Leistikow's DVR Monday: Interior line play, not Brian Ferentz, largely at fault in Penn State loss

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

There’s a reason that coaches and players often are reluctant in postgame interviews to speak in specifics about mistakes. We’ve got to watch the film, they’ll say.

And they’re not just blowing smoke. There’s a reason for that. Once you see every play in action and all 11 players on your side of the ball operating as a team, it’s easier to identify where the failures are occurring. At that point, it’s more appropriate to assign fault or blame.

In reviewing Iowa’s 17-12 loss to Penn State, there was zero doubt where the majority of the Hawkeyes’ problems lie.

It’s not in the play-calling or scheme. In fact, I'd even go as far as offering the unpopular opinion that Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz mostly called a good game.

Iowa's offense being held to 12 points against Penn State was largely a result of offensive-line deficiencies, but quarterback Nate Stanley did miss some important throws, too.

And while quarterback Nate Stanley did miss some throws (we'll get to those), he's not the problem.

This game was lost quite clearly on the interior of Iowa’s offensive line. Poor guard play, in particular, foiled the Hawkeyes’ upset bid at just about every turn Saturday night.

'When pressure comes from the middle, a quarterback has no chance.'

That was from ABC analyst Todd Blackledge during Saturday's broadcast. And it rings ominously true, not only for this game against Penn State but the previous week’s missed opportunity at Michigan — a 10-3 loss in which the Hawkeyes allowed eight sacks.

This is not a personal attack on the three guards who played Saturday night — senior Landan Paulsen (58 snaps) and freshman Cody Ince (18) on the left; sophomore Mark Kallenberger (76) on the right. It actually speaks to development that is not occurring at a fast enough rate for a school that is supposed to be among the best in the country at coaching offensive linemen.

Some drive-killing offensive-line lapses that stuck out:

First quarter, second-and-11 at Penn State’s 21: Iowa was moving the ball nicely in a scoreless game with Ince at left guard, but Paulsen entered at this point and allowed quick pressure from defensive tackle Robert Windsor. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs also missed his cut block, allowing Shaka Toney and Windsor to meet at Stanley for a 9-yard loss. An ill-timed sack. Iowa settled for a field goal.

Second quarter, second-and-6 at Penn State’s 25: Tyler Goodson took a handoff, and Penn State’s Fred Hansard got into the backfield but Paulsen opted to run past him and look for someone else to block. Goodson was tackled for a 1-yard loss. Then, on third-and-7, Kallenberger didn’t block anyone (looked like poor communication with Wirfs) as Stanley was hurried into an incomplete pass. Iowa then missed a field goal, instead of potentially going in for a go-ahead touchdown.

Second quarter, third-and-goal, Penn State’s 5: A stunt by Antonio Shelton left Kallenberger helpless, and Stanley was lucky to throw the ball away. Iowa needed seven there; instead, it settled for three and a 7-6 halftime deficit.

Third quarter, first-and-10, Iowa’s 29: The Hawkeyes had gotten a stop and worked out of trouble with a 9-yard run by Toren Young and a 17-yard catch by Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Then, Windsor blew through the pass protection of Paulsen and center Tyler Linderbaum to dump Stanley for an 8-yard loss. A drive with a chance to flip the field was cooked.

Third quarter, first-and-10, Iowa’s 22: The biggest play of the game, as PJ Mustipher came untouched into the backfield with Iowa running left to Tyler Goodson. Linderbaum pulled left but Kallenberger didn’t, creating a free shot on Goodson, who was hit so quickly that he never cleanly accepted the handoff. A lost fumble set up Penn State at Iowa’s 16.

You get the idea.

If guards can’t block, pass plays can’t develop. And that’s unfortunate for a Hawkeye team that has a senior quarterback and the best talent it’s had at wide receiver in a long time.

If guards can’t block, the run game doesn’t go, either. No wonder Iowa has just 71 rushing yards in the past two weeks.

Take away Goodson’s 29-yard run Saturday and Iowa netted 41 yards on 29 rushes (or 46 on 23 if you subtract Stanley’s sneaks and sack yardage; just 2.0 per pop).

Injuries haven’t helped, either. Cole Banwart being lost for the season is a big blow, and Kyler Schott was in a boot last week. Add it all up, and Iowa’s guard play was helpless against the Nittany Lions.

Three throws that Stanley missed could’ve changed the game.

Stanley (25 of 43, 286 yards) was undoubtedly under Penn State heat all night. And he delivered some dimes, including a 36-yarder to Smith-Marsette and a late 33-yard touchdown to Brandon Smith.

But there were three throws I’m sure he’d love to have back, especially considering the implications.

First quarter, first-and-10, Iowa’s 40: The Hawkeyes had picked up two first downs on their second drive. Then a nice play call by Ferentz put Stanley on the move, and Smith was open over the middle. But Stanley’s throw wobbled and came in low, and Smith couldn’t scoop it. Incomplete, instead of an 11-yard gain into Penn State territory. Two plays later, Iowa punted.

Second quarter, third-and-4, Iowa’s 27: A perfectly designed wheel route to Mekhi Sargent was there. Sargent scampered up the left sideline as linebacker Cam Brown chased in coverage. But Stanley's looping ball was slightly underthrown, allowing Brown to disrupt a possible connection. Incomplete, instead of what looked like an 18-yard gain or more. With Iowa leading 3-0 and having dominated the first quarter, this marked a real opportunity to seize further control of the game. Instead, Iowa punted … and Penn State answered with an 85-yard touchdown march and didn't trail again.

Second quarter, second-and-goal, Penn State’s 5: You saw it. America saw it. Smith broke to the inside against man coverage and got position on his quick-slant route. But Stanley’s throw sailed wide of Smith, incomplete. Two plays later, Iowa settled for a short field goal. Stanley’s misfire directly cost Iowa four points in this instance — and halftime momentum.

The defense doesn’t get a complete pass — especially against runs up the middle.

While there’s no doubt Phil Parker’s defense gave Ferentz’s offense plenty of opportunities to seize the game, the methodical chunks of rushing yardage that Iowa yielded was reminiscent of last year’s 14-10 loss to Northwestern in which Isaiah Bowser ran 31 times for 165 yards, almost exclusively through the center of Iowa's spread-out defense.

Take away three sacks (for 13 yards) and two kneel-downs (for 14 yards), and Penn State amassed 204 rushing yards on 48 attempts. That’s with no run gaining more than 12 yards. That’s consistently efficient — or, in Iowa’s case, consistently deficient.

And here’s what is even more concerning: Most of the yardage came up the middle. Penn State attempted 33 rushes in the middle of the field, and 22 of them gained at least 4 yards. That happened 10 times on 15 fourth-quarter rushes up the middle. Iowa couldn’t stop it.

What was the problem?

Give Penn State's schemes a lot of credit.

One example: On a second-and-5 in the second quarter, Penn State went with a four wide-receiver look. That put linebackers Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann in coverage — and left just five defenders (four linemen and linebacker Djimon Colbert) in the box. That is a 7-on-5 box advantage for Penn State, and Clifford kept the ball for an easy 6 yards straight up the middle for a first down. The Nittany Lions scored a touchdown three plays later.

The Nittany Lions increased their middle-run frequency after Welch left the game following helmet-to-helmet contact from teammate Amani Jones in the third quarter. Freshman Dillon Doyle replaced Welch and was not as effective as one the Hawkeyes’ two defensive captains.

The replay official should've hit his buzzer on A.J. Epenesa's third-quarter sack of Clifford.

I’m not saying it was definitely a fumble. But there certainly was enough evidence to take a closer look to see if Epenesa had indeed forced a game-changing turnover on Penn State’s first drive of the third quarter.

On third-and-5 from Iowa’s 41, Epenesa made a dynamic bull rush of left tackle Rasheed Walker. It looked like one of those Khalil Mack highlights. Epenesa shoved Walker back with his left arm then engulfed Clifford while chopping at the ball with his right arm.

It was at that point — on the only rear-view replay ABC showed — that the ball appeared to be jostled free from Clifford’s grasp before he went to the ground. It’s not clear if Clifford got full control again while on the ground, but in the next shot we see, the front of Clifford’s jersey is visible and there’s no ball. Epenesa had the football. But Clifford was ruled down.

Based on that one replay angle, there wasn’t enough evidence to decisively say it was a fumble. But there was enough to review it. Penn State didn’t snap the ball to punt for another 32 seconds, so there was ample time for a replay official to act or for Kirk Ferentz to use his one challenge flag.

Instead of getting the ball at its own 46, Iowa took over at its own 3 after the punt. The Hawkeyes’ average field position in the second half was their own 10; imagine how the game would’ve changed had this sack been ruled a fumble.

We’ll never know.

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.