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Leistikow's DVR Monday: Two key adjustments that helped Iowa rally past Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa ran 39 plays to Nebraska’s 19 in the final 27 minutes, 5 seconds of Friday’s 26-20 win against the Cornhuskers.

It was during that finishing stretch that the 24th-ranked Hawkeyes scored 13 points and the Huskers none.

The 20-13 deficit was the largest deficit for Iowa since trailing Purdue, 7-0, in the season opener. Iowa lost that game. It won this one, thanks to in-game improvements in the running game and on defense. Let’s examine how it happened.

Running back Tyler Goodson didn't have a lot of room to run Friday against Nebraska, but finished with 30 carries for 111 yards.

How was Iowa able to shake early run-game struggles?

The Hawkeyes gained just eight yards on their first nine called running plays (0.9 yards per carry); they picked up 122 rushing yards on 28 called runs the rest of the way (4.4 per pop).

Iowa struggled early for two reasons. One, Nebraska showed some early 4-3 looks on defense — meaning four down linemen — as opposed to its typical 3-4 alignment, an unexpected curveball from Huskers defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. Two, Iowa’s blocking wasn’t up to snuff in the early going. Left guard Cody Ince had a rough day and lost snaps to Kyler Schott later. Even potential all-American center Tyler Linderbaum got overpowered once, with 340-pound Damion Daniels stuffing Tyler Goodson for an early 1-yard loss.

Three things changed to allow Goodson, who had zero yards on his first seven attempts, to finish with 111 yards on 30 carries.

No. 1: Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz largely turned his focus to up-the-middle runs. Hitting the hole hard, with Goodson and Mekhi Sargent, worked better than the outside-zone stretch plays. Goodson’s longest-gainer, of 13 yards, was a straight-ahead run with Nebraska back in a 3-4 defense. For the game, Iowa called 22 up-the-middle runs and gained 98 yards; 13 called outside runs netted 32 yards.

No. 2: Down 20-13, Ferentz made a good adjustment on Iowa’s first two drives of the second half, using no-tight end formations to run the football. The Hawkeyes’ first play of the third quarter was out of an I-formation with three wide receivers, and Goodson charged ahead for seven yards against a spread-out Nebraska defense. Iowa ran Goodson later in the drive for six yards out of the same look, then for six again from a four-wide receiver, shotgun set. In total over two drives, which netted 10 points, Iowa rushed six times without a tight end for 34 important yards.

No. 3: That change allowed Iowa to come back to its bread-and-butter plays in the fourth quarter. Plus, the blocking was better. In the final 27:05, Iowa called 23 runs (not counting kneel-downs) for a healthy 94 yards. It wasn’t great, but it was a clock-churning, steadying departure from the Northwestern game — when Ferentz was too quick to abandon the running game in the second half.

Jack Campbell (31) made eight tackles against Nebraska and was a disruptive force off the bench at middle linebacker.

Jack Campbell looks like a star in the making at middle linebacker.

Nebraska gained 262 yards in the game’s first 32:55 at a clip of 5.95 per play, then just 76 yards (4.0 per play) in that final 27:05.

While defensive coordinator Phil Parker tinkered with different looks (including breaking from his 4-2-5 base to go with a 4-3, involving Barrington Wade for 16 snaps at outside linebacker), the best thing he did down the stretch was turn Campbell loose.

Campbell was in his third game of rotating with Seth Benson at middle linebacker after missing three due to mononucleosis. Campbell looked like the preseason first-stringer and made the most of his 35 snaps, continuously halting Nebraska’s momentum.

After Nebraska had raced to Iowa’s 19-yard line following a big reverse run by Alante Brown in the second quarter, Campbell seemed to know exactly what was coming next. He saw Wan’Dale Robinson’s pre-snap motion and began cheating toward the line of scrimmage — then darted between a wall of linemen to crunch Rahmir Johnson for a 4-yard loss on a zone-read handoff. Three plays later, Nebraska settled for a field goal.

Down 26-20 midway through the fourth quarter, Nebraska coach Scott Frost briefly turned to Luke McCaffrey in seek of a spark. McCaffrey (who earlier uncorked a 21-yarder on a called run) on his first snap ran right and looked to have room until Campbell in his 6-foot-5, 243-pound frame made a bee-line toward the sideline and slammed into McCaffrey to hold him to a 5-yard gain.

On that same drive, Campbell’s delayed pressure on Adrian Martinez on second-and-10 forced a hurried incompletion. On the very next play, Campbell zipped into the Huskers’ backfield on a called blitz, flushing Martinez for no gain to force Nebraska's last punt. It was veteran timing and elite speed from a true sophomore who hasn’t started a game yet this fall. The latter part of that statement will change.

Nebraska outgained Iowa, 338 yards to 322, but the Hawkeyes dominated in “hidden yardage.”

Here are some key examples.

The Cornhuskers’ pooch kickoffs backfired. They netted an average of 33.6 yards on five kickoffs (meaning an average starting spot of the 31.4-yard line), compared to the 41.1 yards on Caleb Shudak’s seven kickoffs (including five touchbacks for an average start at the 23.9).

Nebraska’s five punts netted 29.2 yards. Iowa’s two punts netted an average 39.0 and indirectly led to 10 points — including a field goal off the fourth-quarter fumble recovery by special-teamer Terry Roberts. (Keep reading to uncover the other seven.)

The end result? Nebraska’s average starting field position on 11 drives was its own 27.2-yard line; Iowa’s was its own 37.8 on 12 possessions. That’s a 10.6-yard advantage in field position for Iowa each time it touched the football.

Consider this example: Iowa started its second possession at its own 44-yard line. Good spot, right? After gaining 19 yards, the Hawkeyes punted … and Tory Taylor’s bouncing boot was downed by Ivory Kelly-Martin at Nebraska’s 2-yard line. The Huskers then gained 33 yards (and one first down) before punting. Had Taylor’s punt gone into the end zone instead? Nebraska would’ve been punting from Iowa’s 47-yard line instead of its own 35. And then Charlie Jones wouldn’t have had much of an opportunity to return Will Przystup’s 42-yard punt.

Jones ran it back 31 yards, putting Iowa at Nebraska’s 46-yard line — a 10-yard gain from where Iowa started its previous possession. The Hawkeyes followed with a six-play, 46-yard touchdown drive to take a 10-0 lead.

A few quick observations on Jones’ big return.

One, excellent blocking by Riley Moss to take Nebraska “gunner” Dicaprio Bootie completely out of the play and into the Huskers’ sideline. Two, great job by fullback Monte Pottebaum to carry Isaac Gifford’s momentum toward Jones and past Jones without feeling the need to shove the Husker safety in the back; too often you see a needless penalty in that situation. Jones made Gifford miss, launching the big return. And three, amazing hustle and smarts from Roberts. He was the lone punt rusher as Iowa set up a return, but he raced back to run key interference. Unable to get there in time for a legal block, Roberts sacrificed his 177-pound body by raising his hands in the air while cutting in front of Przystup, forcing the 250-pound punter to tackle him instead of the ball carrier, allowing Jones to motor ahead for 10 extra yards.

Also in the hidden-yardage category, Iowa committed a season-low 20 yards’ worth of penalties. That's quite the contrast from the opening loss, when Purdue had 21 penalty yards to the Hawkeyes’ 100. Nebraska had four flags for 40 yards, and two unforced 15-yarders (including a pass-interference gift in the second quarter) led directly to Iowa field goals.

Total offense didn’t tell the total story Friday.

Some finishing observations …

While Petras had another uneven day, he didn’t get much help from his receivers. It’s true, Shaun Beyer’s one-handed snag for 22 yards on Iowa’s second play of 75 was a phenomenal effort. But Pro Football Focus dinged Iowa receivers with five dropped passes. While maybe only two were blatant drops (both by Brandon Smith in the fourth quarter), the five passes totaled (by my estimate) 64 yards in potential lost offense.

A first-quarter ball was behind Tyrone Tracy Jr., but he needs to come up with that one in traffic. Nico Ragaini probably catches a 22-yard touchdown from Petras 70% of the time with that diving effort Friday in the corner of the end zone, but he missed it this time. Another 22-yarder would’ve been a tough play for Ragaini, but he got his hands on the ball on the dive and could've made the catch.

The criticism of Petras wouldn’t be as heavy if we count four should-have-been catches for 42 yards — making his final numbers 22-of-30 for 235 yards instead of 18-of-30 for 193.

Frost got upset over nothing on Keith Duncan’s 48-yard field goal to start the fourth quarter. The Nebraska coach was caught on mic yelling at head linesman Michael Maisner, seeming to allege that an Iowa lineman committed a false start. Frost shouted, “Did he move or did he not move? Tell me, did he move?” Three Fox replays showed no indications that any Hawkeye lineman moved a finger.

Frost was likely responding to Nebraska’s Marquel Dismuke pointing presnap toward the area where Jack Plumb and Alaric Jackson were blocking. The kick was a big one, breaking a 20-20 tie. Duncan on Monday was named co-Big Ten special teams player of the week.

Underrated MVPs on the rewatch? Great hustle by Benson on Roberts’ punt-muff fumble recovery; the linebacker streaked downfield and alertly saw Cam Taylor-Britt touch the football, then dove to keep Taylor-Britt from recovering himself. Benson’s effort actually blocked three converging Huskers from having a shot the ball, and Roberts had a clean patch of green turf around him to wrap up the key turnover. … Matt Hankins (6-0, 180) continues to be an impressive, willing tackler in addition to being the Hawkeyes' top cover corner. Hankins' nine tackles only trailed Nick Niemann's 12 on Friday. ... After a tough week at Penn State, left tackle Jackson was PFF's highest-graded Iowa offensive player by a wide margin. Jackson was particularly stellar in pass protection. 

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.