Leistikow's DVR Monday: Hawkeyes' offensive line getting stronger, and so is the future

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

We don’t need to spend much more time on Iowa’s 48-3 win against Middle Tennessee State. It’s Michigan week, after all. And then it’s Penn State week.

But there still was a lot to be learned about the 14th-ranked Hawkeyes in their final nonconference test of the regular season as they improved to 4-0.

And it sure seems like the future of this roster is bright.

Iowa rushed for 351 yards Saturday. Who was creating those wide holes?

Toren Young rushed for 131 yards, Tyler Goodson for 97 and Mekhi Sargent for 91. 

Short answer on who was doing good trench-work: Everyone. Middle Tennessee was overmatched physically.

Freshman Tyler Goodson (15) certainly delivered on the Iowa offense's "wow" factor in Saturday' 48-3 win against Middle Tennessee State, with 104 yards on 15 touches.

Now for the more detailed answer.

There is no argument that tackle Tristan Wirfs would rank No. 1 as Iowa’s best lineman in 2019. Even ESPN’s Andre Ware said during that broadcast that Kirk Ferentz confided that Wirfs is “playing as well as anyone in the country,” a quote you wouldn’t normally hear from Iowa’s buttoned-up coach.

No. 2 would be redshirt freshman center Tyler Linderbaum, who has been a mauler up front.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley (4) drops back to pass while Iowa offensive lineman Landan Paulsen (68) blocks during a NCAA non conference football game between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Middle Tennessee State, Saturday, Sept., 28, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

But how about No. 3?

I'd go with left guard Landan Paulsen. 

A first-time starter this year as a fifth-year senior, Paulsen is showing both a physical and mental edge that is no doubt strengthened by playing in between Wirfs and Linderbaum. Paulsen’s ability to seal off defenders created too many chunk runs to count Saturday. He provided the key block on Sargent’s game-long 18-yarder in the second quarter. Pro Football Focus graded Paulsen as Iowa’s second-best lineman Saturday, only behind Linderbaum.

With Alaric Jackson likely to return at left tackle this week, that’ll slide Wirfs over to right tackle. And with Paulsen and Linderbaum dominating inside plus four effective revolving right guards (Cole Banwart, Kyler Schott, Levi Paulsen and Justin Britt), Hawkeye fans have reason to be pumped about the state of their offensive line.

Fifteen freshmen played at least 10 snaps. How did they do?

Linderbaum (team-high 70 snaps) was one of those. And so was cornerback D.J. Johnson, who seems to get better with every minute he's on the field (coaches gave he and free safety Jack Koerner 54 on Saturday, the most of any defensive player as they try to generate fast experience).

But further down the depth chart, it doesn’t take a DVR watch to tell you that Goodson (30 snaps) was electric. The question is how Iowa will continue to feature the rookie from Georgia in bigger games going forward.

Another guy that clearly is developing quickly is Britt (28 snaps), who provided a key block on a 15-yard run by Young (that could’ve gone the distance had he not tripped) and on 25- and 27-yard runs by Goodson in the fourth quarter.

But before you get too carried away, Britt and Goodson were the two players beaten in pass protection on an 11-yard sack of Stanley. So, they’re still raw. But they’re probably 1-2 in Iowa’s true-freshman class as guys that should become future fixtures.

It was a small sample size, but it was obvious why coaches like true freshman Dane Belton (11 snaps) as a safety. He put some hard licks on Blue Raiders running back Jayy McDonald on the final two plays. It was also notable that true freshman Jermari Harris (13 snaps) seemed to be the No. 3 cornerback in Iowa's decimated secondary.

And then there’s quarterback Spencer Petras, who only got one drive but led the Hawkeyes 79 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown. I wrote earlier in the week that Stanley lauded Petras’ command of the offense, and that was echoed during the broadcast.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette might not be a household name. But to Iowa’s offense, he’s essential.

The junior wide receiver’s growth has been one of the most encouraging stories of many in this young Hawkeye season. Smith-Marsette leads the Hawkeyes in receptions (15), receiving yards (259) and touchdowns (4).

His presence on the field gives Iowa a big-play threat that must be accounted for, and one that creates opportunities for others — which was exemplified late in the first quarter.

You’ve seen Iowa run this play several times this year: Nate Stanley fakes a handoff and rolls right, then a slot receiver running along the line of scrimmage in the same direction is available for a short pass with the hopes of a catch-and-run gain.

On Saturday, Smith-Marsette ran that pattern but the first-and-10 play was stuffed for no gain after he made the catch. Teams have certainly scouted that and Smith-Marsette’s speed, and they know they cannot let him run free.

So, just three plays later on second-and-2, Iowa ran the exact same play (except with a little extra right-side protection from tight end Nate Wieting). As Smith-Marsette again attracted the attention of at least three defenders, Brandon Smith was left one-on-one in the end zone. A terrific Stanley throw found Smith for an 18-yard touchdown and a 17-0 Iowa lead.

Smith-Marsette made his own solid plays, too — the most memorable being his 38-yard over-the-shoulder catch up the left sideline in which he got his left foot in bounds. He also made a key block on safety Reed Blankenship to spring Young’s 52-yard run that was Iowa’s longest carry since 2017; and was later rewarded with a 14-yard touchdown run on one of his two jet sweeps. (He’s also Iowa’s fourth-leading rusher this season, with 44 yards on four carries.)

Because Iowa spreads the ball to so many receivers, Smith-Marsette may not statistically be a blip in the Big Ten Conference. But it’s becoming clearer by the game that he possesses star power for the Hawkeyes.

Don’t get too worked up about A.J. Epenesa’s lack of sacks.

Middle Tennessee State did an interesting thing on the first play of its second possession in pass protection. The play served as a snapshot of just how impactful A.J. Epenesa continues to be for the Hawkeyes despite his lack of eye-popping stats (one sack through four games).

Center Matt Martin snapped the ball and retreated to his left to pick up the hard-charging Epenesa from the right. He also had help from running back Brad Anderson, and they collectively knocked Epenesa to the ground. But with four eyes fixated on Epenesa, Iowa defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore easily beat single coverage up the middle for a 5-yard sack of Asher O’Hara.

Iowa’s other sack, by Daviyon Nixon, came as a byproduct of Epenesa getting double-teamed (which allowed Noah Shannon to get initial pressure, flushing O’Hara into the clutches of Nixon). Epenesa also drew two Blue Raiders penalties for 20 yards.

Iowa is trying to mix things up to spring Epenesa loose; for maybe the first time ever, he lined up as the left end (opposite Zach VanValkenburg, while Chauncey Golston got a breather) on a handful of snaps. The more double-teaming Epenesa hurts Iowa opponents, the more likely it is he’ll see single coverage. It’s surely frustrating for the junior and some Hawkeye fans, but it’s blatantly false to suggest he’s not having a big impact.

We’re in the nitpick portion of the Hawkeyes here, but …

Two nagging issues but aren’t yet cleaned up. Here’s my attempt to quantify those short-comings.

Punt returns: Three decisions by freshman Nico Ragaini, in my opinion, cost Iowa up to 43 yards of field position. He was too late to catch an early punt that bounced at Iowa’s 47 and rolled to the 25 (minus-22 yards); he backpedaled to make a fair catch at Iowa’s 8 instead of letting the ball potentially bounce into the end zone for a touchback to the 20 (minus-12); and let another rolling ball that hit at the 15 roll to the 1 (calling it minus-9, because it appeared Ragaini declined an opportunity to pounce on the ball at the 10).

I understand wanting to avoid disastrous turnovers. Ragaini is still young and can use these things as teaching moments.

End-of-half clock management: Stanley did a nice job getting the offense out of a hole with his 27-yard strike to Shaun Beyer, which put Iowa at its own 41 with 1:11 left in the first half and two timeouts remaining. From there, the Hawkeyes did some good things but bungled a few decisions that wound up costly on the way to an empty possession.

After the Beyer catch, I liked that Iowa hurried to snap the ball at the 1:04 mark. But the handoff to Mekhi Sargent for 2 yards made little sense and burned a subsequent timeout that would’ve been useful later. Then after Stanley did sneak for a first down on fourth-and-1, Iowa used its final timeout with 28 seconds left even though the clock was stopped temporarily while officials moved the chains.

I did like Stanley’s ability to throw past the first-down marker on third-and-10 with 12 seconds left, allowing Smith to get out of bounds with enough time for a (failed) field-goal try. But that’s three games in a row in which the Hawkeyes have made questionable end-of-half decisions. The result: Only six points (instead of 13 to 21) in two-minute situations in opponent territory.

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.