Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley on a quick TD connection with Oliver Martin, and what the new wide receiver adds to the offense. Hear more: Hawk Central
Labor Day holiday? Forget it … for the first time in eight months, we’ve got some fresh Iowa football game film to break down.
The opening DVR Monday installment of every season is always fun, because it begins to give us clues about how the Hawkeyes will operate on both sides of the ball.
Two topics that definitely warranted closer examination following Iowa’s 38-14 win against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday night: the play of new center Tyler Linderbaum (yes, he was that good) and the secondary concerns (no, they weren’t as bad as we thought). More on those topics as we go.
But let’s start with what was a notable, pleasant update to the Iowa offense.
Running the ball out of shotgun formations was a master stroke.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz found something in the opener that made the running game go and, at the same time, kept the RedHawks guessing.
The outcome: Unpredictability and efficiency when quarterback Nate Stanley was in a shotgun set (typically with a running back to his side).
By my count, Iowa went shotgun 26 times. Two plays resulted in a 15-yard penalty each way (intentional grounding, pass interference), so those were a wash.
On the remaining 24? Nine running plays for 75 yards (8.3 per carry); 15 passing plays for 163 yards and three red-zone touchdowns.
That’s 9.9 yards a play. Talk about efficient.
There are a variety of reasons why running out of shotgun worked. First, of course, was stout offensive-line play. But don’t discount having more experience at running back. Vision at that position was identified by running backs coach Derrick Foster as a weak spot last season but looked better Saturday.
On the second play of Iowa’s second drive, Mekhi Sargent demonstrated his progress as Ferentz called Iowa’s first shotgun run of the night. Sargent made a gorgeous juke of charging senior linebacker Myles Reid in the backfield, then spotted a crease for a 17-yard gain, his longest run of the game.
What happened on Iowa’s next shotgun run (same drive, third-and-4) was especially notable. Instead of handing to Sargent, Stanley tucked the ball away and scooted 16 yards left for the longest run of his career. Nobody saw that coming from the lumbering 243-pound Hawkeye quarterback. Just having Stanley be a threat with his legs will improve unpredictability going forward.
The third shotgun run of the night? Toren Young went for 12 yards. So, Iowa gained 45 yards on its first three shotgun running plays.
That is important, because after that occurred Stanley became surgical with his passes out of shotgun. After starting 2-for-5 for 11 yards out of shotgun, he finished the game 8-for-10 for 152 yards and those three TDs.
The last one, to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on a tunnel screen, was all set up by Iowa’s threat to run out of shotgun. On third-and-5 from Miami’s 6, RedHawks defenders were caught following the right-flowing action of running back Tyler Goodson; and when Stanley flipped the ball to the left, Smith-Marsette’s clear path to the end zone was like a parted RedHawks sea.
Tyler Linderbaum, a center you can feel good about.
During his postgame press conference, Kirk Ferentz was ticking off some names that got their first meaningful offensive-line action for the Hawkeyes — Justin Britt, Cody Ince, Kyler Schott — in the wake of Alaric Jackson’s injury. Then, he caught himself, and added another.
Even the sharp-minded head coach briefly overlooked that his starting center was a redshirt freshman who had never snapped a ball in a college game. Maybe that's because the Solon product sure looked like an established veteran Saturday inside sold-out Kinnick Stadium.
As exciting as a multi-layered offense looked in averaging 6.5 yards a play, there was no more encouraging story line Saturday night than just how good Linderbaum looked. He proved to more than a steadying force after Jackson went down; he was dominant.
I’ll point to two plays that revealed his speed and power.
The first came on what turned out to be maybe Iowa’s most critical offensive play out of 71. With the Hawkeyes trailing, 7-3, in the second quarter, Linderbaum was the catalyst of a 41-yard screen-pass connection from Stanley to Sargent on third-and-16. Linderbaum delivered a shotgun snap, then absorbed and shed defensive end Cam Turner, stayed on his feet and sprinted downfield to bury 218-pound safety Sterling Weatherford into the left sideline.
Second, with Stanley under center, Iowa called a counter run to Sargent to the left. Linderbaum executed beautifully, pulling to his left and delivering the key block on nickel back Bart Baratti to pave a 10-yard gain.
Overall, Linderbaum played with the relentless streak his teammates have praised all offseason.
One more thing worth pointing out: Remember at Kids Day, when Linderbaum’s shotgun snaps were all over the place? The snaps were exquisite Saturday.
If you have the game on DVR, check out the snap placement that led to Stanley’s first two touchdown passes: Waist-high and just to the right of Stanley, who received the ball without a hitch and was able to deliver one-step drop fade routes to Brandon Smith and Oliver Martin for 9-yard touchdown passes in the south end zone. That's just a small example of Linderbaum’s fast growth at his position.
“The (center) position gets hidden a little bit, but it's a tall order,” Kirk Ferentz said. “There's a lot going on up there. He seemed to handle it really well today.”
How did the tight ends look?
Iowa played a game without first-round NFL Draft picks T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant for the first time since 2016, but Brian Ferentz showed right away he wasn’t going to shy away from two tight-end sets.
Iowa opened the game with Nate Wieting and Shaun Beyer on the field at the same time. In all, Iowa used multiple tight ends on 20 snaps — running the ball 13 times for 48 yards and passing seven times for 57.
Both Iowa touchdown runs came with three tight ends on the field and off the same call: where freshman Sam LaPorta went in motion to the right, and Iowa ran the ball left through a big hole (first with Sargent, later with Young) in Wieting’s direction.
A film review served as a good reminder why the Hawkeyes are now in their fourth season of using Wieting as a blocker. He’s very good at it. He was Stanley's No. 1 option on the failed fourth-down call on Iowa’s first drive, but had his jersey blatantly held on the play (there was no call). Don’t be fooled by his no-catch night; the senior will be a factor before the season is done.
Beyer, meanwhile, impressed. He made two difficult catches, including an 18-yarder on a play in which both tight ends ran vertical routes off the line of scrimmage. That play clearly hasn’t been ditched post-Hockenson/Fant; and neither have multiple tight-end sets.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz improved to 18-1 in season openers since 2001 with a 38-14 win against Miami of Ohio. Hawk Central
Michael Ojemudia emerged on a so-so night for the defensive backs.
There was a definite feeling Saturday night that the secondary had a bad game. But upon further review, I felt that group played decent. Tip your cap to a true-freshman quarterback in Brett Gabbert, who threw darts into tight windows.
I counted only three times on 27 pass attempts when poor coverage or communication was an issue:
- When D.J. Johnson was fooled by play-action and let Luke Mayock sneak behind him for a 20-yard gain.
- When Matt Hankins got beat off the line of scrimmage to allow Jalen Walker a 28-yarder in the third quarter.
- And when Kaevon Merriweather got turned around on a floating ball into the end zone, where tight end Andrew Homer hauled it in for a 20-yard score.
Safety play was not great for Iowa (Geno Stone was beaten for Miami's other touchdown on a great throw and catch; Merriweather took a bad angle on another big completion), but look at it this way: Phil Parker found plenty of teachable moments ... in a win.
Meanwhile, Week 1 revealed a clear commander in the back end: Ojemudia. No wonder the fifth-year senior had been named a game captain for the first time. The cornerback was well-positioned all night, and his strong play was rewarded with Iowa’s lone interception in the fourth quarter.
Defensive tackle is starting to look like a strength.
Kirk Ferentz was consistently glowing about what he’d seen at defensive tackle in the offseason, and that showed up in this game. While Cedrick Lattimore (converted 6-foot-5 defensive end) and Brady Reiff (undersized) may not fit the traditional tackle mold, the seniors sure showed up a lot on film. Lattimore was getting to the sideline to make tackles; Reiff was scrappy and nipping at the heels of whoever had the ball.
On the first third-down play of the third quarter, Gabbert was crunched by that duo as he hurried an incomplete pass. It was a fitting moment to accentuate the strong night by Lattimore and Reiff. Add to them a solid Hawkeye debut from Daviyon Nixon — boy, for 309 pounds, his quickness really flashed in 18 snaps — and Iowa’s got the makings of a real strong top three at defensive tackle.
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.