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Leistikow's DVR Monday: Appreciation for Brandon Smith's run blocking, evaluating Spencer Petras

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa was able to thaw out and enjoy a relaxing Saturday off after routing Minnesota, 35-7, the previous night at TCF Bank Stadium.

Reflecting on the win, it was an extremely dominant TEAM performance. From selfless blockers to a suffocating defensive scheme, the Hawkeyes could be happy about how they improved to 2-2.

Of course, there is one glaring area that needs to get better — quarterback play. We will get to that, too, in this week's DVR Monday column.

Brandon Smith was not targeted with a pass Friday, but he still had a fabulous game.

Would you believe that the senior wide receiver had the No. 1 run-blocking grade (according to Pro Football Focus) of any Hawkeye player? Yes, he was even better than the offensive line's top-graded blocker, left tackle Alaric Jackson.

To be a downfield blocker isn’t why any wide receiver signs up to play college football, but Smith (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has proven week in and week out to be a willing and effective blocker. Let’s examine a few run plays that jumped out …

Brandon Smith's downfield blocking here against Minnesota's Coney Durr helped spur Tyler Goodson's 45-yard run early in the fourth quarter.

Tyler Goodson’s 16-yard run, mid-first quarter: Smith locked up defensive back Phillip Howard as Goodson rolled around left end on the first play of Iowa’s first touchdown drive.

Goodson’s 14-yard run, second play of second quarter: Lather, rinse, repeat. This was a carbon copy of the 16-yarder, with Smith completely dominating Howard.

Goodson’s 45-yard burst, first play of the fourth quarter: How do you bust a big play? First-level blocking is the start, but second-level blocking is key. And in this instance, Smith found himself on senior Coney Durr. Smith was lined up on the left and the run started to the right, but he continued to give full effort and drove Durr out of the play as Goodson returned to the middle of the field. Smith was still blocking hard, 50 yards from the original line of scrimmage.

Smith deserves a lot of credit for Goodson's career-high 142 rushing yards on 20 carries.

He was also instrumental to Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 8-yard touchdown catch. Lined up outside to the right, Smith's well-timed route to the end zone strategically screened two Minnesota defenders and allowed Smith-Marsette to be uncovered on an out route. The easy pitch-and-catch touchdown gave Iowa a 20-0 lead.

Smith’s numbers are less than we expected through four games this year (nine catches, 88 yards), but he’s the epitome of a team-first player. It’s no wonder he was on the field for more offensive snaps (44 of Iowa’s 53) than any skill-position player except for quarterback Spencer Petras.

By my count, 15 of Petras’ 18 pass attempts went to the first read in his progression and only three traveled more than 15 yards downfield.

Those were two popular criticisms/review requests regarding Iowa’s quarterback play, that the sophomore too often locks into his targets and telegraphs his passes and isn’t able to threaten defenses with deep balls.

Three thoughts on Petras’ performance and how he can improve going forward ...

No. 1: Petras is not seeing open secondary receivers. That was especially evident on his lone interception, when he locked into Smith-Marsette and gunned a ball to the left that was picked off by James Gordon. Had he checked down, Petras would’ve seen tight end Sam LaPorta over the middle for an easy 5- to 7-yard gain.

To Petras’ credit, he isn’t giving up sacks. A calmer pocket presence should come in time. He was 8-for-15 for 99 yards when going with his first read; 1-for-3 for 12 yards on checkdowns.

No. 2: Fox analyst Brady Quinn said early in the broadcast that on film he noticed Petras struggling with throws to his left. That was an astute observation and played out; Petras’ lone completion to his left was an 8-yard screen to Tyrone Tracy Jr. He underthrew a deep ball to Smith-Marsette up the left side early in the second half. “Spencer Petras has to get this ball up sooner,” Quinn remarked. “Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a speedster. And he had a step. That ball’s got to be out.”

No. 3: Petras did what he was asked to do in the fourth quarter. And that’s something to build on. He was 3-for-3 for 54 yards with a touchdown as Iowa scored 21 fourth-quarter points. Keep in mind, Iowa only ran 15 plays in the second half (one was a kneel-down by Alex Padilla) to Minnesota’s 43.

Petras is getting great pass protection and needs to continue to trust it. Meantime, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has learned from his mistake of having Petras throw it 89 times in Iowa’s opening two losses; Petras has combined for just 45 attempts during its two-game win streak.

Behold the essence of Phil Parker’s defense, in one third-down stop.

With Iowa ahead, 14-0, midway through the second quarter, Minnesota’s high-powered offense was desperate to get things going. Two plays for eight yards set up a third-and-2, and outstanding team defense got the Hawkeyes off the field while also showing how they consistently made sure star receiver Rashod Bateman was accounted for.

Let’s set the stage. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan was in shotgun with a four-wide receiver set, and Iowa had just five defenders in the box (defensive linemen Chauncey Golston, Noah Shannon, Austin Schulte and Zach VanValkenburg, plus middle linebacker Jack Campbell).

As linebacker Nick Niemann explained earlier in the week, knowing what play call was coming (based on film study) was going to be key against Minnesota. And it sure looked like Iowa knew exactly what was called — a quick pass with two options to Morgan’s left.

The “X” receiver, Daniel Jackson, looked to be the primary read on a slant route. Cornerback Riley Moss carefully avoided what looked like a pick from Bateman (who lined up in the slot) and beat Jackson to the spot where Morgan wanted to throw the football, and free safety Jack Koerner crept up to essentially double-cover that first read. Bateman, meanwhile, became a secondary option on a quick out, but Matt Hankins was with him all the way.

Morgan had no good remaining options. A bull rush from Schulte backed left guard Axel Ruschmeyer into Morgan’s pocket, and Campbell zoomed into the backfield, too, to keep Morgan from scrambling ahead for the first down — as he had done earlier on third-and-10. That pushed Morgan to the left, where VanValkenburg gobbled him up for a 2-yard sack to force a punt with 6½ minutes left in the second quarter. That stop largely sealed a first-half shutout, rather than allowing the Gophers to generate momentum. And it showed just how well an 11-man unit can work together to play air-tight defense.

It was another great game from Iowa's defense, led by Chauncey Golston (57) and Zach VanValkenburg, right, against Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan. The Hawkeyes' first-stringers pitched a shutout.

Just how good was VanValkenburg?

The transfer from Division II Hillsdale College in Michigan has certainly been a nice story. On Monday, he was named Big Ten Conference defensive player of the week after recording three sacks against Minnesota … and he actually deserves credit on the Hawkeyes’ fourth sack, too, which officially went to Daviyon Nixon. VanValkenburg’s pressure on the first drive of the third quarter flushed Morgan to his left, and the quarterback could only trip while trying to escape. Nixon was the closest Hawkeye to Morgan as he tumbled to the cold turf.

For the day, maybe VanValkenburg’s most impressive feat was being an iron man of sorts. He played the most snaps (59) of any Iowa defensive lineman, in part because rotational end John Waggoner did not make the trip due to an illness.

VanValkenburg’s three credited sacks showed his versatility. The aforementioned first was a clean-up, effort sack. The second was a duck-under rush, beating left tackle Sam Schlueter to swallow Morgan for a 4-yard loss. The last was out of a stand-up position, in which he stunted up the middle (curling behind Austin Schulte) and showing excellent closing speed to nab Morgan for a 9-yard loss to force a third-and-19.

Some finishing observations …

For the second straight week, Iowa’s second-stringers got valuable playing time. Who looked good? Iowa scored three of its touchdowns with redshirt freshman Justin Britt at right guard. Britt (19 snaps) had a wonderful block on Mekhi Sargent’s 36-yard run.

Defensively, we got to see 15 plays of the second unit. Though it produced Minnesota’s lone scoring drive, it was against first-teamers. True freshman Jay Higgins looked comfortable at middle linebacker. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Logan Lee (6-5, 267) showed a nice motor and will continue to grow in size.

Iowa went mostly old-school, under-center with its running game. A lot of outside-zone runs, a classic staple of Kirk Ferentz’s teams, and very little running out of shotguns. It worked, to the tune of 235 rushing yards. I charted six times that Iowa used jet-sweep motion in the run game, and those plays netted six yards (including Nico Ragaini’s 1-yard touchdown run).

Underrated MVPs on the rewatch? Shaun Beyer had the highest grade of any Hawkeye player from Pro Football Focus, a testament to the run-blocking prowess he showed on the edge. It was nice to see the No. 2 tight end get that late 28-yard catch. … Niemann continues to be in the right place at the right time at linebacker; he deserves a lot of credit for clogging running lanes and limiting Ibrahim to a lot of runs of 3 yards or less. … True freshman Reggie Bracy is making an impact on special teams. He knifed downfield to make a nice stop on the second half’s opening kickoff, and Iowa forced a fast three-and-out.

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.