Analysis: Unexpected big plays spark Iowa rout
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa broke Nebraska’s back with two plays Friday.
The big surprise? They were both offensive plays.
Tailback Akrum Wadley threw down a jump-cut for the ages at the line of scrimmage and motored 75 yards for a touchdown to put the Hawkeyes ahead 10 minutes into the football game.
Iowa quickly got the ball back and one-upped itself. Quarterback C.J. Beathard faked a handoff and whistled a pass to a slanting Riley McCarron. Suddenly, the wide receiver was in the clear, scooting past the disbelieving Nebraska bench for a 77-yard score.
The Hawkeyes got another 56-yard romp in the second quarter from tailback LeShun Daniels Jr., who stiff-armed a hapless Cornhusker defender and also found himself with plenty of open ground in front of him, not being caught until he reached the 8-yard line. Daniels scored two plays later, and the rout was on.
Iowa put a 40-10 beatdown on No. 15 Nebraska in the season finale at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeye defense was stout as expected. It was the offense that found a gear not seen around these parts since the second week of the season.
Those three plays totaled 208 yards. Iowa’s offense failed to gain more than 300 yards in five games this season.
The McCarron pass play came after back-to-back weeks in which Iowa threw for 66 and 80 yards in entire games while beating Michigan and Illinois, respectively.
What in the name of Tim Dwight got into the Hawkeyes?
“You can't count on that,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of the huge gains his team amassed, sounding as surprised as anyone. “Those things just happen. They happen. They don't happen if we're not working hard and clicking and doing little detail things right, but, no, we had no idea. I figured (it'd be) one of those two-point games — one of those deals.”
Beathard said Wadley’s 75-yard run was actually a busted play after he checked into it at the line of scrimmage.
“That was kind of a luck play, to be honest with you, there,” he said. “I think half the line went one way and half the line went the other way, and then Akrum just made a guy miss and turned it into 70 yards.”
The McCarron touchdown was more by design. Beathard said it was called by offensive coordinator Greg Davis.
“We ran it plenty of times this year — and it obviously hadn’t been that open,” Beathard said. “I did have to wait for the second window. They didn’t completely bite for the run. But Riley did a great job making the catch and turning it into six points.”
On all three big gains, there wasn’t a second — let alone a third — level of defense ready to stop the Iowa ball carrier once he got past the initial defender.
“We lost leverage on the football badly. We overran it,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “At least two guys, on the second long run, ran past the ball. The guy cuts back... There was no one else there.”
Iowa tight end George Kittle said the success was set up by Nebraska having to respect Iowa’s ability to run the ball. The Hawkeyes finished with 264 yards on the ground, a week after pounding Illinois for 262.
“That’s what happens when you can run the ball. They start filling hard — all their guys — and you just squirt open. Guys made plays when their numbers were called all night,” Kittle said.
“They lost a lot of guys on their defensive line (from a year ago). So we just thought we could take advantage of just moving them. And their ‘backers, they play really fast, and so we just let them run, and we just cut it up the inside. And LeShun and Akrum made a couple of guys miss, and they just booked it 50-plus yards each time.”
Hawkeyes guard Sean Welsh said the veritable offensive explosion Friday was a happy byproduct of what Iowa typically does well. Such big gains are never expected, he said.
“We never really think about big plays. It’s kind of been this way around here for a while. We keep hitting them with the run and those three-yard gains turn into 13-yard gains in the third quarter,” Welsh said. “Our vision doesn’t really get any more global than that. It’s one play at a time. Our approach is to wear them down over time.
“Big plays like that are great. But they’re not built in. It’s not something we plan for.”
It certainly wasn’t what Nebraska planned for. The quick-strike Hawkeyes had the Cornhuskers backpedaling in the first quarter and never let up.
You read that correctly quick-strike Hawkeyes. What a wild and welcome sight it was for players and fans.