Leistikow's DVR Monday: Iowa has a run-game problem that starts with offensive line
After Arland Bruce IV’s nifty 13-yard run early in the second quarter Saturday against Colorado State, Iowa’s rushing numbers looked pretty good: 60 yards on nine attempts.
That healthy 6.7-yard average was what you might’ve expected from the Hawkeyes all day vs. a defense that allowed 240 rushing yards (and 7.1 per attempt) in Week 1 against FCS South Dakota State.
But Iowa went backwards the rest of the day: 23 rushing attempts for minus-6 yards. Sure, sacks count, but the day's total of 32 carries for 54 yards was U-G-L-Y. And unbelievable.
Maybe most amazingly, the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes still found a way to outscore Colorado State, 17-0, in the second half and improve to 4-0. What issues cropped up? And how did they survive them? Let’s roll the tape.
A concerning regression has occurred on Iowa's offensive line.
Some examples of notes I took in regards of Iowa’s run game:
“No. 1 unblocked.”
“Goodson too tentative.”
“Dead on arrival.”
Colorado State defensive ends Toby McBride and Scott Patchan are fine players but they looked like Nick and Joey Bosa against Iowa offensive tackles Mason Richman and Nick DeJong on Saturday. The first-year starters had their toughest days as Hawkeyes in both run blocking and pass protection.
Let's start with the rushing attack, Iowa's most pressing concern.
The first play after Tyler Goodson’s 22-yard catch to open the second half was a prime example of botched execution by the offensive line. On an outside-zone to the right, right tackle DeJong made initial contact with McBride on the edge and began moving up field. The outside-zone concept means the right guard needs to pick up McBride next. Connor Colby (a true freshman making his first career start) failed to get there in time, and McBride destroyed the play and stopped Goodson for a 1-yard loss.
On a later toss to the right to Ivory Kelly-Martin, DeJong was too slow to get to the edge. The play never developed and went for no gain.
Going through all the "bad runs," execution was lacking. There were too many missed assignments across the board.
Give Colorado State credit for crashing the edges and making it tough on Iowa’s young tackles. I thought Iowa’s adjustment to try more end-around actions was a good one to keep the Rams honest — though it backfired on Charlie Jones’ bobbled handoff that lost 13 yards.
Even when Iowa got a well-blocked running play, there were issues. Early in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes went “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), leaving Colorado State with just six defenders in the box. And Iowa’s blockers won their one-on-one matchups — with tight end Sam LaPorta crunching his linebacker, Colby pancaking his tackle and DeJong cleanly sealing McBride off the edge.
Yet Goodson was too tentative in hitting what looked like a big hole to the right. He instead tiptoed to the left and settled for a 3-yard gain. That was one of a few times when Goodson just needed to take yardage that was available to him. Goodson is at his best when he’s attacking the line of scrimmage, as he did on a 27-yard run on the final play of the first quarter.
How tough a day was it for the Iowa offensive line?
Even preseason all-American center Tyler Linderbaum gave up a sack, as he was too slow to pick up defensive tackle Devin Phillips on a 10-yard sack of Petras in the fourth quarter.
One segment of back-to-back plays — shortly after Nico Ragaini’s fabulous 34-yard catch in the fourth quarter — highlighted Iowa’s pass-pro woes that cropped up two weeks earlier against Iowa State.
With Jones wide open over the middle, Petras stepped and fired … but his arm was hit by 290-pound defensive lineman Manny Jones, who had pushed Colby all the way back into the Hawkeye quarterback. On the very next snap, Richman was beaten badly off the line by Patchan. That quick rush forced a hurried Petras throw and incompletion to Keagan Johnson.
Aware of the problems, offensive line coach George Barnett tried Jack Plumb at right tackle for a handful of series Saturday. But with Maryland (16 sacks in four games) coming next and a very athletic defensive front in Penn State after that, there is not much time to fix (or hide) what’s wrong up front.
Give credit to Brian Ferentz for dialing up touchdown plays.
With the issues outlined above, the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator has been terrific in finding spots to deliver seven-point blows to Iowa opponents. Recall the Petras quarterback-draw that opened up against Indiana in Week 1; the third-and-1 pitch-out to Goodson for a 46-yard score against Kent State; the third-and-9 shotgun draw to Goodson, also against Kent State, that became a zooming 35-yard touchdown.
All three Iowa TDs vs. Colorado State were great play calls with splendid execution, but let’s focus on the last two.
Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s 6-yard TD run on the first play after Jack Campbell’s fumble recovery was an example of striking a defense that wasn’t expecting to be on the field that quickly.
“I can’t reveal the name of the play, but … it was a heck of a call,” Petras said after the game. “That’s a call we liked down there. Especially with sudden change like that, it can be good.”
What made this play work? First, Goodson’s pre-snap motion to the left drew the eyes of linebacker Tavian Brown. The fake-screen action had 10 Rams flowing to the left side of the field, leaving wide receiver Jackson Ritter (to the right) with a one-on-one blocking matchup as Tracy — from the left slot-receiver position — began his loop toward Petras to take the reverse handoff. Ritter (6-3, 214) flattened 170-pound cornerback Robert Floyd, leaving fullback Monte Pottebaum with nobody else to block as Tracy glided into the end zone untouched.
Tracy took a bow in the end zone after scoring, and the offensive coordinator could have, too. Credit Petras, as well, for a skilled fake pass with the right hand and a clean handoff with the left.
LaPorta’s 27-yard TD grab was created by more fake-screen action. Two defenders went toward Tracy on the left, none stayed with LaPorta over the middle. LaPorta spoke afterward about a tendency the Hawkeyes saw on film and that this was a play “we had dialed up early in the week.” On a first-and-10 after a pass interference call, LaPorta did a great job selling that he was going to block for a tunnel screen that Iowa has shown with regularity this year.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the safety, which was the guy that should have been covering me, drive on the ball,” LaPorta said. “It’s kind of a timing thing. You feel the timer in your head, and you see him trigger, and then you just kind of slip right up the seam.”
What happened to Iowa’s defense in the first half? What changed in the second?
I entered the rewatch thinking I would see some new issues on the defense. But instead, I saw the same stingy Hawkeyes.
What I saw that led to 14 points (on two short-field touchdowns) and Colorado State converting nine of 13 third-down opportunities in the first half:
Some missed holding calls that fueled important drives. Joe Evans was blatantly held on a 17-yard completion to E.J. Scott on third-and-7; Noah Shannon was indeed held to spring Todd Centeio’s 15-yard scramble on third-and-11.
The Rams converting low-percentage plays. A case in point was Trey McBride’s 11-yard catch on third-and-11 to set up Colorado State’s first touchdown. Jack Koerner’s coverage was terrific, and the throw and catch were impossible to defend. That said, there’s no way McBride extended the ball to the 11-yard line for a first down as was ruled. It should’ve been fourth-and-1 from the 12.
The Hawkeyes slipping up a few times. On both touchdowns, there were mistakes. Phil Parker should have had someone spying Centeio on his 10-yard quarterback draw on third-and-9. Lesson learned. And on the second touchdown, extra linebacker Jay Higgins fell down in coverage and his assignment — tight end Gary Williams — was wide open in the end zone. A tough break.
Things balanced out in the second half, as more holding flags were thrown and Iowa yielded 90 yards on 37 plays and 2-for-10 conversions on third down. One of the conversions came off a Koerner tipped ball that McBride miraculously pulled in for a 15-yard gain on the sideline.
Overall, no worries going forward about Iowa’s defense.
Charlie Jones had a huge say in the epic punting matchup.
One of the key, less-discussed plays of the day was Jones’ artistic 38-yard punt return to set up LaPorta’s go-ahead score. A booming 56-yard punt from Ryan Stonehouse (who out-punted Iowa's Tory Taylor on this day) gave Jones time to set up his return plan. After catching the ball on the left side of the field at his own 21-yard line, he wasted no time in sprinting to his right. Several things are worth pointing out on this big play.
One, Iowa’s punt-return team was setting this up from the get-go. Instead of rushing the punter, Ivory Kelly-Martin retreated toward the right side of the field to help seal a lane for the oncoming train that would be Jones.
Two, some key blocks from defensive backs sprung the return. Dallas Craddieth’s hustle and clean block of 220-pound linebacker Bam Amina was a thing of beauty, helping Jones turn the corner. Riley Moss threw his body into Tywan Francis to help Jones jitter for an additional 10 yards to reach the Rams’ 41 — for a net punt of just 18 yards.
Three, a big-time effort from Jones. His speed combined with a knack for making plays in space cannot be ignored. Jones now has 147 punt-return yards on 11 tries. That 13.8 average is fourth nationally among players with at least 10 returns. Jones is a major weapon for the Hawkeyes. And if Iowa's offense continues to be challenged, teams are going to start punting away from him completely.
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.