Keith Duncan was more than prepared for his game-winner at Nebraska. Hawk Central
During the course of its 9-3 regular season, the Iowa football team faced plenty of pressure-packed moments, with eight outcomes decided by single digits.
And the Hawkeyes showed an impressive ability to stay calm — and come through when it counted — in adversity's face in a 27-24 win Friday at Nebraska ... right down to Keith Duncan's cool winning kick.
DVR Monday begins with a detailed look at the calm, perfect final drive.
With the ball at his 26-yard line and no timeouts, Kirk Ferentz trusted his senior quarterback.
The calm begins with Nate Stanley, who looked like a man who was making his 38th straight start, with 32 seconds left in a 24-24 game.
After his 38-yard completion to Nico Ragaini was overturned (more on that later) and before his third-and-10 laser that hit Ihmir Smith-Marsette over the middle for 22 yards, Stanley's second-and-10 incompletion was noteworthy. A veteran knew he couldn't take a sack, so he alertly used his legs to get outside and throw the ball away ... giving the Hawkeyes another chance.
How about Smith-Marsette? Even though he leaped too early on Stanley's throw, he showed the same incredible concentration he did when completing an immense third-and-22 in September at Iowa State. That put Iowa near midfield with 13 seconds left. While the review for targeting was botched (more on that later, too), it did give Iowa more time to recalibrate.
And that's when tight end Sam LaPorta took advantage of Stanley's senior savvy. The same play as before was called, except the formation was flipped — with LaPorta in the slot on the right, and Smith-Marsette to his outside. Linebacker Will Honas was lined up 6 yards off the line of scrimmage, facing LaPorta and slightly to his inside. But at the snap, Honas retreated back and to the left — toward Smith-Marsette — and that left LaPorta roaming free over the middle. Stanley saw it, and hit him between the numbers at Nebraska's 35, and LaPorta turned upfield and got to the 29 (although it was incorrectly marked at the 30) with 7 seconds left. Also impressive: How LaPorta, a true freshman, quickly got the ball to the officials and lined up so Stanley could spike the ball ... and set up Duncan's heroics.
About that 48-yard kick, which got the most ink Friday: If you have the replay, make sure to watch Duncan's shirt sleeves. They were rippling in the wind. This was hardly an easy conversion. Second, every piece of the field-goal operation was precise. Third, Duncan — a very good golfer — put a slight fade on the kick, beautifully curling it around the two leaping Cornhuskers in the middle of the line, and through the middle of the uprights — like a perfect drive down the fairway.
A well-coached, well-executed finish to the Hawkeyes' regular season.
The big plays were ... big.
One reason Iowa's defense was on the field so much, even in the first half, was because of a quick-strike offense. Two of Iowa's three longest runs of the season and its first kickoff-return TD in seven years are worth breaking down.
1. Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 45-yard touchdown run.
This is the first time we’ve seen Brian Ferentz call this true reverse-run all year.
It worked because two key Cornhusker defenders had their eyes locked on Tyler Goodson taking a handoff to the right. From his safety spot 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, safety Marquel Dismuke ran 6 yards forward before figuring out that Goodson had pitched the ball to Smith-Marsette, who made a nice juke step at the line of scrimmage before circling left. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Caleb Tanner took a few steps toward Goodson, which allowed left tackle Alaric Jackson enough time to seal the edge of the defensive line and scoot forward to account for Tanner.
At that point, Smith-Marsette was off to the races. Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. and tight end Shaun Beyer (split left) did a nice job with downfield blocks, especially Tracy’s savvy seal-off of safety Cam Taylor-Britt, which gave Smith-Marsette a clear path up the left sideline. The only Nebraska player that wasn’t accounted for was Lamar Jackson, the cornerback who began the play lined up across from Smith-Marsette. Jackson had the only shot near the goal line, but Smith-Marsette’s speed was too much. Iowa led, 7-0, after its sixth play from scrimmage.
2. Goodson’s 55-yard touchdown run.
A blazing inside-zone run through the middle of Nebraska’s defense began with a Stanley line check. With Iowa lined up in a power, three-tight end formation and Nebraska having two defenders near lone receiver Tracy on the left, the senior quarterback liked Iowa’s numbers advantage. Then came the execution.
Two blocks were crucial. Tight end Nate Wieting, on the left, sealed outside linebacker Garrett Nelson nicely, while the rest of Iowa’s line successfully moved Nebraska right. Left guard Mark Kallenberger’s chip on defensive end Khalil Davis gave Jackson enough time to finish off Davis, then Kallenberger had time to plow into middle linebacker Collin Miller.
Goodson was so fast through the well-blocked line of scrimmage, he only had one second-level Husker to beat. And he skipped through the diving tackle attempt of Dismuke to the end zone. Iowa led, 14-3, after its 11th play from scrimmage.
3. Smith-Marsette’s 95-yard kickoff return.
A combination of design and speed. When Smith-Marsette caught the ball at his own 5-yard line, there were only three players — two from Nebraska, plus Riley Moss of Iowa to his left. Yet he followed the mass of humanity to the right ... but, strategically, not yet at full speed.
Once Smith-Marsette got to the 15, he had sucked in almost every player wearing red ... so he cut sharply to his left, at which point he turned on the jets. (His cut was so sudden, Nebraska’s trailing kicker slipped to the ground in response.)
This is where a kick returner needs to be special. And he was. Smith-Marsette, the self-proclaimed fastest man on the team, outran diving tackle attempts of Brody Belt and, eventually, the last-gasp effort of Taylor-Britt — who moments earlier returned an interception for a touchdown — and rode that familiar left sideline into the end zone. Iowa led, 24-10.
Iowa's terrific plan for talented Nebraska receiver J.D. Spielman reflected a well-schooled defensive performance.
Spielman, already on the doorstep of Nebraska’s all-time receiving records as a junior, entered Black Friday with a hot hand — totaling 22 catches for 395 yards and three touchdowns in the past four games. But with the help of film study, Iowa shut him down.
Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia clearly had studied Nebraska’s second play from scrimmage, a screen pass to the left to Spielman. Ojemudia saw what was happening right away and beat his tight-end block to connect in the backfield with Spielman, who spun into a tackle from A.J. Epenesa and Jack Koerner for a 1-yard gain.
Later in the first quarter, Ojemudia wasn't fooled by two deep shots to Spielman (one off a pump fake that he should have intercepted).
And then on a first-and-10 screen to Spielman, Ojemudia darted into the backfield (thanks to Dane Belton intentionally absorbing Spielman’s key blocker) and made the tackle for a 6-yard loss.
Two catches for minus-5 yards plus a a touchdown that shouldn’t have counted were Spielman's only three receptions of the day.
On Spielman’s 39-yard TD catch from Luke McCaffrey in the third quarter, two lineman were illegally downfield without a flag.
According to the NCAA rule book, an ineligible receiver cannot be more than 3 yards downfield until a passer throws a legal forward pass that crosses the neutral zone. It states, “a player is in violation of this rule if any part of his body is beyond the 3-yard limit.”
Let’s go to the film. As McCaffrey rolled to his left, the Nebraska offensive line pushed forward as if run-blocking. That’s the whole idea of the run-pass option plays, to disguise passes as runs. But it’s also the idea of the 3-yard rule (which is a 1-yard rule in the NFL). On this play, right guard Boe Wilson’s leg was touching the 35-yard line (4 yards downfield) and left guard Trent Hixson’s entire body was at the 35. Neither was flagged.
On the play, Ojemudia and Belton reacted to the run action … and McCaffrey looped the ball to a wide-open Spielman for six. Nebraska had only 61 passing yards outside of this one questionable play.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz speaks after a 27-24 win against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium. Hawk Central
Had Iowa lost this game, bad officiating would have been the top story line.
Still, I was asked: Was it as bad as it seemed?
Yes, yes it was.
I could probably write 1,000 words on this, but here are some short takes on judgment calls (or lack thereof) that went against Iowa and greatly affected the game.
On the running into the kicker penalty on Barrington Wade that gave Nebraska a third-quarter first down? He was knocked into the punter by the backside of Nebraska lineman Matt Farniok. Bad call that kept Iowa's tiring defense on the field.
On the face mask that pulled down Goodson? Darrion Daniels’ yanking not only wasn’t called but spun Goodson awkwardly and knocked him out of the game. Huge swing.
On the horse-collar flag that was picked up? Referee Mike Cannon laughably announced there was no foul because Mekhi Sargent “was pulled forward” by Dismuke on his 30-yard run late in the fourth quarter. The NCAA rule book states that “all players are prohibited from grabbing the inside back collar of the shoulder pads" (which Dismuke did) … "and immediately pulling the ball carrier down.” It says nothing about direction. The only gray area is immediately; Sargent was certainly tackled quickly. Even though Sargent fumbled on the next play, Iowa might’ve approached things much differently from Nebraska’s 15 (instead of the 30) with three minutes remaining.
On Ragaini’s apparent 38-yard catch that was overturned on review? The rule book says a pass is incomplete only if the football comes loose “immediately” when the receiver hits the ground while in the process of making a catch. In this case, Ragaini controlled the ball as he hit the ground with his left knee and left elbow. He then rolled over, still with control, until his own left hand eventually jarred the ball loose. The replay official clearly had a different definition for “immediately” — one that showed him indisputable evidence to overturn the ruling of a catch — than the officials that picked up the horse-collar flag.
On the targeting flag that was picked up? The NCAA rule book gives many examples of a “defenseless” player, including one “who because of his physical position and focus of concentration is especially vulnerable to injury.” It adds, “When in question, a player is defenseless.” So when the back of Smith-Marsette's head was blasted by the shoulder pad of Taylor-Britt while making his 22-yard catch with 13 seconds left, the replay official’s overturning of the targeting call made no sense. Targeting includes “forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. … When in question, it is a foul.” How that was overturned, I’ll never know.
A few unheralded players stood out in the final DVR Monday of the regular season.
Belton has taken full ownership of the cash position. He made a brilliant solo tackle in a 24-24 game, as Adrian Martinez tried to run left on third-and-3, to force a punt. A true freshman with a bright future.
Koerner's interception at the end of the first half may have saved at least three Husker points, but he was terrific beyond that. On the possession after Belton’s tackle, Koerner had one biggie of his own — knifing downhill to tackle a running-free Dedrick Mills on a well-executed, third-and-8 screen. Koerner’s hustle and physical tackle stopped Mills one yard shy of a first down. He had the highest grade on the team in the game, according to Pro Football Focus — yes, even higher than Epenesa.
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.