Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa is relieved after an 18-17 win against Iowa State, says the defense didn't play well. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
The phrase “In Phil We Trust” has become commonly used by devoted Iowa football followers on social media, a reflection of the notion that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker can, well, figure something out no matter the situation.
Parker, the 21st-year Hawkeye assistant, was certainly pressed into all kinds of adversity Saturday night in Ames — unusually high injury totals in the secondary, multiple weather delays and an Iowa State offense that was humming at extreme efficiency.
But, as it played out, Parker did indeed figure something out.
And, as a result, the Hawkeyes beat Iowa State, 18-17.
There are lot of angles to hit in a marathon Cy-Hawk game that became an instant classic. But first things first: The big adjustment.
Once the blitzes began to flow, the Hawkeyes took control.
After Kene Nwangwu ran for 14 yards up the middle in the third quarter — the longest rush play Iowa had allowed all season — Parker had seen enough. The Cyclones, already leading 14-6, were marching again. They had gained 309 yards to this point on 30 offensive snaps, a remarkable 10.3 yards per play. Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy was 16-for-17 passing.
But the rest of the way, Iowa State ran 24 plays and gained 109 yards; an average of 4.5. The difference?
Pressure by Phil.
After blitzing on four of Iowa State's first 30 plays, Parker called blitzes on 12 of the final 24 — a jarring 50% for a Hawkeye team — to rattle Purdy and change the game.
Iowa’s linebackers had been struggling in zone coverage against over-the-middle throws, so Parker smartly just sent them into the backfield instead. After that Nwangwu run, Parker sent Kristian Welch on a blitz (resulting in a 2-yard run), then Djimon Colbert (incomplete), then Welch again (incomplete; almost intercepted). Punt. Touchback. Iowa ball at the 20.
As the game wore on, Parker’s blitzes became more creative. He sent safety Geno Stone on the first play after Iowa had cut it to 14-9, a gamble that paid off in a 1-yard loss. The next two plays, Purdy was pressured by A.J. Epenesa — who got stronger as the game wore on, despite playing every defensive snap — and Iowa State went 3-and-out for the first time this season.
In the fourth quarter, Iowa sent eight blitzes — usually with a linebacker. Colbert from the left; Nick Niemann from the left or right; Welch up the middle or from the right. Iowa State was forced to pay less attention to Epenesa, and more to the blitzing linebackers.
Not one second-half blitz landed a sack: But they worked.
Purdy hit only 8 of 17 passes after that 16-for-17 start and was increasingly hurried into throws.
Two critical Purdy incompletions were the result of false pressure.
On third-and-8 from Iowa's 9, the Hawkeyes put seven defenders on the line of scrimmage, leaving Iowa State's four wide-receivers in apparent man-to-man coverage. But the Hawkeyes were only faking pressure; they rushed only four and Purdy's quick-release fade pass was well-covered. Iowa State settled for a field goal and a 17-15 lead with 7:46 to play.
Purdy's final incompletion was indicative of Parker’s ability to make a quarterback uncomfortable. On fourth-and-13 from Iowa’s 39, Parker sent linebackers Niemann and Colbert on a blitz from Purdy’s right … but dropped Epenesa (on Purdy’s left) into coverage. Perhaps seeing what was coming his way and unsure of Epenesa's location, Purdy unnecessarily hurried a deep throw to Deshaunte Jones and it wasn't even close.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was spent, as were both teams, after a Cy-Hawk classic. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Yards per play is a telling metric. “Bend, don’t break” can counter it, though.
Iowa State finished by gaining 7.7 yards per play to Iowa’s 4.3.
But as this game showed, where those yards occur is just as important.
The Cyclones entered Hawkeye territory on six different drives Saturday, but only managed four red-zone snaps and got three points on those trips. Iowa State gained only 63 yards on 22 snaps in Iowa territory and committed one turnover. The total drops to 48 net yards on 22 plays (2.2 average) if you count three five-yard penalties, all of which were crucial in what became a field-position battle.
One small example of Iowa’s resiliency came in the first quarter. After the Cyclones had already hit a big play for a 7-3 lead, they were driving again on a 17-yard pass to Jones. But defensive end Chauncey Golston, who was terrific against the run in this game, stonewalled Breece Hall for no gain on first-and-10 — a much-needed momentum play for Iowa’s defense.
After two short gains, Iowa State faced fourth-and-3 from Iowa’s 32 and lined up to go for it. But offensive lineman Trevor Downing committed a false start, and punter Joe Rivera punted the ball into the end zone. As I tweeted in the moment, that was as good as a turnover for Iowa’s defense. It doesn’t go down as such; but Iowa got the ball back at its own 20, moments after Iowa State was about to run a play from the 32.
Iowa kicker Keith Duncan made field goals of 25, 40, 42 and 39 yards in the Hawkeyes' 18-17 win. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Iowa was masterful at gaining hidden yardage all night long.
Before Devonte Young made his game-clinching fumble recovery off a botched punt return, he made another very significant special-teams contribution. After Iowa had scored to cut Iowa State’s lead to 14-9 late in the third quarter, he blazed downfield on Caleb Shudak’s beautiful, angled kickoff to the goal line. Young reached the 10-yard line at about the same time return man Johnnie Lang did … and with that pressure, Young drew a block-in-the-back penalty that pinned the Cyclones on their own 6-yard line.
The way I see it, that combo play by Shudak and Young was valued at 19 yards of field position you won’t find on a stat sheet. (Instead of starting at the 25 on a touchback, Iowa State was on the 6. All because of a Hawkeye hustle play.)
After a three-and-out, Rivera’s low punt was caught by Nico Ragaini at the 40, and with a terrific block from Stone and help from Terry Roberts, he ran it all the way Iowa State’s 25 – where the Cyclones could’ve been starting their previous drive had they just taken a touchback.
The flea-flickers and big plays were impressive from Iowa State; but Iowa’s 25-yard touchdown drive counted for six points just the same.
And here’s a little nugget for the “punting is winning” crowd ...
Iowa’s Michael Sleep-Dalton netted 216 yards on his five booming punts. Iowa State netted 102 on four. That’s a 114-yard swing in overall field position right there.
Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette describes his latest clutch play at Jack Trice Stadium. Listen to how he converted a third-and-22: Mark Emmert, email@example.com
The most important play of the game deserves its own analysis.
I’m still amazed at the execution of Nate Stanley’s 27-yard strike to Ihmir Smith-Marsette on third-and-22 midway though the third quarter. The flawless pass protection; the precise throw between four defenders; the spectacular sliding catch. It was a game-changing moment, with the Hawkeyes on the ropes — already down, 14-6, and the Jack Trice Stadium faithful roaring.
The design (and challenges): Iowa State dropped eight men into zone coverage, with a three-safety look to protect the first-down line (at the Iowa 41) — a decision that afforded Stanley time to throw and Marsette to run a deep post. Iowa’s two receivers to the right, Brandon Smith and Ragaini, ran deeper routes to clear that side for running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, who ran a screen pattern. Tight end Nate Wieting, from the left side of the offensive line, ran a 7-yard underneath route that attracted only cursory linebacker attention. That meant Marsette had to run a perfect route and hope Stanley could find him.
The throw: I mentioned four defenders. 1) Linebacker Jake Hummel kept Wieting in front of him and back-pedaled into the Stanley-to-Marsette passing lane. 2) Cornerback Anthony Johnson protected the outside; so when the speedy Marsette cut his route inside, he became a trailing defender. 3) Strong safety Braxton Lewis had retreated even further at the snap, insurance for a very deep throw. 4) Star player Greg Eisworth had lined up as a third safety in the middle of the field, positioned to take away the very throw Stanley was about to fire. But that was the beauty of the throw — Stanley, a high school baseball pitcher who could top 90 mph on the radar gun, put so much heat on the ball (while still getting it over the top of Hummel’s right hand) that Eisworth was one fateful step late.
“That was an absolute laser from Nate Stanley,” Fox’s Robert Smith marveled. “You can see why NFL scouts are so excited.”
The catch and the point: The ball placement was perfect. About hip high, allowing Marsette to make a low-to-the-ground, sliding catch without taking a major impact from Lewis. Upon snatching the ball out of mid-air, Marsette showed some newfound Hawkeye swagger by pointing downfield to signal a first down.
Iowa's No. 3 and 4 running backs deserve praise, too.
Kirk Ferentz said he wanted to push true freshman running back Tyler Goodson during these first three games and see how he responds. Well, safe to stay, Goodson showed he belongs — and based on what we saw Saturday, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s a more pronounced part of the plans after Iowa’s bye week.
What Goodson did on a 14-yard counter run in the third quarter (three plays after the Smith-Marsette reception) was significant. The play, going left, was hardly well-blocked. But Goodson’s initial shake forced talented linebacker Mike Rose to tackle air, and his speed around the left edge caused cornerback Amechie Walker to helplessly slip to the ground. For good measure, Goodson knocked Eisworth to the ground with his right shoulder as they collided near the boundary.
“You can’t coach that type of speed,” Smith said. “… Guys just aren’t ready when a running back is that much faster than everybody else.”
Let’s not bury Kelly-Martin in Iowa’s backfield, either. After no carries in Iowa’s first two games, the junior got five pressure-packed carries in this one. None was bigger than his 3-yard run on third-and-2 early in the fourth quarter, giving Iowa first-and-goal at the Iowa State 1 — setting up the Hawkeyes’ lone touchdown. There was no room to run, but Kelly-Martin tip-toed and squirmed for the first down.
Kelly-Martin’s value was notable as a blocker, too. He chopped the legs out from under linebacker Marcel Spears Jr. to lead Stanley’s 10-yard quarterback draw in the first quarter on third-and-7. He was also integral on Stanley’s 14-yard called run on third-and-11 just a few plays before Stanley’s touchdown sneak.
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.