Pressure on Nate Stanley, Iowa passing game increases as opponents try to neutralize Akrum Wadley

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s not that the Iowa offense is expecting to see a blizzard of blitzes from here on out.

But Penn State did put the Hawkeyes on notice in Saturday’s 21-19 victory – often sending extra defenders into the line of scrimmage until Iowa found a way to make the Nittany Lions pay.

Penn State safety Marcus Allen hits the ball out of Iowa running back Akrum Wadley's hands on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

“I don’t really know what they’re going to do to us,” senior guard Boone Myers said this week when asked if he anticipates defenses will repeat what worked for Penn State. “I can see them doing it, yeah. It’s a changeup, throw something at us that we haven’t seen.”

Penn State brought pressure nearly half the time, and it succeeded in bottling up Iowa through three quarters. It took away the inside zone running game that Iowa has often thrived on, frustrating Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley into minus-3 yards on his first 11 carries.

The Nittany Lions sacked Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley only once, but generated six other negative-yardage plays, which was the ultimate goal. Iowa couldn’t sustain drives, too often finding itself in third-and-long situations.

“It’s not really that we didn’t expect it. It’s just getting out there and feeling it. It’s a little different than practicing it,” Iowa guard Keegan Render said. “It’s not more that they get the blitz home, it just slows us down like a half-step. Our eyes and our feet and everything that we have to see. I think they just did a good job, too, when they knew if they showed a pressure we’d check away.”

Next up is a Michigan State defense that isn’t nearly as aggressive as Penn State. The Spartans (2-1) have not been particularly disruptive this season, with six sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovered. But they will cross blitz with inside linebackers at times.

And after watching what the Nittany Lions did, the Spartans may boost that tendency.

“People know we want to run the ball and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” Render said. “I think opponents will try to force us to throw and beat them that way instead of just letting us run around them.”

The good news for Iowa (3-1) heading into the 3 p.m. matchup on Fox is what the offense was able to do in the fourth quarter against Penn State. Wadley twice burned the Nittany Lions on blitzes, scooting out of the backfield to take a screen pass 70 yards for a touchdown on a third-and-6 play and then finding a huge hole to his left for a 35-yard scoring run that was nearly the game-winner.

“I actually remember coming up to the line on that (35-yard run), and I saw what they were doing. I knew they were bringing a blitz and I knew that was going to be a good play,” Render said. “Somebody even said on the headset that (offensive coordinator) Brian (Ferentz) said, ‘Oh, crap, we’re going to score on this play.’ From above, he could see it. I think it just shows, yeah, you keep going with it, we’ve got Akrum who can make plays back there. So never abandon it, even if they’re trying to take it away. We’ll hit him once in a while.”

That was the message Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz had for opposing defenses as well.

“There is a little risk-reward on that stuff,” Ferentz cautioned them. “(Wadley) can stress a defense. So you have to weigh and measure what you do, and that is what every defensive coach does anyway. But that's why it's so good to have a guy like him who can hit a home run. That really gives you a different sense of things.”

But waiting so long to make defenses pay for their aggressiveness is also stressful on an offense. Iowa held the ball for only 20 minutes, 21 seconds against Penn State, patiently waiting for its two big strikes. In the meantime, the defense had to keep trudging back onto the field against a high-powered offense. Render said the offense was aware that its early struggles were tiring out the defense.

That can’t happen again Saturday. Michigan State averages 35 minutes a game of possession time and would love to try to wear down the Hawkeye defense again.

Iowa’s offensive line needs to be quicker about identifying blitzes, a task that has become tougher with the season-ending injury to senior tackle Ike Boettger. Center James Daniels missed the season-opener. Myers has been battling an ankle injury. Even freshman Tristan Wirfs, a backup tackle, was out with an undisclosed injury against Penn State.

“Every little dent hurts your football team,” Kirk Ferentz said. “You have to work through it, try to adjust and hope the other guys catch up fast.”

Render expects the Hawkeyes to be dealing with the blitzing mystery on a week-to-week basis. Some teams who don’t normally blitz much might throw more of them at Iowa to test Stanley and try to neutralize Wadley. The Hawkeyes have been practicing accordingly.

“We try to get in and out of the huddle in the practices, seeing it quicker, getting a check quicker,” Render said.