Leistikow's DVR Monday: Nimble Hawkeyes had an answer for Wisconsin at every turn

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Twenty-seven months ago, Wisconsin drove down the field against Iowa’s 4-3 defense to steal a last-minute win at Kinnick Stadium. Defensive coaches, led by Phil Parker and Seth Wallace, decided then that the 4-2-5 needed to become part of the Hawkeyes’ regular DNA.

On Saturday, that program adjustment forced by the Badgers paid off against the Badgers in a 28-7 Iowa win.

Let’s start on defense for the regular-season’s final DVR Monday.

With Dane Belton as the key chess piece, Iowa’s defense was continually a step ahead of Paul Chryst’s offense.

When Iowa went to the 4-2-5 two years ago, it was because Amani Hooker could play the “cash” position effectively. Last year, Belton’s rise at the cash as a true freshman led coaches to feel good about the 4-2-5 in the latter half of the season.

But until Saturday, we hadn't seen as much constant in-game rotation from the 4-3 to the 4-2-5.

When Iowa went with the 4-2-5, Belton was at the cash and Kaevon Merriweather at strong safety.

When Iowa went with 4-3, Barrington Wade became the outside linebacker and Belton slid back to strong safety.

The Hawkeyes were able to match personnel quickly and effectively, and the breakdown of Wisconsin offense numbers was telling.

Iowa's defense (including Dane Belton, right) was constantly well-positioned to stifle the Badgers on Saturday.

Wisconsin against the 4-3: 38 plays, 128 yards (3.37 yards per play) — That included 25 run calls for 61 yards; take away one 18-yard jet sweep and the Hawkeyes’ 4-3 alignment held Wisconsin’s run calls to 1.79 yards per carry. 

Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz finished 8-for-13 for 69 yards against the 4-3, including his longest completion of the day for 21 yards.

Wisconsin against the 4-2-5: 31 plays, 96 yards (3.10 yards per play) — That included 26 pass calls and counted two sacks by the Hawkeyes for minus-19 yards. Mertz was a pedestrian 12-for-24 for 100 yards when Merriweather joined Belton on the field to give Iowa five defensive backs.

Interestingly, Wisconsin only tried five running plays (for 13 yards) against the 4-2-5. That tells you that Iowa recognized tendencies and matched personnel to near perfection.

Wisconsin against Iowa’s (jumbo) goal-line defense: 2 plays, 1 yard, 1 touchdown, 1 interception — The game-clinching defensive play, Jack Campbell’s end-zone theft capped the goal-line stand for a drive that started at Iowa's 5-yard line.

Remember, a year ago in Madison, Iowa tinkered with a 4-4-3 alignment that was ineffective in a 24-22 loss (as Wisconsin rushed for 300 yards).

This time, a mix of the 4-3 and 4-2-5 was the right recipe. For the game, Iowa allowed just 225 yards and seven points.

It’s no wonder Wallace (the assistant defensive coordinator to Parker) was mentioned by ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg as a possibility to be plucked for Notre Dame’s now-available defensive coordinator job with Clark Lea leaving South Bend to become Vanderbilt’s next head coach.

If one of Iowa’s most important offensive plays of the game looked familiar. Here’s why.

Facing a third-and-1 from its own 31-yard line late in the third quarter of a 14-7 game, what was offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz going to call? Earlier, in a similar situation, the call fell very flat (more on that later).

To find success, he dug back into a short-yardage play that worked 13 months earlier against then-No. 7 Minnesota.

Iowa went with “22” personnel (two running backs, two tight ends) in a power-I formation, with Nico Ragaini as the lone wide receiver to Spencer Petras’ right. Ragaini came in motion and was tracked by Wisconsin cornerback Caesar Williams to provide confirmation of man-to-man coverage. Ten Badgers were then in the box, tracking action to the left — which is where Petras faked a fullback dive to Monte Pottebaum, then artfully pitched the ball with his left hand to running back Tyler Goodson. Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal caught onto the Hawkeyes’ scheme quickly, but Goodson was quicker — beating Chenal around the right edge for a 16-yard gain. One play later, Iowa was up 21-7 (more that later, too).

Going back to the Minnesota game in 2019, a nearly identical play — except to the left — was executed when Nate Stanley faked to Brady Ross, then pitched left to Goodson for a 26-yard burst on third-and-short the game’s opening drive. That was a key conversion on the way to a home win against a division rival, just like it was Saturday.

Iowa’s offense was frustratingly careful at times, but opportunistic.

A trend that popped against Wisconsin? Don’t make mistakes but take shots on the heels of significant plays. Let’s look at four instances.

No. 1: After Nick Niemann’s fumble recovery, Iowa came out throwing. From Wisconsin’s 32-yard line, a play-action pass out of a shotgun formation was well-executed. Petras’ fake to Goodson kept seven Badgers in the box, and that allowed Brandon Smith time to slant into the second level. Petras was patient to let it develop and hit the senior “X” receiver for 14 yards to reach the red zone. That was all Iowa needed to get into Keith Duncan field-goal range, and as a result the Hawkeyes had the lead for the final 52 minutes, 12 seconds.

No. 2: After the fourth-and-1 stop of Garrett Groshek at the end of the first half, Petras took a downfield shot to Smith. It was a bad overthrow, but the Hawkeyes were bailed out with a pass-interference call. Those 15 yards on first down were critical to getting Duncan in position for a 45-yard field goal and 6-0 halftime lead.

No. 3: On Iowa’s first play of the second half, Petras went play-action to Smith for 14 yards. On the next snap, the Hawkeyes kept attacking — this time hitting Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 38 yards on an underthrown deep ball. That set up a 19-yard Smith-Marsette touchdown three plays later and gave Iowa a 14-0 lead.

Then No. 4, the big one: After Goodson’s aforementioned 16-yard run, cameras showed Ferentz motioning as if to say, “let’s keep taking it to them.” And he did, calling a play-action deep shot to Smith-Marsette … and Petras delivered beautifully with one of this best throws of the season for a 53-yard touchdown.

The attacking mindset after successful plays was something Iowa clearly had game-planned against the Badgers’ No. 1-ranked national defense. And it was something Wisconsin’s offense couldn’t replicate.

Iowa sophomore running back Tyler Goodson slips out of a Wisconsin tackle for a first down in the third quarter on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Some finishing observations …

Iowa's 25 called running plays gained 155 yards (6.2 per carry) against the nation's No. 1 run defense. Iowa's net totals of 32 carries for 127 yards count two sacks, three kneel-downs and Tory Taylor's 11-yard loss on a fumbled punt. So, it really was a good day for the run game against the nation's No. 1 run defense. I broke down the splits — eight run calls out of shotgun for 21 yards; 17 from under center for a whopping 134. Ferentz ran zero plays out of Wildcat and just went with more old-school power runs.

What was Iowa trying to do on third-and-1 from its own 34 in the first quarter? Easily the most perplexing play call and execution of the day, as Petras chucked a play-action pass deep out of bounds to his right and was called for intentional grounding — a 9-yard loss. What I saw: Nico Ragaini, the only wide receiver in the two-tight end, two-back power formation, ran a route to the left; Petras never looked his way. Sam LaPorta ran to the middle of the field and to the left, as well, and was double-covered. Yet Petras only looked right. Either LaPorta ran the wrong route or Petras wasn’t patient enough for fullback Monte Pottebaum to complete his route. (Pottebaum was briefly grabbed by linebacker Leo Chenal after charging up the middle; had he gotten through cleaner and quicker, he would’ve been wide open.) Petras got great pass protection there and had time to step up and buy some time with his legs.

As a side note, I thought Sargent got a bad spot on the previous play. He was given 9 yards, but it should’ve been 9½ … perhaps setting Iowa up in quarterback-sneak mode. Instead, a bad, bad play.

Underrated MVPs on the rewatch? Offensively, Tyler Linderbaum deserves a hat-tip for nearly keeping pace with Goodson on his game-clinching, 80-yard touchdown run, as does Ragini for his downfield block on the play. ... Defensively, I thought Iowa's two Jacks were fantastic. Jack Heflin's absorption of Wisconsin's left guard and left tackle freed up Niemann to get into the backfield for the early fumble recovery; Jack Koerner was sharp in knowing when to offer run support and when to defend the pass.

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.