown to Bennett Skowronek for the winning points.

A week after getting burned by the pass at Purdue, the Hawkeyes were caught flat-footed against the run.

Sticking with the defensive theme ...

We knew that linebacker would be a question-mark position for the Hawkeyes.

Having Josey Jewell, a rookie with the Denver Broncos, back in town Saturday served as a reminder of that preseason story line.

With Amani Hooker again playing outside linebacker, essentially as a fifth defensive back, pressure fell to middle linebacker Jack Hockaday and weak-side linebacker Djimon Colbert to stop the short stuff.

Hockaday completely whiffed on a simple flare pass to Bowser that turned into a 12-yard second-quarter gain.

On Northwestern's first touchdown, both inside linebackers were engulfed by pulling linemen. Center Jared Thomas powered Hockaday out of the play, and right tackle Rashawn Slater easily took care of Colbert. A bad angle by free safety Jake Gervase followed, and Bowser raced for a 34-yard score.

Another linebacker, Kristian Welch, was dominated by Thomas on the aforementioned 13-yarder on third-and-9.

The Hawkeyes just don’t have anyone near Jewell’s all-American level of play at linebacker. That is not a surprise ... but it sure stood out Saturday.

I think it's time to give Amani Jones, who was benched in the first quarter of the first game, another hard look at middle linebacker. The junior has an explosion to his game that could bring a difference-maker to this defense.

The deep shots worked ... when tried.

Early in the Fox broadcast, it was revealed that quarterback Nate Stanley's taped-up, right (throwing) thumb is bothering him more than he’s let on with Iowa media.

“He told us in a meeting before the game that it’s still hampering him a little bit," analyst Brady Quinn said, "in particular driving the ball down the field."

That might help explain why Iowa’s passing attack felt much more horizontal than vertical Saturday. But ...

When Stanley did throw downfield ... it worked.

I counted 11 times that Stanley threw a pass that traveled more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His numbers on those throws: 7-for-10 for 161 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Plus, a long throw to Fant drew a 15-yard pass-interference penalty. One of the three incomplete passes was a drop by T.J. Hockenson.

Broken down ...

When Stanley threw 10 or more yards down the field, Iowa gained 176 yards of field position on 11 plays (16 yards per throw).

When Stanley's passes traveled fewer than 10 yards, Iowa gained 108 yards on 31 plays (3.5 yards per throw).

What a difference. Much can be extrapolated.

One, Stanley’s thumb doesn’t seem to prohibit deep tries.

Two, it’s another example of finding big payoffs with shots downfield — something that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz preached in the preseason.

Three, it’s bewildering that Iowa didn’t try more deep passes — especially against an injury-depleted Northwestern secondary.

That brings us back to Noah Fant.

The junior tight end’s lack of usage (one catch, zero yards, three targets) became the story of Saturday’s game. Many folks asked me to study the video — to examine whether there was any visible reason that Fant barely played in the second half.

There wasn’t.

I counted 31 times he was on the field. Some findings:

Fant played on 14 of Iowa’s 21 first-quarter snaps (67 percent).

A healthy, typical workload to start. Fant looked to be a running hard on his pass routes; not “taking plays off,” as some suggested. He did whiff on one run block, but it proved inconsequential to the play.

Fant didn’t play after a three-and-out with 8:53 remaining.

Fant didn’t play on any of Iowa’s first six snaps of the second half; and he only got three (of Iowa’s 15) in the fourth quarter. That still doesn’t make sense, especially considering he was healthy and Iowa continued to run two tight-end sets without Fant.

On Mekhi Sargent’s fourth-quarter fumble, the running play was first foiled when third tight end Nate Wieting got plowed into the backfield.

It’s rare that Stanley looks to Fant as a first option.

Many times, Fant had one-on-one coverage on intermediate or deep routes, but Stanley looked elsewhere. 

Put simply: Making Fant, a projected high NFL draft pick with 18 career touchdowns and wide-receiver speed and elite jumping ability, a primary target is a must going forward.

A doomed play call changes the game.

In a 14-10 game, there are going to be play-calling head-scratchers. That’s football.

One significant snap was a third-and-2 call early in the third quarter. Iowa had a 3-0 lead and momentum after Stone’s interception at the Wildcats’ 42-yard line marked the game’s first turnover.

From Northwestern's 34, the Hawkeyes went “22” personnel — two running backs (Sargent and fullback Austin Kelly) and two tight ends (Wieting and Hockenson, both lined up left). The lone receiver, wide left, was Kyle Groeneweg.

Seeing this personnel group — no Fant, no Smith-Marsette, no Nick Easley — Northwestern crowded the box, with all 11 defenders within three yards of the line of scrimmage. The call: a straight-ahead run to Sargent.

Iowa was badly outnumbered. With no receiver on the right, cornerback Travis Whitlock attacked from the left, unblocked. He blew up the play, and Sargent was tackled for a 4-yard loss.

Fox’s Quinn nailed it on his analysis.

“You’ve got to do something to account for that extra defender. You can’t allow a free rusher like that to impact the play,” he said. “Run the other way or check to a pass.”

Chalk this up as a crucial mental failure, not a physical one. Instead of gaining a first down or a fourth-and-short attempt or a long field goal, Iowa punted on fourth-and-6 from the 38.

After the punt rolled into the end zone, Northwestern answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive for a 7-3 lead.

With a better third-and-2 play call/execution, Iowa might have been headed to a 10-0 lead. And this game would have been completely different the rest of the way.

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.