Leistikow's DVR Monday: 'Playing the odds' helped Iowa's defense suffocate Rutgers

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa has recorded a shutout for the third time in its seven most recent Big Ten Conference games, Saturday’s 30-0 pasting of Rutgers being the latest badge of defensive honor.

That statistic is more remarkable considering that all three opponents — Maryland and Illinois last season, and now Rutgers — entered the Iowa matchup with proven big-play running backs.

So, how do the Hawkeyes choke off those big plays and keep a goose egg on the scoreboard?

Iowa gave up 115 yards to Maryland a year ago, the fewest allowed to a Big Ten opponent in the Kirk Ferentz era. Saturday's 125 against Rutgers were the second-fewest.

It may sound boring, but such success revolves around good, quality team defense. Let’s try to make it less boring by looking at the tape in this week’s installment of DVR Monday:

Nick Niemann was terrific as Iowa's outside linebacker in a 4-3 base defense against Rutgers. Here, he gets a quarterback hurry against Artur Sitkowski in the second half.

It’s no wonder Iowa is leaning on its 4-3 base defense, instead of a 4-2-5.

What makes Phil Parker such an excellent defensive coordinator is that he relentlessly educates his players about angles and proper spacing. Every defensive play is a math problem. Put another way, Parker calls it "playing the odds."

If Iowa is going to get beat, it’s going to require a quarterback making repeated difficult throws. The thinking is that at some point, the quarterback is bound to make a mistake. (That philosophy has helped Iowa record an FBS-high 44 interceptions in the past two-plus seasons; so, yes, the mistakes inevitably occur.)

I could’ve picked many examples of proper spacing and discipline Saturday, but one subtly effective play caught my eye.

With Rutgers in Iowa territory for the first time and trailing, 7-0, in the first quarter, outside linebacker Nick Niemann handled his responsibility beautifully.

Niemann initially shadowed the motion of running back Raheem Blackshear (a speedy junior who had nine catches for 126 yards in Rutgers’ opener). After the snap, Blackshear flashed left as if to receive a screen pass. That action could've lured Niemann into the backfield. Instead, Niemann made sure cornerback Matt Hankins could pick up Blackshear and, instead of charging, he retreated a few steps — putting himself between quarterback McLane Carter and streaking wide receiver Bo Melton.

While Melton was running free, the rangy Niemann (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) took away an easy passing lane. To hit Melton, Carter would need to loop a pass that could clear Niemann's reach but also stay in bounds. The throw went too far, falling harmlessly incomplete.

Had Niemann taken even one step toward the backfield, the throwing lane would’ve been clearer, and Carter could've hit Melton for an easy 15-yard reception.

That play made me flash back to Iowa’s opener, when D.J. Johnson (the cash player in Iowa’s 4-2-5) bit on some backfield eye candy, allowing Miami (Ohio) to strike for a 20-yard gain. Niemann’s discipline and size, in this case, stifled a potential chunk play. Instead of first-and-10 near Iowa’s 30, it was second-and-10 at the 49 … and Rutgers ultimately had to punt.

Creativity helped A.J. Epenesa have his best game as a Hawkeye.

While Epenesa has enjoyed better statistical games, this was arguably the junior's best collegiate performance. The 280-pound defensive end was overpowering. But a week after Epenesa was largely limited against Miami, Parker deserves an assist.

Iowa had Rutgers guessing where Epenesa was coming from. On Rutgers’ second third-down call of the game, Epenesa — from his usual right defensive end spot — looped left, circling around the left side of Rutgers’ offensive line. Suddenly, the Scarlet Knights had three blockers tied up with tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore and a fourth blocking air. That left Epenesa with a clean lane toward Carter, whose rushed pass fell incomplete. (That was the first of Epenesa’s four official quarterback hurries, though I counted at least six.)

On Rutgers’ next possession, Epenesa stunted again on the first play (a 3-yard run) and the third play (an incomplete pass). From that point on, Rutgers opted largely to play Epenesa straight-up with redshirt freshman left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal. And that proved to be another losing battle.

Epenesa single-handedly wrecked (no kidding) Rutgers’ next four drives. One ended with his lone sack of the day. Another, again on a stunt, created Djimon Colbert’s first career interception after Epenesa’s pressure tipped the pass.

But my favorite play of Epenesa’s Saturday actually occurred in the third quarter. Rutgers was facing a third-and-9 from the 50, and Epenesa bull-rushed O’Neal (6-4, 305) and pushed him so forcefully backward that the lineman ran into his own quarterback to force a badly thrown incomplete pass.

Epenesa will see varying game plans every week. But on Saturday, Iowa proved it can pack its own plan to unleash one of the nation’s most feared pass rushers.

A few passing observations about Iowa’s offense.

For the second straight week, the Hawkeyes were effectively balanced — 194 yards rushing and 244 passing against Rutgers, after going for 213 rushing and 252 passing against Miami.

I went into this DVR Monday curious about a few tendencies, as we try to get a handle on how Brian Ferentz will operate in Year 3 as offensive coordinator.

Iowa ran seven plays with two running backs on the field and gained 71 yards. Three were runs and four were passes (with the notable success being a 58-yard touchdown pass from Nate Stanley to Ihmir Smith-Marsette). Ferentz showed four different running-back combinations (Mekhi Sargent/Toren Young, Sargent/Ivory Kelly-Martin, Young/Tyler Goodson and Goodson/Kelly-Martin). Young told me they’ve worked on the two running-back look (not talking fullbacks here) since the spring. On a day when Iowa had zero tight-end catches, it’s more evidence that Ferentz is leaning harder on his running backs in 2019.

Iowa tried 10 deep passes (out of 36 attempts) Saturday, including two thrown by Spencer Petras. And I’m not even counting gains of 33 yards by Tyrone Tracy Jr. and 23 by Smith-Marsette on his second touchdowns. Ferentz’s willingness to call the long ball was rewarded with two completions (for 85 yards), two pass-interference flags (worth 30) and no turnovers. That payoff also showed up as the game went on with a freer running game.

Petros on Petras…

You’ll see me mention the TV announcers in DVR Monday on occasion because they get game-week access that the regular media doesn’t. And late in the fourth quarter, Fox’s Petros Papadakis gave us this line about Petras, a freshman who won Iowa’s backup quarterback nod over sophomore Peyton Mansell.

“Brian Ferentz told us that (Petras) is cerebrally right where Nate Stanley is,” Papadakis said. “His arm talent is not there yet.”

That first part is a glowing endorsement coming second-hand from Iowa’s offensive coordinator, considering Stanley’s intelligence has been one of his greatest assets as a third-year starter.

Iowa’s third-down offense must be better against Iowa State.

On the Hawkeyes’ first third-down call of the day, Sargent barely gained enough yardage to move the sticks on a third-and-1. After that, the Hawkeyes went an abysmal 1-for-12 on third down.

What went wrong?

One glaring miscue early on came when Iowa went five-wide on a third-and-2. Sargent, lined up in the slot, broke out to his left and was open for an easy 3-yard gain. But, whether it was by design or not, he kept drifting toward the sideline rather than settling into a spot for the easy pitch-and-catch. Stanley was a little later to deliver the ball, and by that time, Sargent had moved himself into more congested coverage and dropped the pass. Incomplete, punt.

Then, when the Hawkeyes did have the right play, they tripped over themselves. On a third-and-10 in the second quarter, Smith-Marsette caught a tunnel screen to the right (a similar play that got him a touchdown in Iowa’s opener) with room to run. But, unfortunately, center Tyler Linderbaum’s hustle got in the way. As the freshman hunted someone to block, he appeared to cause Marsette to stumble three yards short of a first down. Iowa settled for a Keith Duncan field goal and a 17-0 lead.

On third-and-6 in the fourth quarter, Iowa gave up its only sack of the game when Young’s blitz pick-up was insufficient on linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams, forcing Stanley to shut down the play. Again, Iowa settled for a field goal.

These small errors were no doubt part of Sunday’s film study. And, remember, Iowa State’s defense is vastly superior to Rutgers’. Iowa expects to face a lot of crucial third downs in a hostile environment Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium. How Stanley and the Hawkeyes handle those moments could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

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.