The Iowa Hawk Central
Rewatching Iowa’s 23-19 victory against Minnesota, one thought on two players came to mind:
Man, what a difference Tyler Goodson and Kristian Welch make.
While quarterback Nate Stanley (total command, no turnovers) and defensive end A.J. Epenesa (2½ sacks, Big Ten Conference defensive player of the week) might’ve had their best games of the season, it was a fleet freshman running back and steady senior linebacker that helped launch the Hawkeyes’ latest November magic against a top-10 opponent at Kinnick Stadium.
We start there with this week’s DVR Monday:
Maybe the outside-zone running scheme isn’t extinct.
Maybe Iowa just hasn’t had the right running back to run it.
On an eye-opening first play of Iowa’s second drive, Goodson took an outside-zone handoff to the left and used his fleet speed to turn the corner. There wasn’t much space between the edge of the line, where freshman Sam LaPorta made a nice seal block, and the boundary — but Goodson had the quickness to get there for a 9-yard gain.
On the next play, Goodson raced 21 yards around the right side. Yes, he got great blocking — including a pancake from right guard Kyler Schott. But Goodson also made linebacker Thomas Barber miss a tackle at the line of scrimmage. It was a reminder that even if the blocking is sufficient, a running back still has to make defenders miss — and Goodson clearly has that skill, something echoed by Fox analyst Brock Huard.
“Quite frankly,” Huard said, “you have to have a difference-maker at that position.”
That was evident on Goodson’s 10-yard touchdown run that finished the drive and put Iowa ahead, 13-0. First, he stiff-armed 245-pound defensive end Carter Coughlin (who was free because Tristan Wirfs whiffed on a block) on the outside run to the right. Second, he skipped through a tackle attempt by 205-pound defensive back Chris Williamson. Lastly, he powered through the goal-line tackle attempt of 200-pound Benjamin St.-Juste.
Speed, balance and power. It was that threat of a running game that helped Iowa be efficient throwing the ball. Even though Goodson had a role in the losses to Michigan (34 snaps), Penn State (37 snaps) and Wisconsin (16 snaps), his first-half exposure had been limited … until Saturday. Not coincidentally, slow starts in all three games proved costly.
Unfortunately, Goodson left the game after an apparent ankle injury while running a pass route on Nate Stanley’s 8-yard scramble in the fourth quarter. He did not return, but there was encouraging news on Iowa’s depth chart Monday as he was listed on the No. 1 line at running back for the first time.
If Welch had not missed the Wisconsin game, Iowa would still be in Big Ten West contention.
I firmly believe that, especially watching the obvious and quiet impact of Welch from his middle-linebacker spot against the Gophers. You know from the stat sheet that Welch had a team-high 11 tackles, including an 8-yard sack that had the announcers raving, in his return from a 3½-game absence due to a stinger.
But here were three quiet examples of Welch’s impact that you won’t see on the stat sheet:
Minnesota’s second play from scrimmage: Welch showed his astute film study as Tanner Morgan flipped a screen pass to Cam Wiley on second-and-7. Welch noticed it happening immediately and beat Wiley to the edge, which forced the running back to turn inside — where Djimon Colbert made the tackle for no gain.
Third-and-9 from Iowa’s 32: Still on Minnesota’s first drive (with Iowa leading, 6-0), Welch showed blitz up the middle. Morgan saw it coming and looked for a hot read with slanting slot receiver Demetrius Douglas. But Welch instead quickly retreated into the Morgan-to-Douglas passing lane with impeccable timing, erasing that option. Before Morgan could find a second option, he was engulfed by Brady Reiff and Chauncey Golston for a 5-yard sack. A failed 50-yard field goal followed.
Third-and-goal from Iowa’s 6: Again, Welch showed blitz. Again, Morgan looked to slot receiver Tyler Johnson. But again, Welch’s savvy drop into coverage forced Morgan to hesitate just enough that Epenesa altered his throw. The pass floated over Johnson’s head, and Minnesota settled for a short field goal to cut Iowa’s lead to 13-3.
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa got plenty of pressure late in Saturday's win over Minnesota. How did he do it? Hear him explain: Hawk Central
Iowa's tight-end comfort level has reached a season high.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz rotated three tight ends with extended regularity for the first time all season, stemming from LaPorta’s continued emergence and Nate Wieting’s return from a two-game injury absence.
And there was a clear plan, save a few instances. When Iowa went with a two-tight end set, Wieting and Shaun Beyer were on the field. When Iowa went with “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), then LaPorta, a less experienced blocker, was the choice.
Ferentz creatively used some pre-snap, double-tight end motion — where both Wieting and Beyer would hop from one side of the line of scrimmage to the other — which was reminiscent of something he used with effectiveness in the 2017 Ohio State game. The first time it was tried, with Wieting and Beyer shifting right, Goodson took a toss left for 26 yards.
Of Iowa’s 21 plays with two tight ends, 16 were running calls that netted 80 yards, a solid 5.0 per carry. Not bad.
Wieting wound up playing 35 snaps and hauled in a crucial 11-yard catch on fourth-and-1. Beyer played 26. LaPorta played 18 and snared a clutch 12-yard conversion on third-and-12, helping Iowa milk key third-quarter clock.
Rolling with multiple tight ends was Ferentz’s play-calling comfort zone a year ago, with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant at his disposal. It’s been more of a process this year, but the tight ends are finally becoming more trusted entities.
What happened to Iowa’s offense in the second half?
This was the most common critical query I received after this game. The main answer: pressure.
Remarkably, Minnesota didn’t send one single blitz in the first half on Stanley’s 10 pass attempts. The Gophers let him get comfortable, and Stanley’s big right arm was on display with clutch conversions and two touchdown passes.
But in the second half, things changed.
The Gophers, after cutting the Iowa lead to 20-13, finally started attacking.
Minnesota blitzed Stanley nine times in the second half; those nine plays netted nine yards (and included two third-down sacks). Iowa was held to 69 second-half yards.
It’s been no secret that both Stanley and his offensive line have struggled against pressure all season. It was a surprise to see Minnesota play so conservatively on defense for so long. Fortunately for Iowa, the pressure was too little, too late.
No doubt that Lovie Smith, Illinois’ coach with a defensive reputation, will look to apply pressure to the Hawkeyes next week.
An effort play by Dane Belton, Geno Stone and especially Matt Hankins might have saved the Hawkeyes.
Down 23-13 late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota was racing against the clock. From Iowa’s 15, Morgan threw right to Johnson, a powerful 205-pound receiver who charged toward the end zone. But three Hawkeye defensive backs made sure he didn’t get in. Belton lunged from behind to grab one of Johnson’s legs; Stone arrived in support at the goal line and wrapped Johnson high; and Hankins probably made the most impressive play of all, although he didn’t even get credit for a tackle.
Knocked to the ground by Chris Autman-Bell, Hankins — from his knees — lunged toward Johnson from the goal line and drove the receiver backward. The line judge correctly marked Johnson about a half-yard short of the end zone.
This turned out to be an absolutely crucial play in Iowa’s favor. If Johnson bulldozes into the end zone, Minnesota’s PAT (which failed) gets attempted at the 3:59 mark. Instead, it was first-and-goal … and some pre-snap confusion ensued, forcing the Gophers to burn their second timeout with 3:30 left.
Even though Rodney Smith scored with 3:27 left, those 32 lost seconds were big.
Having only one timeout, P.J. Fleck opted for an onside kick. It failed, giving Iowa the ball at the Minnesota 47. If the Gophers had 3:59 and two timeouts, there’s no doubt they kick it deep with the potential to get the ball back with much better field position and roughly 3:00 on the clock (instead of the actual 1:52, at their own 20-yard line). Epenesa and Co. sealed the deal from there.
It was a great illustration of the value of never quitting on a play.
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.