Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa schemes blocking advantages in rout of Michigan State
After two weeks of dissecting "what went wrong?" in Iowa losses to Purdue and Northwestern, this week's DVR Monday gets a chance to focus on "what went right."
The Hawkeyes' 49-7 dismantling of Michigan State deserves one section of analysis for the offense, defense and special teams.
Let's get to the tape.
Iowa’s longest play of the year, a 71-yard burst from Tyler Goodson, shows the value of spacing in the run game.
The Hawkeyes’ first play of the third quarter put Spencer Petras in a shotgun formation, with Goodson to his left. Tight end Sam LaPorta was lined up as a fullback, and Michigan State had seven players in the so-called defensive box (thus leaving four defensive backs to cover Iowa’s three receivers).
Some pre-snap motion by receiver Nico Ragaini, from the left, got the attention of all three Spartans’ linebackers and their eyes went left, too, as the ball was snapped. The jet-sweep action sold two of the linebackers for just a step, meaning Iowa now had a six-on-five blocking advantage in the box because of Goodson’s fast burst up the middle on the handoff.
You’ll take a six-on-six blocking situation, but six-on-five? No wonder Goodson was able to scoot free. Left tackle Alaric Jackson took care of the remaining linebacker, while LaPorta swung through the hole to collect defensive end Drew Beesley. Goodson was untouched until skipping through a tackle attempt by safety Tre Person and was finally caught from behind at the Michigan State 4-yard line.
The low percentage of shotgun runs was a major shortfall in last week’s 21-20 loss to Northwestern. Iowa only tried eight of them (for 47 yards) while calling a pass 41 times out of shotgun.
In this game, the lack of two-minute-drill drives cut down Petras’ shotgun passes but the shotgun runs remained a fixture.
The breakdown of Iowa’s called runs?
In shotgun, 10 rushes for 109 yards (10.9 average), one touchdown: That included Goodson’s long one, of course, but one of my favorite plays of the game was an 11-yard run for Mekhi Sargent on second-and-10.
Goodson lined up on the right of Petras, then went into motion to the left slot, leaving Sargent to Petras' left. Michigan State rotated its safety (Person) to mirror Goodson and safety Xavier Henderson shifted to his right. That left a five-on-six blocking situation in the box. Someone in the Michigan State camp could be heard yelling, "Watch the screen!" Sargent quickly plowed through a hole paved by Tyler Linderbaum (Iowa’s highest-graded player for the day) for a first down, with Goodson as the primary decoy.
Under center, 29 rushes for 112 yards (3.9 average), three touchdowns: Take away two runs to Charlie Jones for 38 yards on a jet sweep and reverse, and the per-carry average dips to 2.7. Iowa has been a far better running team under shotgun through three games, but that doesn't diminish the clock-churning value of traditional runs.
For example, the path to Goodson’s 3-yard touchdown run to finish Iowa’s impressive opening drive was a blocking thing of beauty. An outside-zone to the left saw Jackson relentlessly drive the defensive end (Beesley) all the way to the sideline. Left guard Cody Ince got an early chip on 310-pound defensive tackle Jacob Slade, who was quickly picked up by Linderbaum. That allowed Ince time to take linebacker Chase Kline onto the ground, while Linderbaum’s power block of Slade backed that Spartan into the path of linebacker Noah Harvey, a 2-for-1 cleanup. Goodson followed fullback Monte Pottebaum, who didn’t even have anyone to block, into the end zone. Textbook red-zone execution and a 7-0 lead.
Interceptions almost always begin up front.
Iowa finished plus-three in turnovers, thanks to defensive-line pressure and savvy sets of eyes on the back end. Here's what happened on the three interceptions thrown by Michigan State's Rocky Lombardi …
No. 1: Interception by Jack Koerner on Michigan State’s first possession. Iowa showed blitz on third-and-6 but backed off, with linebacker Seth Benson using his speed to take away screen-pass outlet man Connor Heyward. Chauncey Golston, lined up inside instead of at his usual defensive-end slot, knifed through for initial pressure. Joe Evans, rushing from the left side, was initially picked up but gathered steam as Lombardi scrambled left and closed quickly to force a rushed deep ball that Koerner deftly grabbed while keeping his feet in bounds.
No. 2: Interception by Barrington Wade midway through the second quarter. When screens are designed, blockers often allow a defensive lineman to rush the quarterback to take him out of the play. But when a defensive end shows the alertness and closing speed that Zach VanValkenburg did on this second-and-1 play, it affects the throw. The senior was let go by tight end Tyler Hunt, who escaped to the left flat. Wade, in a rare moment on the field as Iowa was in a 4-3 set, did a great job initiating contact on tight end Trenton Gillison in the backfield, then snatched Lombardi’s floating throw to Hunt at the Spartans’ 24.
No. 3: Riley Moss’ 54-yard interception-return touchdown. Lombardi, on second-and-10, was flushed from the pocket after a powerful bull rush from right end John Waggoner, who had left tackle A.J. Arcuri backing into his quarterback. Waggoner and Joe Evans were pursuing the escaping Lombardi, who slipped as he threw. And Moss was right there, grabbing the ball and speeding along the right sideline (helped by a nice block from Noah Shannon) for seven points and a 35-0 lead.
Punt-return touchdowns are tough to come by. When they hit, all 11 players deserve credit.
This section is devoted to Iowa’s third special-teams touchdown in its last five games, Jones’ 54-yard runback late in the second quarter that put the Hawkeyes ahead, 28-0. Jones did a great job accepting the line-drive punt from Bryce Baringer, darting to his right, then cutting left into a wide-open running lane that was blocked beautifully. About the other 10 guys?
The punt rush: Iowa sent five — Nick Anderson, Jestin Jacobs, Terry Roberts, Pottebaum and Mike Timm. The latter two crashed into the Spartans’ three-man wall in front of Baringer, which slowed their ability to cover. That was important because as ESPN announcer Dan Orlovsky pointed out, six Spartans were still 35 yards away from Jones when he caught the ball at his own 46-yard line.
The blocking: You can do the math. Iowa had five blockers vs. five Spartans in that 35-yard window. Moss and Kaevon Merriweather did their jobs to Jones’ right, absorbing three guys. Julius Brents, using his long arms and speed, took his man behind Jones. Sargent walled up his assignment in the middle of the field. One of the best pieces of work was from Kyler Fisher, who stuck with Michigan State receiver Xavier Henderson all the way up the field and forced him outside the boundary on Iowa’s sideline.
The finish: Those early blocks sprung Jones to the Michigan State 30, but there was more work to be done. Jacobs picked up the punter. Anderson did his job downfield. Pottebaum flattened offensive lineman Dan VanOpstall. And Jones’ footwork and speed did the rest.
Some finishing observations …
Iowa’s screen game is still working out the kinks. Three times, well-designed screen passes were open but missed. The timing seems to be off, and Petras' accuracy needs to be better. He threw high to Shaun Beyer, who lined up at fullback, on a play in the left flat on Iowa’s second drive. A high throw to Goodson also cost Iowa a 14-yard touchdown, as the running back had Linderbaum and Cole Banwart ready to pave the way to the end zone (though Iowa did score one play later). A third-quarter screen was dropped by Goodson on third-and-3 and forced an Iowa punt.
Where are the downfield shots? That was something multiple fans asked me to look into, and you guys were right. Iowa tried only three passes that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. One was a bad incompletion to Ragaini. The other two (in the fourth quarter, to Smith and Ragaini) drew defensive penalties for 25 yards. After going 0-for-2 on deep tries against Northwestern, this just doesn't appear to be a staple of this Hawkeye offense. Petras' longest completion of the year remains a 40-yarder to Goodson at Purdue on a catch-and-run wheel route.
Underrated MVPs on rewatch? Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s nickname is “sweet feet” and he showed them on a 24-yard catch-and-run late in the third quarter. He played a solid game with Ihmir Smith-Marsette (who should return this week against Minnesota) suspended. ... Moving Merriweather to safety has allowed Dane Belton to return to his cash position he learned last year as a true freshman, and he is playing very well. It’s rare to see him out of position, and he’s a willing and very able tackler (five on Saturday). … Credit to Iowa’s backup offensive line and quarterback Alex Padilla for chewing up the game’s final 6:11 with a 10-play, 36-yard drive that got inside Michigan State’s 10-yard line. It was a nice way to finish.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.