Leistikow's DVR Monday: A Hawkeye clinic in game-plan execution vs. Northwestern
Before moving on to four November games brimming with bad blood, Iowa had to first knock off an old nemesis in Northwestern.
The Hawkeyes did just that on Saturday in dominant fashion, 33-13, to restore some confidence inside the locker room heading into a grudge match this coming weekend at Purdue (11 a.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1).
Purdue has a 5-3 record and is favored by 4½ points, but has given up 26 or more points in six of its eight games, including in each of the last three − 29 to Maryland (win), 37 to Nebraska (win) and 35 to Wisconsin (loss). Perhaps Iowa will have a chance to build on the momentum it gained with its best offensive performance of the season.
Let’s dive into the Northwestern film to see why the Hawkeyes gained a season-high 398 yards on just eight possessions.
A resurfaced wrinkle pays dividends.
Using wide receivers in the running game is something offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has used with success. A great example was the 2019 Holiday Bowl, as Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Ihmir Smith-Marsette rushed for touchdowns against an undisciplined Southern California defense in a 49-24 win.
So, it was interesting to see Iowa use a lot of jet-sweep motion and receiver runs against a usually well-schooled Pat Fitzgerald defense. Iowa made a noticeable statement early in the game, using jet-sweep motion or wide receiver runs on 10 first-quarter snaps. For the game, Iowa gained 129 yards on 18 plays in which it used such action.
Some examples of how and why it worked.
On Kaleb Johnson’s second run of the game, he took a handoff straight up the middle for an easy nine yards. Why did it look so easy? Arland Bruce IV came in jet motion from left to right, and his movement attracted 100% of defensive back Cameron Mitchell’s attention on the left. Bruce also caused both inside linebackers to flow left at the snap, vacating more space in the middle of the field for Johnson to charge ahead.
A later 5-yard run in the red zone also stood out. On second-and-goal from the 6, Nico Ragaini came in left-to-right motion. Tight end Sam LaPorta and fullback Monte Pottebaum also flowed right at the snap, and that trio drew four Northwestern defenders. That meant Iowa has an almost-even numbers advantage − six blockers on seven, as Johnson took a handoff left. Johnson got stopped a half-yard from the end zone, but that play set up Iowa’s first offensive touchdown in 30 possessions.
After the jet-sweep heavy first quarter, Iowa only sprinkled it in the rest of the way (eight times). But four of those times, Iowa uncorked double-digit gainers − including a 12-yard end around to Ragaini in the red zone; a 15-yard run by Johnson in the third quarter; a Leshon Williams 14-yard run in the fourth; and a 23-yard Bruce touchdown run on Iowa’s final offensive snap of the day.
The Bruce TD was perfectly executed, and the call from Ferentz was well-timed. Northwestern linebacker Greyon Metz had his eyes on the running back as quarterback Spencer Petras handed off to Bruce, who was sweeping from left to right. Vines made a key block on the edge, Pottebaum got out in front as a lead blocker, and Bruce did a nice job patiently navigating his way into the north end zone.
“That was something Iowa wanted to do today, to take advantage of the speed sweeps out on the perimeter,” ESPN’s Brock Osweiler shared during the broadcast.
Iowa tracks players’ workloads with GPS monitors. Bruce and Ragaini undoubtedly sprinted several miles apiece Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, all in the name of creating more diversity in the Hawkeyes’ offense. Having both available and healthy means they can rotate with each other to stay fresh. For the game, here were the snap counts for Iowa’s four wide receivers: Ragaini 44, Bruce 43, Brody Brecht 41 and Vines 23.
How good was Petras’ day?
According to Pro Football Focus, this was his third-best grade of the season (trailing his games at Rutgers and vs. Michigan), but his 79.5 blew away last week’s 35.5 at Ohio State and was the third-highest on the team against Northwestern (behind cornerback Riley Moss and Johnson, who carried 13 times for 93 yards).
Petras benefited from the best pass protection he’s received all season. The five starting linemen had pass-blocking grades of 67 or better (after last week’s review saw three regulars have ratings of 12.7 or worse in pass protection). And as a result, Petras’ accuracy was his best of the season.
Going back to the Iowa State DVR Monday recap, I graded Petras with nine “bad” throws out of 26. On Saturday, I didn't mark Petras for a single "bad" throw. Of his nine incompletions in a 21-for-30 day, three were throwaways and four were dropped. Petras’ 21 completions were accurate balls that often gave his receivers a chance to run after the catch.
For that reason, I wanted to highlight two of my favorite throws from Petras because they were simple and important to this Hawkeye offense becoming consistently functional in big November games ahead.
First quarter, third-and-4 from Northwestern’s 17. Out of shotgun, Petras looked downfield first then checked down to Williams, who slithered through the Northwestern line and settled just a yard behind the line of scrimmage. Petras found Williams with a ball that traveled just eight yards in the air, but Williams caught the ball and gained eight yards for a first down that led to Iowa’s first of three touchdowns. Williams was inserted as third-down back after Gavin Williams suffered an ankle injury, and he showed why he should stick in this role with a shifty running style and a knack for making yards after the catch.
Fourth quarter, third-and-7 from Northwestern’s 49. Out of a trips-right formation, Ragaini ran a shallow cross that was exactly 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage. Rather than force something to favorite target LaPorta in double coverage over the middle, Petras coolly flipped the ball to Ragaini, who got matched up on linebacker Bryce Gallagher. That was an easy win for Iowa, and Ragaini scooted for a 20-yard gain. On Iowa’s very next snap, Petras zinged a 24-yard strike to Ragaini behind a wall of play-action pass protection – one of five throws I graded as “excellent” for the fifth-year senior quarterback.
Petras didn’t need to do too much Saturday, nor did he try to. He was 18-for-18 on passes thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage for 173 yards and one touchdown. That’ll do. “Making the makeables” is a theme for this offense that needs to continue in West Lafayette and going forward.
How did the Hawkeyes bottle up Evan Hull?
Hull entered the game averaging 78.1 rushing yards and 62.3 receiving yards per game. A year ago against the Hawkeyes, he accounted for 130 scrimmage yards in a 17-12 loss. On Saturday, though, Hull had just 57 total yards on 16 touches (11 rushes, 32 yards; five catches, 25 yards) with no gain longer than 10 yards.
Rewatching the tape, it was clearly a team-wide effort in slowing Hull’s impact. Four highlights:
From his spot at right defensive end, Lukas Van Ness angled into the backfield and beat Hull to the right edge and swallowed him up for a 5-yard loss on Northwestern’s next-to-last play of the first quarter. That’s a good example of film study and talent shining. Van Ness probably learned a lot going up against projected first-round NFL Draft pick Peter Skoronski at left tackle.
Late in the second quarter, defensive tackle Logan Lee drove his man deep into the backfield, forcing Hull to run his sweep wide to the left. That allowed plenty of time for Seth Benson and Moss to collect Hull for a 1-yard gain near the boundary. That stuffing led to a punt, which led to Iowa scoring a touchdown just before halftime. By the way, Lee has probably been Iowa’s most impressive defensive lineman in a committee-wide effort this season.
In the third quarter, Deontae Craig crashed inside right tackle Caleb Tiernan at the snap. As Tiernan tried to recover by moving inside, Benson darted in from Craig's left, unblocked. That chaos led to a fumbled exchange and a 3-yard loss for Hull. Just another example of high attention given to Northwestern’s primary back causing disruption.
The best Hull-stopping play, though, was from Moss. On the second play of the second half, Hull was targeted on a designed screen to the left (that earlier worked for a 7-yard gain). This time, Moss had his eyes fixated on quarterback Brendan Sullivan and didn’t leave his spot at right cornerback – and walloped Hull (cleanly) as the ball arrived for an incompletion.
Considering Iowa did so well in stopping its primary offensive target in this game, maybe that should offer some hope that it can successfully key on Purdue wide receiver Charlie Jones − the Iowa transfer who is second in FBS with 72 receptions. Get ready for plenty of Jones discussion this week.
Final thoughts …
Though Northwestern was able to score on a 15-play, 75-yard drive to end the game, it was a good experience for a number of young Hawkeyes to get live game reps. That list included true freshmen T.J. Hall (who played left cornerback) and Xavier Nwankpa (free safety). Both guys are one injury away from being on the first-team defense.
Of Iowa’s seven sacks, none was more impressive than the one from Ethan Hurkett. The redshirt sophomore flat-out beat Skoronski one-on-one, extending his left arm into the 315-pound tackle’s chest, then hand-fighting his way free to the right to pounce on Sullivan for a 10-yard loss in the second quarter. You may see that one again during pre-NFL Draft coverage when analysts inevitably scrutinize Skoronski’s game film.
What was remarkable about Iowa’s best offensive output in its last 17 games was that it did so with no huge plays. The longest play on offense was 24 yards. The next step for this offense is to peel off some pop-the-top gainers. Only six teams in FBS have fewer than Iowa’s nine plays of 30-plus yards this season.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.