Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz speaks after a 49-24 rout of USC in the Holiday Bowl, after which Iowa honored the late Hayden Fry. Hawk Central
The first Iowa football column of the new year? Might as well be a final look back at one of the most entertaining Hawkeye games of the Kirk Ferentz era.
After some much-needed family time — hopefully you all enjoyed some, too — it felt right to finish the Hawkeyes' 2019 football season with one last version of DVR Monday. Even if it is Thursday as I type this.
There's so much to like about Iowa's 49-24 Holiday Bowl rout of USC. But if I had to use one word to describe it? Methodical.
From the coin toss to the offensive precision that followed and the hard-hitting grit at the finish, this was a methodical Iowa beat-down.
For the fourth straight game, Iowa won the coin toss and elected to receive the football.
That is a notable observation about the Hawkeyes’ willingness to lean on the offense, not their acclaimed defense, to set the tone in what wound up as a four-game win streak to finish the season 10-3. That coincided with running back Tyler Goodson's elevation to the starting lineup.
And for the third time in those four games, the Hawkeyes delivered an opening-drive touchdown. (The only first-drive miss came at Nebraska, but Iowa quickly took a 7-0 lead on a two-play second drive.)
Several first-possession moments stood out in San Diego.
Third-and-9, own 26-yard line: Poor interior pass protection, especially against blitzes, derailed Iowa in early-season losses to Michigan and Penn State. But on this play, the third from scrimmage, the Hawkeyes showed their growth in that area when USC sent a six-man rush.
Mark Kallenberger, making his first start at left guard, first helped left tackle Alaric Jackson on his man, then did a great job sliding up in protection to pick up blitzing linebacker Juliano Falaniko. Iowa also kept in Goodson and Mekhi Sargent to give Nate Stanley a clean pocket — seven blockers on six — and the strong-armed quarterback wedged a 10-yard strike to Brandon Smith between two defenders to move the chains. A three-and-out there and maybe the complexion of the game changes.
Second-and-7, own 39: Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz used his fifth different personnel group in five plays, this time going with three wide receivers and two running backs and an empty backfield. Getting Goodson out wide showed the true freshman’s versatility. Stanley recognized Goodson had ample cushion from his defender, and hit him on a quick curl for an easy 7 yards and first down. Iowa was moving the chains, setting the tone and confusing a young USC defense with unpredictable looks and play calls.
First-and-10, USC's 44: This time, Iowa failed to protect the blitz. But true to its ball control form (Iowa finished with its sixth turnover-free game of the season), even when Taiano Hufanga strip-sacked Stanley, the man he beat, Nate Wieting, alertly raced to the sideline to scoop the ball. Had the fifth-year senior not made that heady play, USC would’ve had early momentum. Instead, Iowa kept control as Stanley hit Nico Ragaini for 30 yards on the next play. Tyrone Tracy Jr. scored from 23 yards out on the next.
Fox analyst Joel Klatt said that Iowa coaches 'feel like Sam LaPorta is their next great tight end.'
And there were enough signs in this game to feel optimistic about that projection. LaPorta’s six receptions (for 44 yards) were the most by an Iowa tight end since T.J. Hockenson’s seven (for 89 yards) against Northwestern in 2018. In fact, Hockenson only had six or more catches twice in his Iowa career, and Noah Fant never did it. Both were 2019 NFL Draft first-rounders.
Blocking is usually the last thing to come along for a young tight end, but LaPorta showed he’s made considerable progress in this area as a true freshman on all three second-quarter touchdowns by Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
Out of a three-tight end set on Smith-Marsette’s jet-sweep run to the left, LaPorta connected with free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao on the edge, allowing his teammate to jog into the end zone for a 6-yard TD and a 14-7 Iowa lead.
On Smith-Marsette’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to break a 14-14 tie, LaPorta bumped Eli’jah Winston off his path, then sealed him off with his backside — much like getting rebounding position in basketball. That allowed Smith-Marsette a lane to skip through, and the speedster was off to the races.
And now the best for last. On Smith-Marsette’s 12-yard bubble screen, LaPorta decisively sprinted left at the snap to clear out nickel back Greg Johnson with a forceful block. That precision is critical on a timing play. And, once again, Iowa’s speedy junior did the rest for a 28-14 lead.
As for the catches? We should highlight LaPorta’s 13-yard snag on third-and-11, in a 28-24 game in the third quarter. Just like he showed his knowledge of time, down and distance in the late moments at Nebraska, LaPorta smartly ran his route just beyond the first-down marker and leaped to catch a throw Stanley had to hurry — and hauled it in while getting walloped from behind by Talanoa Hufanga.
On the replay, you can see LaPorta watching the ball into his two outstretched hands. Then, as he’s being taken down, he secures the ball tightly in his left arm while looking to the sideline to make sure he’s got first-down yardage. The only thing missing from him mimicking Hockenson on that play was a signal downfield for a first down.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley led the Hawkeyes to records of 8-5, 9-4 and now 10-3 as a starter. Hawk Central
Brian Ferentz leaned on the future of Iowa’s offense — '11' personnel — with repeated success.
I counted eight personnel groupings used by Ferentz, if you distinguish fullback Brady Ross vs. an extra traditional running back. But no group provided more Iowa firepower in this one than the "11" personnel — meaning one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers.
The quintet was almost always Goodson at running back, LaPorta at tight end and Smith, Smith-Marsette and Ragaini at receiver. Having five legitimate receiving threats stresses a defense.
Stanley completed seven of eight passes for 104 yards when throwing out of "11" in the dominating first half, hitting all five guys at least once. The only incompletion in that stat line was a Ragaini drop, but also included gains of 30 and 24 yards to Ragaini — a freshman slot receiver who probably gets overlooked with other speedsters on the field. For the game, Stanley was 10-for-13 out of "11" for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
The beauty of "11" is the flexibility it provides the quarterback. On a third-and-9 on Iowa's second drive, the three wide receivers lined up on the right, and Sargent (in for Goodson in this case) took a handoff and ran left for 19 yards. That's the whole concept of the Brian Ferentz offense, finding the weak spot in a defense and exploiting it. But to make it work requires five possible play-makers, and Iowa seems to have found plenty of them heading into 2020.
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa has 2.5 sacks in what might be his final game as a Hawkeye. Hawk Central
The Hawkeyes will end up with a top-five defense, thanks to more creativity.
Phil Parker’s knack for timely blitzes this season helped turn the tide in several close games — against Iowa State’s Brock Purdy; a surprise double-safety blitz that tilted the Illinois game just before halftime; and, fittingly, in the 2019 finale.
As a byproduct, the Hawkeyes’ posted their lowest points-against average – 14.0 – in Parker’s eight years as defensive coordinator and second-best of the Kirk Ferentz era (only 2008, with 13.0 was better). The average is nearly certain to finish No. 5 in FBS this season.
Two plays after USC starting quarterback Kedon Slovis was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury, Parker greeted replacement Matt Fink’s first pass attempt with a six-man rush on third-and-9. With the score 28-24 Iowa and USC at the Hawkeyes’ 42-yard line after recovering an onside kick, the defense needed to get off the field.
The beauty of this blitz was the disguise. Iowa showed a base 4-2-5 set, with Nick Niemann, Kristian Welch and Dane Belton lined up in the middle. It wasn’t until after the snap that Niemann (up the middle) and Belton (from the right edge) sprinted toward the backfield. Neither was accounted for, as Iowa’s four down linemen kept the front six busy and USC running back Vavae Malepeai failed to block anybody. Niemann (who was Iowa’s highest-graded defender, according to Pro Football Focus) got credit for the sack, but Belton was right there to keep Fink inside.
An 8-yard sack forced a punt, and the Iowa offense flexed its muscles again with a 90-yard touchdown drive that consumed 14 plays and 7:19 of game clock.
Upon final review: A few more things I liked in this game.
Geno Stone fair-catching a punt for 27 yards that turned into a short-field TD. Iowa’s transition to two punt returners at times helps avoid the mishaps — or bouncing yardage — that happens on short punts. Good job by special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods (who must be saving up his fake kicks for 2020; Iowa didn’t go through with one this season).
Stone’s forearm-punch at the football as star USC wideout Michael Pittman lunged for extra yardage in the third quarter. Rather than going for the highlight hit, Stone went for the ball, knowing Pittman was going to the ground either way. A savvy play by the safety, and Michael Ojemudia recovered.
Kristian Welch’s hard-hitting, relentless motor. His fundamentally sound stuff of Malepeai to force a third-and-1 was critical in the confusion that resulted in the high snap on the next play. Fittingly, Welch recovered at USC’s 6-yard line to set up Iowa’s sixth touchdown.
And, lastly, Stanley’s senior savvy on the last of his 68 career touchdown passes. Scrambling on third-and-goal from the 6, part of his body did cross the 6-yard line. But, Stanley (Iowa's highest-rated player in the game, according to PFF) showed awareness of the rules about illegal forward passes — that it’s only a flag if the player’s “entire body is beyond the neutral zone when he releases the ball” — and angled backwards just slightly and finding Brandon Smith for a 42-24 lead with 12:52 left.
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.