Craig Has The Scout - Iowa 2020
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Who: Iowa Hawkeyes
When: 2:30 pm - December 5th, 2020
Where: Home Sweet Home
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz. The dean of B1G coaches. It is only his success from 15 years ago that has allowed him to stay. Ferentz believes in his way of doing things, modern life be damned. He allegedly controlled what clothing his players could wear, would control their social media, and kept on a strength coach who created the worst case of Rhabdo seen in major college athletics. Then, he reluctantly fired the strength coach when players began speaking out about the strength coach and even Ferentz couldn't stand that heat. Social media called out Ferentz and showed his being aloof from his program at best. He is a throwback coach who opposes anything newfangled, which results in him calling three timeouts late in a blowout of Minnesota because PJ Fleck.
Offensive Style: A hybrid, mainly pro-style featuring spread elements for a grind it out style. When the coach is insular, he builds his program through people loyal to him. When scouting for an OC it only makes sense to hire your son. Brian Ferentz is the OC, and his tenure has been consistently average. The consistent mediocrity of his reign as OC is a reflection on the consistent mediocrity of Iowa under Ferentz since his breakthrough Orange Bowl in 2002. Iowa averages between 25-30 ppg, and 5.2 ypp.
Defensive Style: 4-3 primarily Cover 2. Phil Parker has been the Iowa DC since 2012, and has produced consistently good defenses. Parker generally uses four linemen and three linebackers up front and doesn't blitz much. Iowa is one of the few programs that does not play strong/weak, but left/right in defensive alignments. Parker came to Iowa from Gary Pinkel's Toledo in 1999 and has been a fixture for the DBs in his time there. Iowa is essentially a bend-but-don't-break defense. Parker believes in keeping it simple and allow the players to make plays (similar premise of the Ohio State D). Parker believes that keeping it simple helps eliminate confusion offenses try to create with motion/formation swaps._ *_
Specialists: By the numbers, Blake Hayes isn't the best punter in the B1G. He isn't even the best Australian punter in the B1G. That honor belongs to Tory Taylor, who's NET punting average would lead the B1G. Taylor leads the B1G with 15 punts inside the 20, and with the Iowa coverage unit allows very few returns.
Three Things to Watch
Illinois explosive running plays vs. the Iowa Rush Defense. Iowa has an experienced set of DL who are the reason Iowa leads the B1G in TFL. Illinois leads the B1G with runs of 10+ yards. Illinois is a master of gashing overpenetrating DL. Iowa's, led by Daviyon Nixon, is one of the most aggressive getting up the field.
Turnover Margin. Iowa forces 2.7 TOs per game, Illinois forces 2.6. On the season Iowa is +1.3 TOs per game and Illinois is +1.2. Both defenses are bend but don't break 4-3 shells dependent on forcing turnovers. The team that wins the turnover battle is in the driver's seat for this game.
3rd down conversions. A huge jump against Nebraska pulled Illinois out of the cellar for 3rd down conversion %. Iowa on the other hand had a sub-30% conversion against the Huskers. If Illinois can convert on 3rd down and sustain drives they upset the premise of the Iowa defense.
Scouting Review - Offense
Under Kirk O'Keefe and Greg Davis, Iowa had an identity similar to Wisconsin and Michigan of yesteryear. Run first offenses that helped provide the nugget of truth to the Big Ten Offenses. The last two years under Brian Ferentz they have moved to a ratio of 50:50. It made some since with Nate Stanley last season as he generated 7.4 ypa. Spencer Petras is only averaging 5.9, yet Iowa continues to emphasize the passing attack.
In theory that could be a winning process since Iowa's receiving corps is the best since Brad Banks was throwing the ball in Iowa City. The TE continues to fill an outsized role in the Iowa offense and this year's version is Sam LaPorta who leads the team in receptions. The slot receiver has led the receiving corps in targets and receptions every year since 2012, and Nico Ragaini has taken the role to heart and is 2nd in both targets and receptions. The real talent is on the perimeter, and Petras has not been able to capitalize.
The inability of Petras to be competent has taken away from the improvement in the run game this season. Iowa had not finished in the top half of the B1G in rushing since 2016 (and had a metric ton of OL draft picks in that timeframe), but they finally have started to show the explosiveness in the run game that had been lacking in recent years. Tyler Goodson has shown himself worthy of the #1 back designation, something Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin had been unable to do in recent years. The team's winning streak has coincided with a commitment to the run game. In the last four games, the offense has decreased its reliance on the pass and allowed Iowa to get back to their magic formula. The offense plays ball control and maximizes field position allowing the defense to suffocate opponents.
The primary run play of Iowa under Ferentz has been an outside zone. With the success Iowa has had in developing tackles, this is a smart play. Goodson is the most dangerous in this play due to his vision and ability to hit the holes and move upfield. Iowa likes to motion across the formation for this play to bump LBs or force the secondary to bump. Here is the TE motioning across the formation.
You can see the RT (a grad transfer from Indiana) motioning kicking out wide to help seal the edge and create a lane for the back to attack. They will use other types of motion to set up the play. Here is a WR motion across the formation.
Iowa's motion made the Northwestern LBs bump away from the designed hole for the Iowa back. Northwestern's strength at the point of attack forced the cutback and prevented a big play here.
The Hawkeyes will use the TE motion into the backfield, and will utilize it in parts of the run game. Here, they run the normal outside zone after the motion to the backfield.
They then set up the potent part of their passing attack out of this set up. The TEs are the most effective part of the Iowa passing attack, and need to be since Petras is inaccurate with many passes and lacks the arm strength to attack the sidelines downfield. Here is the most common attack setup, which is a naked boot into a Flood concept away from the play-action.
Petras had both of the lower levels on this play but went for the homerun. He failed to connect (again, accuracy) but Iowa will use this to attack the Illini safeties attacking downhill in run support.
One passing wrinkle Iowa has added to this attack is the screen game opposite the play action. The Hawkeyes have a couple of different wrinkles to it, but every instance I saw they ran it to the side with Alaric Jackson leading the blocking. Here is the version utilizing the WR on the screen.
Jackson (#77) is the lead blocker, and does a nice job of selling the zone blocking action ahead of the screen. They run a version out of the 2TE sets they like so much as well.
The action again starts off the outside zone running set. The pass play is ideal for Petras since it is a single read and a simple throw. The Illini safeties sucking up to stop the run action will expose the Illini to potential big plays in the screen game.
It would not be Iowa if they didn't have aspects of the power run game available. The Hawkeyes do not run near as much of this as they had under previous regimes. Under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes will get back to it when they are trying to establish a rhythm, otherwise they seem to forget it is in the playbook. Here is the Power.
The Iowa Guard on this pull is almost blocking this like a counter, letting the TE lead into the hole. His delay allowed the Nebraska LB to fill the gap quickly and forced the cutback action from the RB.
Here is the actual counter look with the FB coming back across in the counter.
Iowa has finally figured out that the FB is a useful part of their offense, and the Hawkeyes have used the FB the most these past two weeks. The weak and strong formations are ways of getting the FB involved, but the best way is the use of the FB in the I formation. Here is the use of the FB in the Outside Zone run play.
Iowa loves this play, but the OL play for Iowa this year is very erratic and a had injuries that has lead to a rotating cast. Regardless of who is playing, they have spent too much time this year in their own backfield. For the breeding ground of so many NFL linemen, the coaching at the position has some issues. The Iowa FB blocking game is much more effective in moving downhill (see the counter example above). Here is the best play the Hawkeye O has with the FB in the game.
This is a lead ISO with the FB. The FB telegraphed the play and as a result Nebraska shut down the designed play location. Iowa will slow down the attack using play action off the look.
Minnesota was in Cover 4 in this case, and the near side safety almost picked this off on a great read.
Iowa runs some passing concepts that pressure opposing passing attacks. The Hawkeyes do the most damage on the underneath routes. As I previously mentioned, the slot receiver is normally the leading receiver for Iowa. When Iowa has talent at the TE position, they are among the best at taking advantage of the mismatches posed. This year, the TE is LaPorta and he is a talented TE. This crash concept takes advantage of the slot and TE.
LaPorta at TE pulls the LBs upfield, and Ragaini runs the underneath crossing route. This is a two route design, they either hit the hitch on the near sideline or the crossing route. Here is the same concept run where you can see the Hitch.
In both cases, Petras checks down quickly and catches the open cross. The TE is running an option route downfield and has the option of running a corner or post. Here Petras looks for the TE as his first read and air-mailed the pass over his head.
The TE was the first read on this play, so I'm unsure if the read is based on a play-call or a pre-snap read.
It appears that Iowa runs quite a few option routes in their passing game. The Hawkeye passing attack puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses and allows for simpler reads for Petras. In this play, the two interior receivers are running their routes to the sticks, and breaking to ins or outs based on the defender's leverage.
The near side receiver is Petras' first read, and he never left him and waited for the break to deliver the ball. Illini corners looking into the backfield should be able to read Petras on these, he is not reading the defenses so much as his receivers on these throws.
When Iowa wants to take shots downfield they will add extra pass protection for Petras. Here is a 2 TE set and both stay in for pass protection for the deep out.
This is a 2 man route with a checkdown in the RB. Petras never checks down off the primary receiver and threw a really nice ball to the sideline.
The last part of the Hawkeye offense is the bubble screen game to attack the perimeter. The strong run game of Iowa isolates defenders in the field and allows quick yards. Here is a bubble screen to the Twins side of the formation.
This was a schematic decision and part of the initial script of plays. Nebraska showed an 8-man box with a single high safety, and the Hawkeyes went to this look. The OL is blocking a run play, so this is a pre-snap check. They ran the same play against Minnesota in what appeared to be a pre-snap look again.
In this case Minnesota showed them man coverage with no safety support, and the Hawkeyes took advantage.
The Iowa offense is impressively average. The rushing attack has some good parts, but lacks the dominating OL to make it thrive. The offense has some great weapons on the perimeter, and real talent at the TE position. Petras is holding the offense back. He is inaccurate as a thrower, and leads Iowa to running concepts that allow easy reads for Petras. Petras thus far has more INTs than TDs on the season, and has the lowest YPA since James Vanderburg in 2012. The Iowa offense does a nice job of working around its limitations, but has reached its ceiling at an 80th ranked offense.
Scouting Review - Defense
Anytime I hear Robert or others discuss recruiting to your system, the Iowa defense is the first thing that comes to mind for me. Iowa produces a continuous stream of NFL talent on defense, but rarely has recruited top tier defensive talent (AJ Epenesa as the exception). The Hawkeyes know exactly what measurables they are looking for to play in their defense and then work to develop the players they get on campus. Players like Desmond King suddenly appearing at Iowa can no longer be chalked up to an accident.
The building block of the Iowa defense, as always, is the defensive line. Iowa seems to have 4 senior DL starting every year, with a couple of juniors who contribute. This year the DL is aided in the experience column with the addition of NIU transfer DT Jack Heflin in the offseason. While Heflin is not much in the pass rush, his consistent performance in the run game has allowed Nixon to turn loose and bring the pass rush. Nixon leads the Hawkeyes in sacks with 5. Overall, the Hawkeyes are 2nd in the B1G in sacks with most of that pressure being generated without blitzing.
Historically the Iowa defense is a master of the bend but don't break strategy. For every frustrated Lovie follower out there, Phil Parker is proof of concept that a 4-3 with a Cover 2 shell can work. The defense requires every player being synched up, and eliminating big plays down the field. The Hawkeyes are adept at this. The real weakness of the defense is when offenses are able to isolate players in space. The Iowa defense lacks true difference makers this year which allows for teams to take advantage of the athletic deficiencies.
All the opponents of the Hawkeyes this year have tried to take advantage of the defense making them cover quick hits to the sidelines.
The most successful to date was Nebraska last weekend. If the Huskers did not completely self-destruct they would have won this past weekend.
The core defensive set up is a 4-3 Cover 2. The Cover 2 shell mixes with Cover 4, and they utilize a lot of split field coverages. The Hawkeyes believe they can play base defense and allow opponents to make mistakes and get behind the sticks. Once that happens, they will start to bring more exotic looks to generate havoc plays.
The Hawkeyes will mix up the base look though and create issues for opposing offenses. Here is a look where the Hawkeyes have switched to man coverage underneath with the 2 high safety shell over the top.
The defense is hoping for the DL to get home with the rush, but Minnesota's WR wins on the in route. The LBs are exceedingly aggressive against teams where the primary offense is the run. Illinois is the most extreme example of this the Hawkeyes have seen this year. As a result, the LBs will be playing downhill fast. Nebraska took advantage of this using the RPO game.
The MLB is the read, and is pulled up on the run action. Even Adrian Martinez can hit routes opened up when the LBs come forward. The LBs will blitz on occasion, but seem to have the green light when they see certain sets and formations. Here the Will LB is blitzing at the snap, but appears to have the RB as his responsibility (and is probably the backside A gap defender).
Iowa is taking advantage of the Nebraska read game, blitzing a player in the same gap as the read.
Situationally, Iowa will bring packages to pressure opposing offenses. One of the most common items is the tackle twist in passing situations.
The twist here is different than most since the slanting tackle hits his gap hard, but the tackle coming on the loop is delayed longer than most. This will require the OL to communicate to prevent the tackle from coming free into the face of the QB.
The other interesting part is that they have rotated a DE down to DT. Golston (#57) replaces Heflin as a pass rushing DE, but they rotated which tackle loops. The idea is to get pressure in the QBs face.
The Haweyes don't blitz much, but they do mix up who is blitzing well. The beauty of the scheme is that the blitzes are unexpected and hard to predict. Here are examples of LB blitzes starting with the "Sam"/Nickel, the MLB, and the WLB.
All of these blitzes are very effective against an outside zone team like Illinois. The Nickel is right into the read option and blows up that play if there is no RPO attached. The other two blitzes are coming hard into the B-gap. This allows either the Mike to scrape or puts the DT into a solo block vs. the standard double team. Doing this allows penetration against the run game and limits options for the RB for lanes.
Iowa has a version of the zone blitz they use for 3rd and mediums, as well as mixing in different coverages. They do some Cover 3 - as well as mixing in split field coverages. Iowa changes it up enough to keep you honest, but simple enough that defenders are assignment sound.
The Iowa defense is designed to force opponents into long sustained drives. Illinois is an interesting match as they are the most explosive running game in the B1G. Nebraka gave Iowa fits, and had 2 bad fumbles and some bad snaps that slowed their rushing game. Illinois will have chances to break big runs against Iowa, and must avoid the pitfalls of Nebraska to put points on the board.
What does it mean?
The Hawkeyes are looking to keep the good times rolling with a 5th straight victory and 7th in the series. Iowa needs to keep the run game on track and control the tempo of the game. If Petras is forced to be the lynchpin of the offense, Iowa will struggle. The last four games, Brian Ferentz has gotten out of his own way and the offense is clicking at near 40 ppg in their winning streak. The OL has a distinct advantage of the Illini DL, but I expect Illinois to roll down the safeties to stymie the run game. The Iowa offense will need to stretch the Illini defense horizontally and vertically to move the ball. If Petras can deliver the ball accurately, the Hawkeyes will put up points on the Illini.
The Iowa defense is about big play prevention, and Illinois has been the most explosive team in the B1G during the win streak. Illinois must establish the outside zone run game and take advantage of the edge defenders with the RPO game.
For Illinois to Win:
In the Illinois two game win streak, Rod Smith has found a rhythm and Illinois is executing the system. For Illinois to win, they are going to have to score on par with the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is also going to run their system, and they are experts on it. If the Illini can force Iowa to start playing outside their system, Illinois can score and break big plays. The key for Illinois is to execute consistently and force Iowa to play perfect ball.
The Illini D has found the perfect QB to be a system defense against. Petras is an inaccurate passer who locks into receivers. Illinois should be able to force errant passes and will have the opportunity to force some turnovers. If the Illini can force Iowa to sustain drives and get the Hawkeyes into passing situations, they will be able to limit the Hawkeyes ability to score and allow the offense to outscore the Illini.
For Iowa to Win:
Iowa needs to stay ahead of the sticks and stay out of 3rd and long situations. Iowa's main success this year has been taking the yards the defense is giving, so attacking soft corners and LBs out of position will be the order of the day. The Hawkeyes will need to methodically attack th Illini D.
The Hawkeye defense needs to return to form, and avoid another Nebraska outing. The sheer excitement of playing in the Heroes Game presented by Hy-Vee is a lot to take in, so the Hawkeyes are hoping that was what drove the bad performance.
Iowa will try to emulate the Wisconsin model against Illinois with a consistent run game and a high efficiency pass game. The Hawkeyes key objective will be to limit the opportunities for Illinois to break big plays, while methodically scoring points. Iowa is going to score at least 31. I believe Iowa and Northwestern are the two worst matchups for the Illini offense. As a result, I think Illinois will be unable to score enough points to cover Iowa scoring 31.
YTD Against the Spread: