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Leistikow's DVR Monday: Run-game variety, selective-blitz success help Iowa dominate Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Even without the benefit of a few non-conference punching bags, Iowa is averaging 33.0 points a game during its 3-2 start the Big Ten-only 2020 football season. If that pace holds, it would be the Hawkeyes’ best scoring average since 2002.

That figure has been helped by two touchdowns on defense and one on special teams, but the offense is certainly doing some great work, considering it's had at least four rushing touchdowns in each of the last three games. Let’s start there with this DVR Monday review of Iowa’s 41-21 win Saturday at Penn State.

Mekhi Sargent had a terrific game of running behind the middle of his offensive line against Penn State.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz did a good job find what worked and, maybe more importantly, what didn’t in the running game.

As a result, the Hawkeyes controlled the line of scrimmage. Take away three sacks of Spencer Petras for 29 yards out of the final rushing numbers, and Iowa bullied Penn State for 204 yards on 43 called running plays — a per-carry clip of 4.74 yards.

What can be extracted from the Iowa run game Saturday …

Mekhi Sargent (15 carries, 101 yards, two touchdowns) did most of his damage behind center Tyler Linderbaum and guards Cody Ince and Cole Banwart. Sargent gained 84 yards on 10 carries up the middle of the field; he gained 15 yards on three carries to the left; two yards on two tries to the right.

After Penn State cut the lead to 31-13, Sargent got the call on three straight impressive displays of running and blocking: 12 yards up the middle to Linderbaum’s left; then a 17-yarder on a cutback behind Banwart to Linderbaum’s right; then another nine on a counter run, again up the middle.

Fourteen of Sargent’s 15 carries came out of under-center formations. His only shotgun carry was when Goodson handed him the ball out of a Wildcat formation, and it went for eight yards.

You could tell Penn State was geared up to stop the outside runs of Tyler Goodson (20 carries, 78 yards, one TD). Six of Goodson’s attempts lost a total of 15 yards. On one of his four runs to the right, a corner blitz gobbled him up for a 4-yard loss. It wasn’t all scheme, though. Missed blocks by Alaric Jackson and Mark Kallenberger blew up two other outside run attempts for minus 7 yards.

No matter, though, because Ferentz found ways to spring Goodson loose.

Goodson’s breakdown: 32 yards out of seven shotgun runs; 46 on 13 from under center. He gained 60 yards on nine attempts up the middle, as compared to 18 on 11 tries to the outside. Again, that points to the strength of Linderbaum’s domination. As usual, he was Iowa’s highest-graded blocker by Pro Football Focus.

PFF’s top-rated offensive Hawkeye? That’d be Sargent, who showed Saturday he can gain tough yardage in chunks — usually right up the middle.

It may have seemed like Phil Parker was blitzing more than usual. For most of the game, he wasn’t.

But it was the defensive coordinator's timing of blitzes that was impeccable and, frankly, turned the game’s momentum on multiple occasions.

After blitzing just twice on passing plays in the first half (both resulting in 11-yard completions), Parker upped the aggression in the second half. On Penn State’s first play after halftime, Iowa opened with a timed Dane Belton blitz from the cash position — something Amani Hooker first perfected in that role two seasons ago. Belton ducked through right tackle Caedan Wallace’s block attempt for the sack-fumble, which was recovered by Zach VanValkenburg. That led to a 12-play, 54-yard touchdown drive and a 31-7 Iowa lead.

Parker’s work wasn’t done, especially after back-to-back Penn State touchdowns then an Iowa punt. The Nittany Lions, down 31-21 early in the fourth quarter, had all the juice in a game they had been outplayed in by that point. But on a second-and-9, Parker dialed up his best call of the day.

Let’s break it down.

Iowa did not show blitz pre-snap, but as Sean Clifford got into his cadence … Belton and linebacker Seth Benson began their runs into the backfield. VanValkenburg, from the right end spot, backed off his pass rush and dropped into coverage to pick up the crossing tight end. Clifford tried a slant pass to Parker Washington, who was covered by linebacker Nick Niemann. But there was another Hawkeye in the throw's path: Daviyon Nixon.

The 305-pound defensive tackle who would later score a memorable touchdown had not gotten penetration and was reading Clifford’s eyes. Nixon stepped back into the passing lane to deflect the throw with his left hand. That popped the ball into Chauncey Golston’s alert and waiting arms with 9:42 remaining, and Iowa converted the interception into three important points.

Parker called nine blitzes in the second half, and here was the blow-by-blow scorecard: Sack-fumble (recovered by Iowa), sack-fumble (recovered by Penn State), incomplete pass, interception (by Golston), sack (for 7 yards, by Golston), sack (for 1 yard, by Nixon), 71-yard Nixon interception-return touchdown, 12-yard completion, incomplete pass.

Trust me, it’s not always that easy to produce on blitzes. They’re risky. But because Parker does it so rarely, when he does blitz … it can throw off opponents and create a big play. Saturday was a great example of that.

What a difference 3-4 games makes in the two-minute drill.

Or, in this case, a 53-second drill at the end of the first half, starting from Penn State’s 49 after the defense delivered a fourth-down stop.

Iowa’s inability to put together a hurry-up drive against Purdue and Northwestern proved costly. But Saturday, Hawkeye players and coaches showed great understanding of time and situation and executed. Each of the seven plays deserve mention.

Play 1: A shotgun run to Goodson, whose acceleration into the hole beat unblocked linebacker Jesse Luketa for an 8-yard gain. Iowa smartly used its first timeout there, with 45 seconds left.

Play 2: Ihmir Smith-Marsette caught a short middle pass, then used his speed to get outside to the right sideline. Heads-up move by the senior, who gained 18 yards and got out of bounds with 36 seconds left.

Play 3: A smart play call saw receiver Brandon Smith cross from the right, while slot receiver Nico Ragaini took Smith's original man deep. That opened up a screen to the right for Goodson, and Petras found him for 8 easy yards. Goodson stepped out of bounds at Penn State’s 15 with 31 seconds to go.

Play 4: A wide-receiver screen left to Ragaini, a heady player who made sure to get the first down (and 7 yards) before rolling out of bounds with 25 seconds left. Iowa still had two timeouts remaining.

Play 5: Great pass protection and great design (with Sam LaPorta offering a screen) allowed Petras to find Smith-Marsette crossing over the middle for 7 yards to Penn State’s 1; a perfect situation for Iowa to use its second timeout, and it did with 19 seconds left.

Play 6: Knowing it could run and knowing Penn State knew it could run, Iowa tried to go play-action to LaPorta for the touchdown. Unfortunately, he was well-covered and Petras threw it away with 14 seconds left.

Play 7: On third-and-goal from the 1, Iowa invited 10 Nittany Lions into the box with its heavy formation, but it didn’t matter. Every Hawkeye executed his block, particularly left tackle Jackson and fullback Monte Pottebaum to clear the way for Sargent's 1-yard TD with 11 seconds to spare.

That’s how you run a two-minute drill, in 42 seconds. And Iowa was in charge, 24-7, at halftime.

Some finishing observations …

Sometimes in sports, the breaks work themselves out. In a 10-7 game early in the second quarter, the Hawkeyes seemed to have forced a fumble by Will Levis that was ruled down by forward progress. BTN analyst Matt Millen was incorrect when he said, “that’s a good call; he still has control.” The replay behind the play clearly showed the football was loose and fell between Levis’ legs as he was crunched by VanValkenburg, Nixon and Jack Campbell. It looked like Iowa made the recovery, but that wasn’t 100% clear. But ... Iowa recovered a Penn State fumble two plays later, when VanValkenburg jumped on an errant pitch to Keyvone Lee. Credit Nick Niemann and Jack Koerner for cat-like hustle to keep Lee from retrieving the loose ball. Iowa’s offense turned the turnover into seven points.

The rotation between sophomores Benson and Campbell continues to work well. It’s a shame neither was available for the Purdue game. Each player was on the field for seven Penn State possessions. The Nittany Lions gained 231 yards on 43 plays when Benson was on the field and 111 yards on 30 plays when Campbell was out there. Benson reminds me of a young Josey Jewell, with a sideline-to-sideline knack for being involved in every play. Campbell is a new breed of Iowa linebacker, at 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds with impressive closing speed. The rotation helps each player stay fresh and hit hard when he’s out there. According to PFF, Benson's grade was second only to Nixon among Iowa's defensive players.

Underrated MVPs on the rewatch? On offense, I’ll give it to Petras (18-for-28, 186 yards). He made a lot of smart throwaways in the second half while holding the lead and connected on enough passes to keep Penn State honest. His 26-yard slingshot to Ragaini on second-and-20 might’ve been his best throw of the year. On review, I thought this was the sophomore’s best game. … On defense, here's a nod to backup defensive tackles Noah Shannon and Austin Schulte. They played 19 snaps and held their own; it’s important for them to keep contributing to keep Nixon and Jack Heflin fresh. And I’d have to say, Nixon certainly didn’t look tired on his TD runback — his 56th and final snap with 1:58 to play.

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.