Leistikow's DVR Monday: An adjustment that helped Iowa's offense; third-down calls that didn't

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa’s 26-20 win against Purdue left some with a lackluster feeling.

The outcome having a shred of uncertainty until the final 20 seconds was the overall cause of that. Much of the frustration, though, was pointed toward the Hawkeyes’ offense that failed to put the 18-point-underdog Boilermakers away, especially considering a mostly-stout day from the defense.

That’s fair.

But, the tape also shows an Iowa offense that is finding solutions to prior problems, too. Let’s dive into another DVR Monday column with sharp focus on Brian Ferentz’s side of the football.

Nate Stanley, left, fakes a shotgun handoff to Mekhi Sargent. The Hawkeyes went with greater frequency of using the shotgun look with tight end Nate Wieting serving as a fullback of sorts against Purdue.

Let’s start with something positive. A prominent change produced encouraging results.

On 17 of Iowa’s 66 snaps, quarterback Nate Stanley stood in a shotgun formation with a running back to his side and tight end Nate Wieting situated (like a fullback) between them and the line of scrimmage.

This formation wasn’t totally new for Iowa, but its frequency was notably intentional given the pass-protection struggles the previous two weeks against Michigan and Penn State. I liked the adjustment, considering the tight end has been little more than a warm body on Hawkeye pass routes this fall. Better to use him for something really important (like keeping the quarterback upright) than for empty routes.

Iowa averaged 7.1 yards per play when it showed this look (17 snaps, 120 yards), compared with 4.9 when it didn't (49 snaps, 242 yards). The breakdown:

Seven passing plays for 71 yards (10.1 per throw). That’ll do. A 32-yarder against a blitz to Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the highlight. But I also liked that a scrambling Stanley found Nico Ragaini for 13 yards when Wieting was well-covered on an underneath route out of his fullback look. Stanley went 4-for-5 for 61 yards out of this set in the first half, which underscored something ESPN’s Anthony Becht said during the broadcast: “It’s nice when he has protection, because he really is a great quarterback."

10 running plays for 49 yards (4.9 per carry). Wieting crunched linebacker Derrick Barnes to pave a path for a 6-yard run by Toren Young. Iowa also gained 11 with Mekhi Sargent on a straight-ahead run with this set. But my favorite call was the zone-read by Stanley, in which he faked a jet sweep to Smith-Marsette and kept the ball for a straight-ahead 9-yard run on second-and-10.

Overall, this was a win-win adjustment that kept Stanley upright and better utilized Iowa’s limited tight-end resources.

Now, for some negative. Four third-down plays killed Iowa’s offensive day.

Little known fact: The Hawkeyes had more first downs than Michigan (18-13) and Penn State (21-20) in those losses but stalled because of insufficient blocking. Hence, the aforementioned formation adjustment. Upon review of this game, Iowa’s offense was on the cusp of a really good day (19 first downs to Purdue's 17). But 3-for-13 success on third downs was Saturday's culprit.

I picked four failures that really hurt, and how/why they happened.

Second quarter, third-and-1, Iowa’s 31. Remember that Stanley zone-read I praised? Well, it was followed with probably the worst play call of the day. With running back Toren Young flanked out wide, Stanley turned and handed to fullback Brady Ross for a dead-on-arrival 1-yard loss. Purdue crashed eight defenders against seven Iowa blockers, a correct gamble. Iowa was looking to build on a 6-0 lead and build on momentum created by Geno Stone's fumble recovery; instead, Iowa punted. A QB sneak or play-action pass would've had better odds.

Second quarter, third-and-3, Purdue’s 21. Still 6-0. The Boilermakers dropped eight into coverage, pouncing on a wide-receiver screen to Ragaini designed to burn a blitz that didn’t come. He lost three yards, and the Hawkeyes settled for Keith Duncan’s third field goal with 2:14 left before halftime. Had Iowa moved the chains, it could’ve at least drained the clock and taken a 9-0 lead into the break — or maybe make it 13-0. Instead, Purdue got the ball back and scored just before halftime. It was 9-7, and the boo-birds at Kinnick Stadium were prevalent. 

Third quarter, third-and-6, Purdue’s 43. Up 16-7, it looked like Iowa had a great call. Ragaini was lined up as an inside receiver, set to loop around Purdue's zone coverage for a possible home-run shot. But Stanley didn’t have enough time, as Purdue's blitzing linebacker (Barnes) was not noticed by left tackle Alaric Jackson. Stanley barely got the incomplete pass away. Good play call, poor execution. This also squandered Iowa’s best starting field position in more than a month.

Fourth quarter, third-and-7, Iowa’s 28. Up 19-7 with under 13 minutes left, Stanley’s underneath throw to Tyler Goodson bounded off the running back’s hands for a Purdue interception that made this game closer than it needed to be. Stanley blamed himself for the throw; but it was certainly catchable. I’m sure Ferentz, Stanley and Goodson would all love to have a do-over in the rain with a 12-point, fourth-quarter lead.

Stanley was excellent against the blitz; and the offensive line mostly was, too.

Purdue took a page out of Michigan’s defensive playbook, in that it would often show blitz but drop seven defenders into coverage — with a linebacker rushing and a defensive lineman dropping, in an effort to confuse Iowa’s O-line. The Hawkeyes were much better at picking these up.

It also helped that Stanley was surgical on the times when Purdue did send an extra attacker. I counted 10 Iowa passing calls (out of 35) in which Purdue rushed more than four. Stanley was sacked once for 8 yards, but that looked to be equal parts coverage sack and subpar blitz pickup by Sargent. It wasn't the line.

Stanley was 8-for-9 for 105 yards against blitzes.

The most artful display of Iowa’s improvement against blitzes was a 30-yard connection in the third quarter to Brandon Smith. Purdue showed a 3-man rush but blitzed two linebackers — who were picked up perfectly by center Tyler Linderbaum and right guard Mark Kallenberger, while left guard Landan Paulsen smartly slid to absorb the nose tackle. Stanley rolled to his right and dropped a beauty into Smith’s bread basket. That set up Duncan’s fourth field goal of the day.

Dane Belton looks like a keeper at the cash position.

It was a very impressive debut for the true freshman from Tampa, as the Hawkeye coaching staff unveiled the 4-2-5 base defense for the majority of snaps for the first time this year.

Belton played 55 snaps, compared with 15 for outside linebacker Nick Niemann. Belton seemed to consistently be in the right place at the right time and maintained excellent spacing that defensive coordinator Phil Parker preaches.

While Belton registered six tackles, one play stood out in which he got no official credit. It was Purdue’s first play after Iowa had seized a 19-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. A sure pass call, right? Purdue, though, tried running left with Doerue King.

Belton was all over it. He was lined up opposite slot receiver Jackson Anthrop, and while making his drop into coverage, saw the handoff. He beat Anthrop’s block attempt into the Purdue backfield, establishing the edge. King was left to try to cut back upfield, and that’s where Daviyon Nixon met him for a 3-yard loss. The Boilermakers went three-and-out.

One of the biggest reasons Amani Hooker was so good at the cash position was his ability to protect the run while also covering slot receivers. It’s early, but it’s also easy to see why coaches have been high on Belton (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) since fall camp.

‘That’s a terrible call.’ … And then more inexcusable clock management.

If you watched the game on TV, you don’t need DVR Monday to tell you that Iowa got a raw deal when officials flagged Linderbaum for a false start on fourth-and-2 from Purdue’s 49-yard line with 4:01 remaining.

“That’s a terrible call,” ESPN’s Becht repeated more than once. And it was. The only movement Linderbaum made was after 300-pound defensive tackle Anthony Watts crashed into him while jumping through the neutral zone.

A 5-yard offsides penalty would’ve given Iowa a chance to further salt away the clock with a 19-10 lead and would’ve led to fewer tenuous moments that were to come.

But what was also terrible about the sequence was that Iowa's ensuing punt snap came with 22 seconds left on the play clock … and the game clock running. That’s a case in which you must go max protect, let the play clock go to 1 second, then snap the ball ... and try to punt it deep. Purdue got the ball back with 3:50 to play, when it should’ve been more like 3:28.


Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.​​​​​​​