Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa's revival of 'Tight End U.' and 'Wildcat' runs pay off at Illinois

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The 2020 Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday did something only the most special Kirk Ferentz-era teams have done: Win five straight Big Ten Conference games in a season.

They joined the teams of 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2015 by beating Illinois, 35-21, at Memorial Stadium.

They're continuing to improve, and they're certainly finding their identity: Ball control, tough defense, excellent special teams and ... quality tight end play. This week's DVR Monday starts there.

Iowa tight end Shaun Beyer celebrates his 16-yard TD reception from Spencer Petras early in the fourth quarter that gave the Hawkeyes a 28-14 lead.

Pro Football Focus’ two highest-graded Hawkeyes on offense Saturday play the same position.

Tight End U. was revived, as Sam LaPorta and Shaun Beyer each scored their first career touchdowns.

During the middle of the second quarter, Iowa’s offensive surge was centered around a commitment to double-tight end packages — whether it was under-center runs, play-action passes or empty-backfield shotgun throws. That was a luxury for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz two years ago in a 63-0 shellacking at Illinois (in which Noah Fant played the first 25 snaps of the game, most of them alongside T.J. Hockenson), and he went back to the well Saturday.

A 21-yard connection to Beyer late in the second quarter underscored the value of two-tight end personnel groups. On a second-and-13 (after an Alaric Jackson holding call) with about 40 seconds left in the first half, Spencer Petras was in shotgun with Tyler Goodson in the backfield. But with Beyer and LaPorta on the field, Illinois stuck with its 4-3 base defense. Iowa split LaPorta wide to the right, with Beyer in a three-point stance on the right side of the Hawkeyes’ line. Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler cheated inside from the left … certainly with one eye on the run, thinking Iowa might try to claw closer for a half-ending field goal.

But it was a pass. Beyer looped between Eifler (who slid left to account for a possible underneath throw to LaPorta, a common Iowa call) and linebacker Jake Hansen. Beyer’s precise route and Petras' well-timed throw found a soft spot in the Illinois zone to give Iowa a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line.

Iowa’s longest gain by a running back also came with two tight ends on the field. With Beyer (in-line) and LaPorta (set back, to Beyer's right) in the third quarter, Iowa called a counter-left run to Mekhi Sargent. LaPorta was the key to this misdirection gain of 20 yards, as he crossed behind the line of scrimmage to first screen defensive end Seth Coleman, then cleaned out strong safety Sydney Brown with a textbook block to spring Sargent loose up the left sideline.

For the day, LaPorta (70.9 grade on 55 snaps) and Beyer (70.0 on 44) had a better PFF run-blocking grade than any Iowa offensive lineman as the Hawkeyes rushed for 204 yards.

In 2018, Hockenson and Fant combined for five catches for 102 yards and three touchdowns at Illinois. In 2020, LaPorta and Beyer teamed for six catches, 94 yards, two TDs. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Iowa ran seven “Wildcat” plays that gained 75 yards. Here’s the progression and why they worked.

Let’s speed through all seven — two in the first half, five on the game-sealing drive in the fourth quarter.

Goodson 10-yard run on third-and-2. With Ihmir Smith-Marsette on his left and Sargent on his right, there was no mystery in Goodson’s decision. Straight-ahead, speed running. First down.

Goodson 4-yard run on third-and-2. The formation flipped from the first time, Smith-Marsette was again a decoy as Goodson rang up the middle.

Ivory Kelly-Martin 2-yard run on second-and-5. A three-running back formation saw Goodson hand off to Kelly-Martin sweeping left. Keep that in mind later.

Sargent no gain on first-and-10. With Smith-Marsette in the left slot, this handoff right was stacked up. But it set up what happened next …

Smith-Marsette 31 yard-run on second-and-10. Smith-Marsette took one sharp cut to his left. Kelly-Martin took a sweep handoff left (sound familiar?). All 11 Illinois defenders flowed right. Kelly-Martin flipped the ball to Smith-Marsette, who had reversed direction. Goodson blocked back-side defensive end Owen Carney Jr. to let the speedy wide receiver scoot around the right end and up the sideline.

Goodson 7-yard run on first-and-10. Now with Tyrone Tracy Jr. in the backfield to his left, Goodson faked a give right to Tracy and sped straight ahead to chew more clock. That set up …

Tracy 21-yard run on second-and-3. The formation flipped, this time Goodson handed to the speedy Tracy, who can thank Kelly-Martin for a nice seal block on the left edge.

What you’re seeing is a gradual progression of the Wildcat. Defenses might think they know what’s coming, and Iowa is trying to stay one step ahead. Goodson is being given more leeway in that role as quarterback. Could his first throw be next?

“Yeah, I can,” Goodson said afterward. “We’ll see later down the road what happens, if they allow me to throw the ball. That’s their decision.”

More thoughts on Petras’ best start as a Hawkeye.

For as bad as Iowa’s offense was early, one of the best things Petras did was stay patient and not make bad situations worse. An early out pattern to Goodson that I originally thought was a poor underthrow was actually an intentionally low throwaway — defensive back Devon Witherspoon had the quick read sniffed out and was ready to pounce for an opportunistic pick-six on third-and-3.

Petras did a good job protecting the football, too, when the pocket collapsed. On a third-and-13 dropback from his own 5-yard line, the play-by-play reads “Petras rush for 1-yard gain” but he actually got swarmed in the end zone and did a good job not only avoiding the safety but driving his legs forward to create more room to punt. Later in the second quarter on a 3-yard sack, Petras’ right arm was grabbed by Carney as he went to throw. But Petras quickly moved his left hand to protect the football and took his sack medicine at his own 42. A turnover there, down 14-0, might’ve been the end of Iowa’s day.

Instead, Tory Taylor’s 45-yard punt and a defensive stop flipped field position. Classic Iowa complementary football began to take over from there. And so did Petras.

On Petras' first 10 dropbacks, Iowa netted just 31 yards in offense.

On his next eight — which helped bring Iowa back to within 14-13 — he was 7-for-8 for 108 yards.

Petras was decisive, and his first reads were usually there. By the naked eye, it looked like Petras went to his second read four different times — and was 4-for-4 on those throws (including to Goodson on a two-point conversion that made it 21-14 instead of 19-14). He was best over the middle, going 9-for-11 for 141 yards, but still hasn't hit a home-run ball this season.

Petras’ most important stat: No turnovers, against an Illinois defense that had forced eight in its previous two games. He gave Iowa the time and confidence to stay the course and rally.

What changed with Iowa’s defense?

The Hawkeyes uncharacteristically gave up 14 early points. All just part of the drama in setting up Iowa’s first comeback win from a 14-point deficit since rallying past Michigan in 2013, eh?

Two reasons why the Illini jumped out fast:

No. 1: There is a significant drop-off with Iowa’s backup defensive tackles. Ilinois took advantage. Once the tandem of Noah Shannon and Austin Schulte entered the game, the Illini gashed Iowa up the middle in the run game for easy pickups of 7, 8 and 7 yards. It’s always a problem if Iowa can’t stop the run.

No. 2: Illinois just made some darn good individual plays. Brandon Peters’ first touchdown throw to tight end Daniel Barker was perfectly placed — back-shoulder, between two Hawkeyes — to beat a third-down blitz call. On the second touchdown drive, Riley Moss couldn’t have had much better coverage on Josh Imatorbhebhe — but he made difficult back-to-back snags of 25 and 12 yards to score seven points.

After Iowa fell behind 14-0, we didn’t see any tackles except Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin again until the fourth quarter. And then defensive ends became Iowa’s most important run-stuffers:

  • Zach VanValkenburg beat 320-pound left tackle Vederian Lowe to tackle Reggie Love III for a 7-yard loss on Illinois’ fourth drive, early in the second quarter. That led to a punt, which turned into seven Iowa points.
  • On Illinois’ fifth drive, Chauncey Golston blew up a run play and right tackle Julian Pearl had no choice but to commit a holding penalty. The first-and-20 hole led to another punt, and Iowa turned that into three points.
  • On Illinois' sixth drive, Joe Evans and Golston crunched Chase Brown’s run for no gain on second-and-4 … a key stuff that forced a passing situation, then punt … allowing Iowa enough time to get three more points before halftime.

With the run contained, Peters became one-dimensional … or, you could say, no-dimensional. Peters went 2-for-10 for 15 yards after his 8-for-8 start and was removed in the fourth quarter. Fittingly, Peters’ final play was a meet-at-the-QB sack by a combination of Golston, Evans and Nixon (on third-and-7) for an 8-yard loss with the score 21-14.

Illinois punted and … two plays later, Iowa had a 28-14 lead and the game in control.

Underrated MVPs on the rewatch?

Strong safety Kaevon Merriweather quietly delivered a big play in the fourth quarter. A third-and-6 toss to the end zone to Donny Navarro looked like a sure touchdown — but Merriweather chopped the ball away for an incomplete pass. A catch there, and it’s a 28-21 ballgame with 7:36 left. For the day, Merriweather had the second-best PFF grade on Iowa’s defense (behind only Golston). … Special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods’ smart move to put two punt returners back against Illinois directional punter Blake Hayes paid off. Ragaini caught one low line drive early in the third quarter to keep Hayes’ net to just 34 yards; Charlie Jones had a few nifty runbacks in the fourth quarter (the last one setting up a two-play, 32-yard scoring drive).

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.