Leistikow's DVR Monday: Hawkeyes show necessary growth in Black Friday finale

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

While this season was certainly imperfect for the Iowa football team, the way this 8-4 regular season finished was pretty satisfying.

The Hawkeyes snapped a three-game losing streak by showing they could completely dominate an opponent (63-0 at Illinois). Then they showed they could finally win a close one: Iowa 31, Nebraska 28.

Offensive linemen Keegan Render (69) and Dalton Ferguson carry the Heroes Trophy after Iowa's 31-28 win against Nebraska. It took a total team effort for the Hawkeyes to win their fourth straight vs. the Cornhuskers.

This week’s DVR Monday starts with that thrilling Black Friday finish.

The crucial play of the season was a total team effort.

Iowa probably doesn’t clinch its fourth straight season with at least eight wins (a first in the Kirk Ferentz era) without the fourth-and-8 conversion to T.J. Hockenson with 42 seconds remaining. I wrote in depth about that play after the game, but on review there was even more stuff to appreciate.

All 11 players had a key role. Breaking it down …

The flanked receivers, Ihmir Smith-Marsette to the right and Brandon Smith to the left, each ran deep routes to take their cornerbacks out of the play.

Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, in only his second snap of the game, lined up left of Stanley (in shotgun formation) and slipped out of the backfield as an outlet man — gobbling up a linebacker. (Now it’s eight-on-eight.)

Nebraska rushed seven, and there were only six Hawkeyes to block them. But all six executed perfectly. Left tackle Alaric Jackson, left guard Ross Reynolds, center Keegan Render, right guard Cole Banwart and right tackle Tristan Wirfs each walled off one pass rusher each (going 5-for-5) to give Stanley a clean pocket.

But what about the other two Huskers? Enter running back Mekhi Sargent. Lined up to Stanley’s right, the sophomore stepped into the middle of the pocket and first clocked 230-pound linebacker Mohamed Berry, then got a piece of 245-pound linebacker Dedrick Young II.

All that was left? A perfect throw, and a catch of a wet football by Hockenson against one-on-one coverage for 10 yards.

It was the only pass of six Stanley completed in the game’s final 21 minutes. And it was a beauty.

Two plays later, Miguel Recinos’ 41-yard field goal made Iowa a walk-off winner.

Sargent played a complete game.

Sargent was probably pretty sore Saturday morning. The sophomore running back gave tremendous effort in what was his best game as a Hawkeye on Friday — and not only because he set career highs with 26 carries and 173 rushing yards.

Some “extras” he brought to the table …

Blitz pick-up: One of the reasons Stanley wasn’t sacked Friday was because of Sargent’s willingness to give himself up as a blocker. Brandon Smith’s 15-yard touchdown catch on the game’s first drive doesn’t happen if Sargent, lined up to Stanley’s left, doesn’t stymie blitzing safety Antonio Reed coming on a full sprint.

Better vision: Sargent’s season-best 32-yard run was a great example of how he’s getting more comfortable with on-field reads. The run to the right found a wide-open running lane. But instead of continuing to run toward the boundary, he made a fantastic cutback up-field to create more space to run.

Iowa’s running backs have left a lot of yardage on the table this season. But the past two weeks, Sargent and Toren Young have made smart choices to reach the second level.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent runs for a season-best 32-yard gain in Friday's win against Nebraska.

A spark: It was “only” a nine-yard run, but the Kinnick Stadium crowd roared as Sargent kept churning his legs through as (I counted) seven Nebraska defenders tried to bring him down on a first-quarter run. He never went down; the play finally was whistled dead with forward progress. Iowa fans appreciated that toughness in the run game.

Sargent kept that energy going late into the fourth quarter. It was his 16-yard, straight-ahead, relentless run on third-and-1 on the game’s final drive that preceded the Hockenson catch and Recinos’ heroics.

Noah Fant was used wisely.

The junior tight end only had one reception for 12 yards. Another case of Iowa under-utilizing him?

Not at all. In fact, Pro Football Focus credited him with a season-high 60 snaps. Breaking it down …

He played 35 snaps as an in-line tight end. His dominant block of Luke Gifford helped create a 13-yard run for Young in the first quarter. With third tight end Nate Wieting out, Iowa relied more heavily on Fant in the run game — and he was effective.

Thirteen times, Fant lined up as a receiver — and Iowa ran the ball. I really liked this wrinkle, because Fant always draws a lot of attention, which unclogs the middle of the field for the run game. On Sargent’s 15-yard touchdown run, Fant lined up in the right slot and cleared a path to the end zone by taking out a safety.

Fant was a consistent decoy. Twelve times he was split out on passing calls. It was his route into the end zone in the second quarter that left room for an easy screen pass to Sargent for a 5-yard touchdown.

Friday’s game was another reminder of just how much attention Fant gets ... and how he opens things up for everyone else.

A tale of two fakes

With Iowa leading, 28-13, in the third quarter, both head coaches pulled surprising fakes. Iowa’s didn’t work; Nebraska’s did.

What happened on each?

Even though the Hawkeyes’ try for a fake field goal on fourth-and-2 from Nebraska’s 3 failed, it was well designed. Hockenson, lined up as the edge protector on the right, sprinted left as the ball was snapped. Holder Colten Rastetter perfectly drew a Nebraska rusher before shoveling a pass to Hockenson, who caught the ball on the run.

The problem was, three Nebraska players on that side hadn't attempted a field-goal rush. If any one of them had, it was probably a touchdown. Instead, Hockenson and left-edge blocker Parker Hesse were playing two-on-three. Hesse took care of Tre Neal. But that meant Hockenson had to power through two Huskers — and that was one too many. Gifford, a 245-pound linebacker, took out Hockenson’s legs for a 1-yard gain.

Then, four plays later, Nebraska coach Scott Frost used a gutsy fake punt to convert a fourth-and-3 from his own 9-yard line. Gifford, one of three blockers between the offensive line and punter Isaac Armstrong, took a direct snap and sprinted to his right. Lined up as Iowa’s edge rusher on the left, Dominique Dafney was too slow to react and was chipped slightly by Jack Stoll. That combination allowed Gifford to run around the edge for 5 yards.

Looking back, I can’t knock Iowa for trying for seven points instead of three. The play was well crafted; it was just a good read by the Cornhuskers.

On Nebraska's fake punt, Frost would later say if he hadn’t called that, he thought the game was essentially over.

The element of surprise is ultimately the biggest factor in whether fakes work.

That certainly was true in both cases Friday.

A.J. Epenesa is following Anthony Nelson's lead.

Nelson was named co-Big Ten defensive player of the week Monday after he recorded two sacks of Adrian Martinez among his career-high eight tackles. The junior defensive end with 9½ sacks this season deserves to be first-team all-Big Ten this week; we’ll find out Tuesday if he is.

One of the things that makes Nelson so good is his ability to be dominant against the run and as a pass rusher. Playing the run was one of the things that coaches have said was an ongoing process for fellow defensive end A.J. Epenesa, Iowa's true sophomore phenom who also has 9½ sacks.

Well, after this game, it’s safe to say Epenesa can play the run just fine. When Iowa’s defense was reeling a bit in the fourth quarter, he stepped up with a big tackle for loss.

Unblocked from his right end spot, Epenesa didn’t bite on Martinez’s read-option fake to Devine Ozigbo, and maintained his ground. Martinez faked inside, and Epenesa wasn’t fooled. He then used his strength to throw down Martinez for a four-yard loss.

It was just two weeks ago Epenesa was burned by Clayton Thorson on a similar read-option fake. It’s obvious that growth is taking place in Epenesa's overall game.

And assuming Nelson returns for his fifth year (he told me last week he hadn’t even thought about the NFL Draft), he and Epenesa will be a dynamic 1-2 punch at defensive end in 2019.

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.