The Northwestern Wildcats come to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes on homecoming weekend, here are three storylines to follow during the game.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Third down is difficult against almost any Big Ten defense. Stretch the sticks to third-and-long, and it becomes even tougher.
Iowa’s plan to put conversions out of reach in conference play involves reviving its "Raider" package.
The speedy formation with stand-up linemen was a success in last Saturday’s 14-7 win at Rutgers, and the Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) hope to unleash it again soon.
“If we just get all guys, whether it’s our sub-package or base defense, rushing as hard as we can, we can make an impact on the game,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said Tuesday.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker used the alignment occasionally over the last two seasons but shelved it for the first three games of 2016. The unit’s base 4-3 look was mostly unchanged as starters played against Miami of Ohio, Iowa State and North Dakota State, but a new set stormed Rutgers on the first third-and-long of the Big Ten opener.
Both defensive tackles were removed for cornerbacks Joshua Jackson and Manny Rugamba, and linebacker Aaron Mends replaced Bo Bower on the edge, showing an early, athletic wrinkle in Piscataway, N.J.
“The new packages are nice to run,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said. “On third down we’re giving them a change-up in personnel. We’re just trying to get guys in there and make some plays.”
Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar discuss Saturday's Iowa vs. Northwestern game.
The extra speed and help in Iowa’s secondary immediately caused headaches for the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1). The Raider was deployed on a third-and-9 of the opening series, and Hesse hit quarterback Chris Laviano, but the play was flagged for offsides on the true freshman Rugamba.
Less than three minutes later, the Hawkeyes ran out Raider personnel again on a third-and-21. This time Hesse’s hit counted as coverage downfield allowed a three-man rush to sack Laviano and take the Scarlet Knights out of field goal range.
It was the first of four consecutive punts by Rutgers when it faced Raider at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“A lot of these (sacks) are collective,” Hesse said. “One guy flushes them, the whole pocket squeezes in. Whoever ends up with the sack is the guy who is in the right place at the right time when he steps up.”
In six official snaps against Rutgers, Parker had the Raider group, which had Hesse and fellow end Anthony Nelson standing up for a pass rush, drop eight men into coverage five times.
Northwestern (1-3, 0-1) has struggled against such defenses, with quarterback Clayton Thorson completing just 53 percent of his passes and the offense ranking 92nd in FBS for third down conversion percentage.
“They’re always dangerous,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “If you look at our series with them historically, it’s always been a tough game, and I’m sure they’re disappointed right now.
“They’ve got great young people on their team and I expect them to come in here and fight.”
Nine of the nation’s top-50 defenses in third down conversion percentage are in the Big Ten, including five of the top 20. Iowa is in that bunch — rated 36th at 32.7 percent — even after letting Rutgers move the chains on 5 of 10 opportunities without Raider running out.
The aggressive look can also take away from the Hawkeye defense.
Rutgers scored its only touchdown of Week 4 against ‘Raider’ after taking a timeout on a third-and-10 and throwing a fade to 6-foot-3 receiver Andre Patton who was covered Jackson. But when Parker played it again? Safety Brandon Snyder came up to force a fumble out of Patton, which led to Iowa’s go-ahead touchdown.
There are more to come.
“It does well,” Bower said after the win. “We’re going to keep using it.”