Leistikow's DVR Monday: What can be learned from Iowa football's very bad Saturday in Madison?
One month ago, the Iowa football team rolled into Maryland with a defense that delivered seven turnovers. The offense scored on nine straight possessions in that 51-14 win. Everything looked easy for the Hawkeyes on Oct. 1.
As a friend pointed out to me Sunday: The Hawkeyes’ back-to-back losses have come by that same combined score, 51-14. The Hawkeyes have seemed as helpless against Purdue (24-7 loss) and Wisconsin (27-7 loss) as Maryland was against Iowa on that Friday night in College Park.
The other day, Maryland scored 38 points and threw for 419 yards against Indiana, showing a helpless snapshot doesn’t have to be hopeless long-term.
Now, the Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) must learn and grow from the Wisconsin tape. Let’s review.
An early third-and-3 opportunity sheds spotlight on Iowa’s game plan, struggles.
The Hawkeyes started their second drive on the 9-yard line in a 0-0 game. A 1-yard Tyler Goodson run and 6-yard Tyrone Tracy Jr. catch gave the Hawkeyes an early moment to keep the chains moving in what was expected to be a field-position game.
From the left hash, Iowa went with an empty backfield — three wide receivers (Keagan Johnson, Nico Ragaini, Tracy) in a bunched formation on the left, with Goodson out wide to the right and tight end Sam LaPorta inside to help pass protection.
The play design was to throw a quick slant to Goodson in space. As would be a theme for the day, Wisconsin seemed to know it was coming. The Badgers dropped outside linebacker Nick Herbig into coverage — into Spencer Petras’ hoped-for passing lane — while inside linebacker Leo Chenal rushed the passer.
Even with a six-on-four blocking advantage on a quick-read play, Iowa had a problem in pass protection. Left end Matt Henningsen had three blockers on him — right guard Connor Colby, right tackle Jack Plumb and LaPorta — yet disrupted the play by blasting into Plumb, who fell backward into Petras’ area.
The throw, released 1.3 seconds after the snap, was wobbly and slightly behind Goodson. That throw in that situation needs to be on the money. But Goodson also needs to make that catch. To be fair, Goodson had three defenders closing in (again, the Badgers were all over it) as the ball went off his left hand.
Instead of an easy 8-yard gain, Iowa's poor execution on all fronts made the play way too difficult.
While plenty of focus is needed on offensive-line issues, this is the type of team malfunction that sabotaged Iowa’s day. Instead of finding early footing, Tory Taylor punted and the defense was back on the field … and gave up an eight-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that allowed Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to find some much-needed confidence.
And, as you know, the day got even worse from there.
How did Wisconsin seem to know what was coming?
A two-play sequence in the second quarter, with Iowa down 17-0, highlighted what we mean by schematic failures.
On a first-down run, the straight-ahead play was well-blocked. But Wisconsin had a numbers advantage, with safety Scott Nelson crashing the run to wrap up Goodson for a 2-yard gain. Nelson was seemingly inside the Hawkeye huddle all day long, turning Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense into an aggressive 3-5 against the run. We often give Iowa’s defense credit for film study and knowing what plays are coming; tip your hat to Wisconsin’s defense for being ready for whatever offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz threw at them.
Wisconsin's defense played with immense confidence, as evidenced by this quote from nose tackle Keeanu Benton afterward: “Just by their personnel and the way they set things up, you can kind of tell which way they were running the ball."
A way-too-predictable offense was apparent on the next play, too. A third quick-slant attempt, this time to Johnson, had three Badgers all over it — the man coverage by Faion Hicks and safeties Nelson and Collin Wilder converging. The throw would have to be perfect on this second-and-8 play, and it wasn’t. The ball sailed high and fell incomplete off Johnson’s hands.
ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky observed after that play, “I’m really confused by this Iowa offensive game plan right now. … That’s the third slant they’ve thrown at Faion Hicks. At some point, you’ve got to give him the double move to see if he’s overzealous.”
Spotlight on: Quarterback play
On Iowa’s last first-half possession, down 20-0, a double move by Ragaini (that Orlovsky wanted to see) burned backup cornerback Dean Engram. It looked a lot like the long touchdown play to Nick Easley in the 2019 Outback Bowl. But Petras’ throw was too high in one of the few clean pockets he had all day. Ragaini leaped to try to pull in the throw at Wisconsin’s 40. If the throw and catch had hit, LaPorta was downfield and could have blocked the safety … and might’ve gone for a 58-yard touchdown.
You could understand that Petras’ confidence might be shaken, when the protection (six sacks) was so porous. But he needs to do a better job in the pocket. Here are three examples:
- On the first play of the game, Iowa went with an empty backfield. It looked like Petras wanted to go to Goodson on a slant. But instead of seeking a second option, Petras gave up on the play and walked into a 2-yard sack.
- On the three-man rush that saw Herbig beat right tackle Nick DeJong for a sack-fumble, Petras didn’t see it coming even though the rush was coming in front of him (or he saw it and failed to react). There was room to step up in the pocket (as there should be on a three-man rush), but Petras dangled the ball and made it easy for Herbig to attack it.
- Then just before halftime, on a 5-yard sack, Orlovsky took Petras to task for being too deep in the pocket, which allowed C.J. Goetz to get an easier sack after beating left tackle Mason Richman. "Petras, you’ve got to do a better job of climbing the pocket," Orlovsky said. "Climb, climb, climb!"
Spotlight on: The offensive line
But in summary, here’s what I saw up front: a line that has lost its confidence. There were too many instances to itemize of guys lunging or reaching for blocks rather than relying on fundamentals, a sign that they were just guessing which Wisconsin attackers would be coming.
One example: Defensive end Isaiah Mullens split right guard Justin Britt and right tackle DeJong on a rush that resulted in an easy 7-yard sack. Neither Hawkeye shuffled his feet to help redirect Mullens.
DeJong received a 0.0 pass-blocking grade at right tackle from Pro Football Focus on his nine pass-protection opportunities. Iowa understandably went with Plumb throughout the second half.
In order, left guard Kyler Schott, Plumb and center Tyler Linderbaum received the three highest grades on Iowa’s offense from PFF. It was a tough day for the two freshmen, Richman and Colby, but they still look (to me) like Iowa’s two other best options.
My guess and suggestion going forward: Iowa needs to stick with its best five and stop the rotation up front.
In search of positives …
Things are rarely as good as they seem after big wins. Likewise, they are rarely as bad as they seem after losses.
There were some things to build on Saturday.
On offense, Johnson played more snaps than any other Iowa wideout (44) and showed on an explosive 12-yard end around why he is the type of playmaker the Hawkeyes need on the edge.
Defensively, Iowa limited Wisconsin to just 78 second-half yards on 30 snaps. Plays that worked in the first half, like slants to Danny Davis, didn’t in the second. Matt Hankins nearly undercut Davis for a third-quarter interception. Mertz was 1-for-6 passing after halftime.
That second-half stinginess is something to build on in preparation for Saturday's game at Northwestern (6 p.m., Big Ten Network). The Hawkeyes sure need to learn from their Wisconsin mistakes and rediscover their mojo.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.