Analysis: Iowa runs its offense through talented tight ends, and look what happens
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Anyone familiar with Akrum Wadley-speak knows when the Iowa running back is delivering his highest praise.
“T.J. was killing ‘em, man. He was doing his thing,” Wadley said after the Hawkeyes had dusted off No. 3 Ohio State 55-24 Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
That’s T.J. Hockenson, a redshirt freshman tight end who had his best day yet, catching five passes for 71 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Wadley might as well have been talking about sophomore tight end Noah Fant as well. He had four receptions, 54 yards, two touchdowns and one tuba player bulldozed.
This was a game when Iowa’s offense broke out of its slumber in a startling way, putting up 487 yards against the No. 12 defense in the nation after scoring 27 points in the previous two games combined.
And it did so by creating mismatches for its two young tight ends. The longest pass plays of the day were a 25-yard touchdown to Fant and a 24-yard dart to Hockenson.
“That’s something we wanted to look at and do this game was isolate the tight ends on some linebackers and safeties,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said after his second five-touchdown game this season. “It’s something that we practiced all week and they came out and played a great game.”
The nine passes to tight ends resulted in four touchdowns and five other first downs. That’s not only terrific production, but it created other avenues for Iowa to gain yards. The running game erupted for 243 of them, averaging 6.4 yards per carry against a defense that was allowing only 2.9.
Fant could feel the impact of the tight ends.
“We were able to find different holes in their defense and after we scored a couple, and then they started bringing the safety over to my side, it opened up T.J. really nicely and he was able to make some really nice catches for us,” Fant said. “And from then it just kind of opened up our offense.”
Not many offenses in America use tight ends as a catalyst.
Not many teams have players as skilled as Fant and Hockenson, both 6-foot-5 and capable of moving around defenders or running them over. They bring basketball skills to the football field.
On no play was that more evident than Hockenson’s second touchdown Saturday.
On the Ohio State 2-yard line late in the third quarter, leading 31-17, Stanley backpedaled and found a defender grabbing him by the foot. He stayed upright and made eye contact with Hockenson toward the back of the end zone. Hockenson gestured what he was about to do.
“T.J. made a great adjustment,” Stanley said. “He put his arm back inside, and I trusted that he would be able to wall off that defender and make a play, and that’s exactly what he did.”
While Hockenson was boxing out would-be defenders, Fant was bowling over members of the Iowa marching band.
His 25-yard touchdown in the second quarter was a thing of beauty.
“We had a four-vertical concept,” Fant said of the play. “The safety rolled over the top of me. I just broke outside, beat him with speed, and Nate put up a perfect ball.”
Stanley’s pass hit Fant in stride, just as he was exiting the end zone. His momentum carried him into a tuba player, who ended up splayed on the turf. Fant stayed to celebrate with the band. The tuba player high-fived him. There were no hard feelings, just a hard landing.
“It was perfect,” Fant said of Stanley’s pass. “It couldn’t have been any better because if he had lofted it up any higher the guy was trailing me a little bit so he could have made a play on it. He put it in the exact spot in the back of the end zone. I had enough room to keep my feet in.”
Fant has 23 catches this season, and seven of them have produced touchdowns. That’s the most for a Hawkeye receiver since Marvin McNutt had 12 in 2012.
Hockenson has 19 catches and three touchdowns.
“They're young players, but you can see that growth there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the Fant-Hockenson combo. “They're doing some things maybe you wouldn't have counted on back in August.”
The more trust Hawkeye coaches put in the tight ends, the more this offense can soar. They’re the team’s two best playmakers outside of Wadley.
Hockenson, also a superb blocker, appreciated the chance to cut loose in the middle of the Ohio State defense, where he did all his damage.
“It was awesome,” he said. “The coaches trusted us. Stanley trusted us. We came out and competed our butts off and got the ‘W.’”
It shouldn’t go unnoticed that Stanley, Fant and Hockenson all arrived in Iowa City at the same time. The trio of second-year players are starting to see results from hours spent getting acquainted on hot summer mornings and throughout spring and fall practices.
“We’re able to develop a relationship with Nate, and I think he’s starting to feel comfortable with (Hockenson) and me, where we’re going to be on the field,” Fant said. “Much credit to him, much credit to T.J. for putting in the work.”
Much credit to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz for realizing what he has in those tight ends and for finding ways to get them the ball.
Iowa’s annual upset for the ages doesn’t happen without Fant and Hockenson.