Leistikow's DVR Monday: Revisiting Iowa's defensive-line clinic at Northwestern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

A.J. Epenesa said something after Iowa’s 20-0 win against Northwestern that might sound a little idealistic, but his words perfectly reflected the Hawkeyes’ team defensive concept.

“If you do your job every single play, nobody can score on you,” Iowa’s junior defensive end said. “If all 11 guys win their individual battle, then no one can score. No one can move the ball. Three-and-outs. That’s what we expect from ourselves.”

The way Phil Parker teaches defense, there’s a lot of sacrifice, especially along the defensive line.

Chauncey Golston (57) shows his excitement after an early interception at Northwestern, on a ball that was deflected by defensive-line mate Brady Reiff (91). Cedrick Lattimore (95) also had a big game Saturday.

Tackles are called upon to absorb multiple linemen if possible, freeing up others to make plays.

Ends earn their ticket to the field by being fundamentally sound against the run, not necessarily attacking the passer.

And, like Epenesa said, when 11 guys do their job, the singular unit can dominate. Such was the case Saturday in Evanston, Illinois.

The defense deservedly gets the primary spotlight in today's DVR Monday.

A four-play sequence early in the second half beautifully explains Iowa’s defensive principles and smarts.

If Northwestern was going to make a charge in this one, it had to happen at the start the second half. The Hawkeyes led 10-0, but the Wildcats were on the move. Back-to-back completions to Ramaud Ciaokhiao-Bowman put the ball on Iowa’s 47. What followed was a defensive-line clinic.

First-and-10: Northwestern dialed up a play that doomed Iowa last year in this matchup, a straight-ahead run off a read-option to Isaiah Bowser. Only six Hawkeyes were in the box against a six-man front, meaning multiple Hawkeyes needed to win one-on-one matchups. Defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, in fact, won a one-on-two — wiggling free from center Jared Thomas and right guard Sam Gerak. That eliminated any possible Bowser daylight, and Lattimore made the stop for a 2-yard gain.

Second-and-8: On Northwestern’s first nine play calls on second-and-6 or longer, it called run. Yet on this one, Epenesa correctly braced for the pass. He dropped into coverage from his right-end spot, meaning Iowa sent only a three-man rush at quarterback Aidan Smith. Epenesa expertly read a flare pass to the left to Bowser and closed quickly to stop him for a 2-yard gain.

Third-and-6: Maybe my favorite play of the sequence, because it shows just how much Epenesa has grown as a run-stopper. Northwestern spread out Iowa with a four-wide look, but that was eye candy to give Bowser a straight-ahead run off a read-option. Northwestern’s five linemen gobbled up five Hawkeyes, but Epenesa was the freed-up sixth. He crashed inside, reading the run perfectly, and pummeled Bowser for another gain of 2. This was a prime example of assignment defense, freeing up Epenesa to make a great individual play.

Fourth-and-4: Iowa went with its base 4-2-5 and rushed four. Tight end Charlie Mangieri popped open over the middle briefly, but Smith didn’t see him with the defensive line pushing into the backfield. Smith’s scramble attempt was foiled as left end Chauncey Golston evaded his blocker. Lattimore got free, too, and they tackled Smith for no gain.

Iowa ball.

Northwestern’s best threat was averted. Iowa turned that four-down stop into seven third-quarter points and a 17-0 lead. Game over, at that point.

The return of Brady Reiff and emergence of Daviyon Nixon have elevated the play of Iowa’s defensive line.

We knew there was a good chance Golston, Epenesa and Lattimore would deliver strong seasons. But they’re getting a lot of help.

Let’s start with Nixon.

My ears perked before the season when Kirk Ferentz said Nixon had an “unbelievable” summer. Playing at around 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, the sophomore showed a relentless motor Saturday. Nixon edged Golston as Iowa’s highest-rated defensive player at Northwestern, according to Pro Football Focus.

The swim move that Nixon put on Northwestern’s center in the first quarter was a “wow” moment; he looked like a defensive end on what set up a fourth-down stop that turned into Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s 50-yard touchdown catch. One defensive series later, Nixon fought through two Wildcats to stuff Bowser for no gain. Nixon wound up with two late sacks, one on an impressive hustle play, and his 5½ tackles for loss this season trail only Golston’s 7½.

And then there’s Reiff.

The fifth-year senior’s third game since returning from a knee injury (he missed the Iowa State, Middle Tennessee and Michigan games) was disruptive from the get-go.

On Northwestern’s third play, Reiff wasn’t able to move past left guard Nik Urban. But he disengaged from the block to jump into Smith’s third-and-5 passing lane, a savvy senior play that resulted in him deflecting the pass into the arms of Golston for an early interception. The next time Northwestern had the ball, Reiff bear-hugged Kyric McGowan for a 2-yard gain when there was running room on second-and-10.

Reiff is providing some defensive-tackle grit, and Nixon is offering some flash at that position. (Each played 34 snaps Saturday, and so did Lattimore.) The Hawkeyes also brought Noah Shannon (eight snaps) into the tackle mix in Evanston, showing that this is a rapidly improving position group on the team.

MORE FROM CHAD:Swarming defense is putting Hawkeyes on its shoulders

Brian Ferentz is finding creative ways to give the Iowa running game a pulse.

The Iowa offensive coordinator’s most unfortunate moment Saturday was getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, as he expressed profanity-laced displeasure toward an official’s call of an illegal cut block on fullback Brady Ross that wiped out most of a 31-yard running play by Tyler Goodson.

Getting a beautifully executed run play nullified by a questionable flag was surely infuriating, given that it’s been like pulling teeth to give Iowa’s run-game some teeth.

But on the whole Saturday, I liked what Ferentz did with the run game that he too quickly abandoned in a 10-3 loss at Michigan.

Of 37 called running plays (not counting a sack, a kneel-down and a Nate Stanley scramble), Iowa gained 137 yards with a long of 13. Ferentz called run at least twice each out of seven different personnel groups. There was enough unpredictability to keep Northwestern’s stout defensive front seven on its toes.

Out of “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), Iowa rushed six times for 40 yards. A 13-yard shotgun draw to Mekhi Sargent on third-and-8 and a 12-yarder to Goodson on third-and-7 (with a great block by receiver Nico Ragaini) delivered crucial conversions.

Iowa ran most frequently out of “21” personnel (two backs — including a fullback — and one tight end), rushing 10 times for 44 yards. This delivered some straight-ahead, I-formation running. Center Tyler Linderbaum received Iowa’s second-highest grade on the offensive line (only behind future NFL tackle Tristan Wirfs).

Iowa ran 16 times with multiple tight ends on the field for just 30 yards. But, those formations produced two of Iowa’s three big plays off play-action to tight end Sam LaPorta (for 41 yards) and Tracy (for 38) — and would’ve hit LaPorta for 34 if the ruling of a catch hadn’t been overturned by replay.

Ferentz’s three best play calls flipped the game and kept the defense fresh.

The feast-or-famine shotgun draws were 2-for-3 on third-and-long. Beyond those, here were three calls that showed a good sense of time, tendency and distance.

Third-and-2 from Northwestern’s 31, second quarter. Leading 7-0, Iowa lined up in “21” personnel with Stanley under center. And … the big quarterback plowed straight ahead for 3 yards on a sneak. Do that more often, especially if opposing defenses aren’t going to put anyone over center. The conversion moved the chains and got Iowa into solid field-goal range for Keith Duncan, who converted from 40 yards out for a 10-0 Iowa lead.

Second-and-6 from Iowa’s 6, second quarter. On the previous play, Iowa had gained four yards on a handoff to Toren Young. Ferentz went back to the same personnel group, except this time, the call was for a play-action pass. The protection was great; I counted 3.8 seconds between snap and throw for Stanley, a football eternity. Stanley connected with LaPorta at the 28, and the freshman raced another 19 yards to put the ball at the Iowa 47. That play flipped the field and effectively took Northwestern’s offense out of the game for the rest of the half.

Fourth-and-8 from Northwestern’s 30, third quarter. With the game still 10-0, Stanley dropped into a deep shotgun, and Goodson and tight end Shaun Beyer were in the backfield in what resembled a punt-protection formation. I thought it was going to be a pooch punt on a rainy day, as I did a year ago against Nebraska on a fourth-and-8. Northwestern might've been wary of the punt, too, because when Stanley accepted the snap and rolled right, Beyer broke wide open for an easy 11-yard gain. (A year ago, it was Stanley to T.J. Hockenson for 10 and a game-winning field goal in a similar circumstance.) Very creative, and Iowa punched the ball into the end zone four plays later for a 17-0 lead.

Stanley was Iowa’s highest-rated player in the game, according to Pro Football Focus.

That might come as a surprise, considering he was “only” 12 of 26 for 179 yards. But consider the fact that he had four throws that could be considered drops — one by LaPorta, technically, and three by Ragaini (two should’ve been caught, the other would’ve been a terrific diving grab). Had those four gone for receptions, Stanley would’ve been 16 for 26 for 250 yards with no turnovers on a wet day.

All in all, another solid day for a senior quarterback who moved into second place in school history with his 62nd career touchdown pass.

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.