Craig Has The Scout - Iowa 2021
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Who: Iowa Hawkeyes
When: 1:00pm - November 20th, 2021
Where: Kinnick Field
How: FS1 - Banking on some entertainment with the SEC Bye week
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz. A man who is the longest-serving B1G coach, and gets a pass on some of the most atrocious parts of college coaching. He's not that far off the Beckman trajectory with his treatment of players and engaging in outright nepotism on staff.
Offensive Style: A hybrid, mainly pro-style featuring spread elements for a grind-it-out style. Speaking of that nepotism. Brian Ferentz is the OC, and his tenure has been consistently average. Iowa is sporting the 93rd best offense according to SP+ in 2021. Brian is putting together offenses right on par with an Illinois offense no one is excited about. He's doing so with some of the best skill talent Iowa City has seen in recent memory. While Petersen's offense is resetting in year one, Ferentz has been running the show since 2018.
Defensive Style: 4-3 primarily Cover 2. Phil Parker should be getting a pay raise this offseason. He has the #4 defense in the country without a single super-star to focus on. Parker's Iowa is a disciplined bend-but-don't-break defense. Parker believes in keeping it simple and allowing the players to fly to the ball.
Specialists: Tory Taylor continues to be a stand-out punter and gives Kirk the confidence to stay conservative. Illinois and Iowa have similar weapons in the special teams game.
Three Things to Watch
Commitment to the run. Iowa will look to strangle the Illini running game, and with McDonald on the other end of the headset, the game plan may change. Bielema would grind it out, under McDonald the offense may open up more.
Turnover Margin. Last week was the first game Iowa won where they didn't win the turnover margin. Iowa has been getting ahead of opponents by taking advantage of opponent turnovers. When the turnover fairy stays away, the Hawkeyes struggle.
COVID missed starts. The Illini may have to retool on the fly depending on the severity of the COVID outbreak. Unfortunately, when COVID hits teams it normally hits position groups.
Scouting Review - Offense
It's rare when the best player on the field is an offensive lineman. That will be the case on Saturday. Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa's center, is the best in the nation. The strength of Iowa for years has been that OL, and it is not living up to its former glory this year.
The struggles of the offense running the ball have placed more demand on the QB this year, and Iowa has now moved on from the caretaker QB, Spencer Petras, to a play-maker QB, Alex Padilla. Padilla has not been an exact revelation at the position, but he has let his playmakers work and avoided the inconsistency of Petras. Iowa has relied on Padilla to move the ball the last couple of weeks.
The Iowa defense is elite this year, and the offense was designed to be the complementary piece. It has been more of an insult this season. Brian Ferentz is a pro-style OC, and is not maximizing the talent available to him. This Iowa offense is the worst utilization of talent this side of Bill O'Brien at Alabama. It may come as no surprise to you that Ferentz was an assistant under O'Brien for the Patriots.
Historically, Iowa has lined up and ran the ball down opponents' throats. Not quite to Wisconsin levels, but still down their throats. They complemented the rushing attack with a pro-style passing attack that was efficient and protected the ball. CJ Beathard and Nate Stanley are perfect examples and making money holding a clipboard in the NFL. Spencer Petras was groomed to be the next 3-year starting QB for the Hawkeyes but has not lived up to the billing thus far.
Iowa has become synonymous with two things offensively. Great tight ends utilized well, and mediocre running backs who get hurt often. Like all odd things this year for Iowa, things are a little out of sync. Tyler Goodson is a quality running back, and Sam LaPorta is a quality tight end. The TE depth is lacking beyond LaPorta though.
The Iowa rushing attack has two main formations, the shotgun Ace set, and the I-Formation. The Hawkeyes use both extensively, and historically had tackles that dominated the edge which allowed the run game to flourish. They are still using the formations, but the tackles are a little weaker this year. I believe against Illinois they will use the TEs more heavily early to get the run game moving. So the first play I will show is neither of the two formations mentioned above. Here is the outside zone with the dual TEs.
In pure hat-on-hat blocking, Iowa won across the board. Linderbaum sets the hole the back scoots through (he ran right off his backside). The Illini DTs will need to hold the point of attack against the Iowa interior to slow this down. The primary run version for this is out of the Ace Shotgun set though.
This was a 3rd and 17 play, so not the typical defense from Maryland. The key on the Iowa rushing attack is they like to run to the weak side of the formation, as seen on that play. Here is the standard run to the weak-side out of an Ace formation.
Linderbaum might be the best in the business for his holding take-down on this play while not getting flagged for it. Here is the same play out of the gun formation.
Iowa does a nice job on the double teams prior to moving to the 2nd level.
To prevent opposing defenses from loading up on the weak side, Iowa will run this same play to the strong side. The Illini run a similar defensive front to Wisconsin, and Iowa ran to the strong side more frequently.
The Iowa interior line does a nice job screening off the defensive front and creating a run lane. Overall, they had as much success as Illinois did against the Badgers. While running the zone to the strong side, Goodson is a good one-step and go back, which he does right here against Minnesota.
Goodson sees where his OL wins at the LOS, and drives to the hole. Linderbaum (65) and Schott (64) are a solid combo and will wreak havoc on Illini DTs.
Ferentz has modernized the offense by attaching RPO and passing concepts on the run actions above. Here are the RPOs for the Hawkeyes.
This is the outside zone run action to the weak side again. Iowa saw man coverage against Northwestern and took the RPO against man coverage to the strong side of the formation. The OL was working quickly to the 2nd level, but Padilla made this read pre-snap. The other action they use is the bubble screen RPO.
The run action, in this case, was to the strong side. Petras actually made the read on this play.
The Hawkeyes used a FB on about half of the snaps that I watched. The run schemes are similar with and without the fullback, except the zone play turns into an ISO. Here is the ISO play with the FB lined up in the Weak I.
Earlier in the season, the Hawkeyes were splitting snaps between two FBs, but Pottebaum appears to have solidified most of the snaps now. Pottebaum is an old-school 90s Nebraska-style fullback. And similar to those old FBs, he gets carries every now and again.
Iowa likes to use him in short-yardage situations. They will also motion him in the formation.
He will occasionally stay as an H-back and block from there as well. Here is the standard ISO play.
Iowa will change personnel groupings and will try to utilize their strength with their TEs, FB, and interior OL. The inconsistency in run blocking makes Ferentz vary the formation more than I think he would like.
Padilla is a more mobile QB than Petras, and the Hawkeyes have been finding ways to move him. Petras is a statue in the pocket, while Padilla runs well. To take advantage, they have been rolling pockets, and they have signalled that recently by motioning the FB to set the edge as he rolls out.
I saw the motion twice against Minnesota, both of which were roll-outs. I would expect some trick play to build on that this week. The other option they have with the I-formation is straight play-action.
The receiver comes all the way across the field to find the opening. The play is a 2-man route combo with the RBs flaring after blocking. This is the cleanest pocket I saw in the last few weeks showing some semblance of improvement.
The Iowa offense wouldn't be the Iowa offense without motioning the formation and moving TEs. They also like to use the Split Zone look.
This is inside-zone, but the TE takes a jab step as he sets up the block. They have a play-action pass associated with it as well, one they will lean into on Saturday.
I believe the Hawkeyes will use this in the first few plays of their first drive. The Illini LBs will be game to stop the run and this play can isolate the TE in space.
The main passing concept of the Hawkeyes is mesh. They run the standard version with some deep options.
Keagan Johnson has emerged as the best receiving threat for the Hawkeyes. The slot receivers and the tight ends will create the biggest challenges for the Illini though. Raigani and Bruce would be two to watch for in the slot, Charlie Jones seems to have lost his playing time. They run another version I'll call Nebraska mesh since the whole purpose is a pick for the receiver.
Jones (16) and Lachey (85) run rub routes to free up LaPorta coming across. Walters likes man coverage, so this is something to look for. The other passing scheme Iowa leans on more heavily than most is the screen game. Iowa utilizes the screen game more than most teams in the B1G, which is a screen-heavy league. Here is the RB screen.
Goodson is a solid all-around back with great hands. They'll use him in seam routes as well when they can isolate him. They will also utilize tunnel screens.
This screen was earlier in the year with Bruce. They ran it later with Johnson as well.
The Hawkeyes offense had a points explosion for them last week, putting up 27 against Minnesota after scoring 31 in the previous 3 games. Petras should be back healthy, but Padilla should start as the offense finally started to mimic the Stanley offenses from a few years ago. Padilla puts the ball at risk more than Petras which helps the scoreboard but runs against the mantra for the offense not to put the defense at risk.
Brian Ferentz is the worst version of the previous OCs at Iowa (O'Keefe and Davis). He is a very conservative play-caller and is receiving similar flak that Petersen is getting from Illini fans. The lack of chances taken downfield limits the overall capabilities of the offense. The young playmakers the Hawkeyes have at the skill positions should help the OL, but Ferentz play-calling puts the OL at a disadvantage. He will take more chances Saturday against Illinois since the Illini O poses no immediate threats to Iowa's D, and will allow them to overcome a bad turnover in the quest for points.
Scouting Review - Defense
Phil Parker is a name I would like to float for a head coaching job somewhere. He is a fantastic DC with a sound scheme, and the ability to transform unheralded recruits into great B1G players. Parker is up for the Broyles Award (top assistant) and has absolutely earned the nomination. This Iowa team is one of the more lopsided teams nationally, a top-5 defense and barely top-100 offense, with a lights-out special teams unit. The only other team this remotely imbalanced is San Diego State (with Brady Hoke). In all honesty, Illinois is similar with a worse unit across all three phases.
Iowa runs a Cover 2 shell, mixing Cover 2 and Cover 4. The Hawkeyes rarely blitz on standard downs (typically do so in passing situations) and rely on their defense to play fundamental football. Penn State is of the opinion that anytime is an acceptable time to blitz. Iowa disagrees wholeheartedly.
The Iowa defense all starts with the run fits. The defense holds the point of attack well and allows their MLB Campbell and the LBs to flow to the ball. If Iowa can force the bounce, they are dangerous as Campbell has good speed and flows to the perimeter well. Here is the base defense run fit.
5 is the hybrid LB on this one. The starter is #4, Belton, who may see less playing time due to the Illini heavy sets this week. Here is the look against the Minnesota heavy sets.
Iowa will walk down both LBs to the LOS, and bring the safeties closer to the LOS. They will also walk down a single LB against jumbo sets.
This play shows the back seven ensuring no pass and jamming their receivers before committing to the run. The defense is rock solid in this regard and makes very few mistakes. One mistake they will make in Cover 4 is double moves.
The corner in Cover 4 has the outermost receiver and has the receiver in man with no safety help unless the receiver crosses another. The DB bit on the in route, and this is something they did against Penn State as well. If the opportunity presents itself, Peters has to hit the deep shot.
In passing situations, Iowa will bring pressure and stunt the DL to disrupt opposing offenses. The most common is the End-Tackle stunt here.
The Nickel blitzes in this case, but they will run it without the blitz as well. The other action they use often is the defensive line shift. They will move the line pre-snap to confuse the OL and utilize it for pressure. Here is a pre-snap shift with a blitz behind it.
At the end of the Penn State game, the Hawkeyes brought more pressure than usual.
Very few programs have the level of consistency that Iowa does on defense under coordinator Phil Parker. Iowa's defense bordered on elite last year, and have earned that designation this year. The defense has an identity, and Iowa recruits to it. They churn out quality college players with low-ranked recruits and walk-ons. They then mix that with enough high-end talent to compete with the B1G elite.
The back seven is what makes the defense elite. The secondary improves with the return of Riley Moss last week, and MLB Jack Campbell is earning an all-B1G nod with 100 tackles YTD.
What does it mean?
Ferentz will most likely stay conservative on both sides of the ball to avoid beating themselves. On average, this is a more talented Iowa team. Iowa needs to avoid beating itself. The Hawkeyes need help, but they could still win the B1G West.
Padilla looks like a more competent game-manager than Petras was showing. Brian Ferentz should be on a short leash this weekend with play-calling to avoid costly turnovers.
The Iowa defense will stay basic. The Hawkeyes want to force the Illini to press, then take advantage of any mistakes. Parker is a great DC, he'll add wrinkles, but he will rely on his players to win this game.
For Illinois to Win:
Petras being benched for Padilla might be an advantage for the Illini. Ferentz wants to pass and Padilla has yet to face adversity, and Illinois can bring it to him this weekend. The Iowa offense needs the defense to help it out, so if Illinois can force Iowa to make big plays and let Ferentz do his thing they have an advantage.
The Iowa offense needs the defense to force turnovers. The Illini offense needs to take care of the ball. Illinois needs some first downs to control the tempo and minimize possessions for both teams.
For Iowa to Win:
Illinois has to run to win. The Iowa defense needs to strangle the Illini rushing attack and put the game on Peters's arm. If the defense can stop the Illini rushing attack, Illinois will not win this through the air. If Iowa can force some turnovers, this game could get out of hand in a hurry.
Illinois is going to run the ball. The Illini are one of the best at protecting the football and Iowa blows out teams when they dominate turnover margin. The COVID question remains for Illinois. This is a clear stay-away betting game, and I think it is a 2 score game. Even so, I'll take Illinois to cover the spread.
YTD Against the Spread: