Leistikow's DVR Monday: Pinpointing the confusion that sacked Iowa's offense at Michigan

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Well, Hawkeye fans, it’s understandable if you never, ever want to revisit this Iowa-Michigan game.

But, if you’re willing to give it five minutes of your time, this week’s DVR Monday could provide more clarity to why things went so terribly wrong in Ann Arbor.

The bottom-line mission as I rewatched a 10-3 loss in which the Hawkeyes managed one field goal in 3½ hours: What the heck happened to the offense? And how can No. 18 Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) use this humbling tape to improve going forward? After all, another attacking defense is on deck with No. 9 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) coming to town for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. battle. And this Hawkeye season is far from lost.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley sizes up the line of scrimmage as Michigan linebacker Cameron McGrone (44) lurks. The Hawkeyes continuously failed to account for McGrone in pass protection.

First up: Don Brown’s winning move that Iowa never figured out.

Of the 53 times Nate Stanley dropped back to pass (42 attempts, eight sacks, three penalties), Michigan’s defensive coordinator sent at least five rushers (which would be considered extra pressure for most teams, but standard operating procedure for the man-to-man heavy Wolverines) on 27 occasions. A 51% blitz rate will keep any offensive line on its toes — and guessing.

But the 26 four-man rushes that Brown sent at Stanley were what ultimately derailed the Hawkeyes’ offense.

The blocking confusion began with Iowa facing a second-and-20 (after a Landan Paulsen holding call) from its own 26-yard line, midway through the third quarter in a 10-3 game. A predictable passing down, right? Remember that theme.

On this particular call, Michigan put six men on the line of scrimmage — but, at the snap, dropped three of them into pass coverage … then sent sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone (Iowa players lamented “No. 44” in postgame interviews) into the backfield on a delayed pass rush. He knifed between Alaric Jackson and Paulsen, forcing Stanley to scramble and unload a bailout bullet pass to Tyrone Tracy Jr. for zero yards.

Time and again, Michigan got a free rusher to Stanley — while rushing only four. Time and again, Iowa failed to stop it. Stanley was not only under immediate duress, his receivers were playing 4-on-7 or 5-on-7. It was an unwinnable task.

Michigan returned to the same concept, with Iowa facing a third-and-9 from Michigan’s 39 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Again, obvious passing down. Again, McGrone came untouched — this time past right guard Levi Paulsen into the face of Stanley, who hurried an incompletion toward Mekhi Sargent. Punt, touchback, 19-yard net … and another squandered Hawkeye opportunity.

On a later third-and-13, Stanley was sacked for a 12-yard loss — on the same four-man rush concept, with McGrone getting home to blow up what looked like a screen call to Sargent. Again, he was unblocked.

Yet the Hawkeyes still had a chance. They got to Michigan’s 25 on a 31-yard pass to Tyler Goodson with under 6 minutes to go. But back-to-back holding penalties created — you guessed it — obvious passing situations. Michigan sent the same four-man rush. The same fourth guy, McGrone. And Stanley was helpless to stop it, going down for the eighth and final sack for a loss of 12 yards.

Finally, Iowa made a change on its final drive, putting Toren Young in the backfield with the explicit instructions to pick up any free rushers. And he did a fine job. The problem was, an already-shaken Stanley was basically looking at a game of 4-on-7 and didn’t have anyone open. He was 3-for-8 for 12 yards with the extra blocking help on the final, futile drive.

So, that didn’t work either.

Who or what was to blame for the eight sacks?

Honestly, everyone had a hand in it, from the play-caller to quarterback to running backs to the linemen themselves. And very rarely was it someone getting physically beat. These were quite clearly mental errors and insufficient protection plans for the most part.

A quick analysis of all eight sacks for 65 crippling, negative yards:

No. 1, first quarter (6 yards): Jackson just got beat, plain and simple, on a four-man rush; but it was the only sack that was solely Jackson’s fault and it was early in his first action since Week 1.

No. 2, second quarter (7 yards): A coverage sack. All five linemen picked up a man; center Tyler Linderbaum was knocked back into the pocket by defensive lineman Carlo Kemp, and Stanley cut his losses with no receivers open.

No. 3, second quarter (7 yards): Michigan sent six to create intentional grounding, which is credited as a sack. Goodson failed on blitz pick-up, and Jackson/Landan Paulsen blocked one defender while Jordan Glasgow got a free run at Stanley.

No. 4, third quarter (8 yards): Stanley’s fault, sort of. He rolled out of pressure and needed to throw the ball away but instead was tackled near the sideline. That said, Ihmir Smith-Marsette was blatantly held downfield by Lavert Hill on the play-action call, spoiling the home-run concept. Fox analyst Joel Klatt noted, "That’s where the ball was designed to go."

No. 5, third quarter (4 yards): The most damaging sack of the day, in my opinion. With Iowa facing second-and-5 from Michigan’s 35, Landan Paulsen was flattened backward, and the pocket closed quickly on Stanley. I’ll get more into this call on the section about second downs. (Keep reading.)

No. 6, fourth quarter (9 yards): This one probably could be pinned on Brian Ferentz's play call; Iowa went play-action on second-and-4. Michigan sent six rushers; the five linemen each picked up a man but Stanley lost the numbers game with Glasgow notching the sack.

No. 7, fourth quarter (12 yards): This occurred on the very next play; with Sargent failing to pick up McGrone before going out for a screen. Poor execution again.

No. 8, fourth quarter (12 yards): Probably Tristan Wirfs’ worst moment of the season at right tackle; he got beat, a play after committing a false start. Michigan’s unbalanced rush had Landan Paulsen and Jackson blocking nobody, when instead the linemen to their right should’ve been sliding to pick up defenders. Stanley had no chance.

The eighth sack was a fitting punctuation to a maddening day of mental errors in pass protection that left the Hawkeyes — to steal a three-word headline from one of our Twitter followers — “Maized and Confused.”

Iowa gained 24 yards on 21 second-down plays. Ouch.

Many folks have asked: Did Iowa abandon the run too soon? And this second-down statistic would lend some credence to this theory.

Iowa called a running play only 33% of the time on second down. Granted, it wasn’t super-effective: seven rushes for 13 yards, with a long of five.

But getting two yards a pop would’ve been better than the disastrous alternative: Stanley was sacked five times on 14 drop-backs on second down, netting 11 yards, AND threw two of his three interceptions.

This might be the biggest lesson for Brian Ferentz from this game: that when your defense is playing so well, don’t get too cute on second downs. Iowa’s pass protection wasn’t in a place it could hold up against what Michigan was doing, yet the Hawkeyes kept walking into trouble.

The aforementioned second-and-5 on the last play of the third quarter, in my opinion, was the moment Iowa gave up on the run. After Sargent had gained a solid five yards on first down, the play-action shot was swallowed up. Nobody was open. Michigan wasn’t fooled. The Hawkeyes absolutely needed at least three points on this drive, still down seven with plenty of time left. And that sack deflated the drive and Iowa’s positive momentum that started on a 27-yard pass from Stanley to Smith-Marsette.

In the fourth quarter, Iowa called 20 pass plays and one run. The Hawkeyes became too predictable. And, ultimately, too helpless.

What worked that Iowa can build on?

The Hawkeyes can find solace in knowing that when they properly protect Stanley, the offense can hum.

Advanced analytics show that Stanley was 17-for-26 for 211 yards with one interception when he didn’t face pressure; he was 6-for-17 for 49 yards with two picks (and, obviously, those eight sacks) when under pressure.

One first-quarter sequence worked, but Iowa never came back to it. Stanley’s first pass of the game was a rollout to the right, and he hit Brandon Smith for 11 yards as Michigan sent an extra rusher. Getting Stanley on the move could allow him to become less of a sitting duck in the pocket. On the next play, the Hawkeyes went tempo and handed off to Sargent for five yards on first down.

The only other tempo Iowa really used was in scramble, predictable situations. Perhaps some pace would also help keep put an attacking defense a little more on its heels. Something to think about for Penn State.

I also liked the usage of screens against Michigan’s pressure. A quick slant to Nico Ragaini for nine yards also was a nice way to fight back against blitzes.

Finally, a few words about the defense.

I came into this game most concerned about Iowa’s ability to contain Michigan’s big, fast wide receivers. And the Hawkeyes were up to the challenge. On film, the spacing and communication between Iowa’s linebackers and defensive backs was tremendous. The only play over 20 yards that Iowa allowed was on a 51-yarder to Tarik Black that D.J. Johnson couldn’t have covered much better.

Safeties Geno Stone and Jack Koerner played their best game together, clearly taking steps forward from their Iowa State struggles on Sept. 14.

I also thought Daviyon Nixon (33 snaps) was more effective than Austin Schulte (30) at defensive tackle. It looks promising that Brady Reiff will return from a knee injury, as he appeared on Monday’s depth chart, which will certainly beef up a defensive line that isn’t rotating many bodies.

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.