Craig Has The Scout - Iowa 2023
Who: Iowa Hawkeyes
When: 2:30 pm - November 18th, 2023
Where: Kinnick Stadium
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz is putting on his magnus opus this season. He has sucked all the fun out of football in Iowa City this season and yet keeps winning. The Hawkeyes were 130th in total offense last season, and Ferentz decided that was not enough of a challenge. This season, the Hawkeyes are 133rd in total offense (falling behind 2 FCS teams that moved up) and somehow Ferentz is sporting a better squad than a year ago. It is a truly impressive feat, and one I don't look forward to watching.
Offensive Style: Run first Pro Style spread. Brian Ferentz is still the play-caller, and not a stellar example for encouraging schools to hire OL coaches as the OC. Ferentz runs a bland offensive scheme that is predictable based on formation. Michigan doesn't need to steal the signals to understand the scheme. Iowa will mix in screens and play-action to try and break bigger plays, but they are far from explosive. Brian is boxed in though, the Iowa-way requires the offense to avoid putting the defense in bad situations and keep the team in games. Brian took that assignment to the extreme, and the offense is horrific to watch.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 Cover 3. Phil Parker is a wizard. Iowa runs a conservative scheme that makes you string together drives. The Hawkeyes gang tackle, jump routes, and dictate the game to you. He has moved to more Cover 3 this year after being primarily Cover 2 the previous few seasons.
Specialists: Tory Taylor is one of the best punters seen in college football in a generation. He has distance and touch. Iowa leads the nation in net punting, in addition to total punts. The Iowa special teams are the best nationally in my opinion.
2023 Iowa at a Glance:
2023 Record: 8-2, 5-2
SP+ Offensive Rating: 118th
SP+ Defensive Rating: 2nd
SP+ Special Teams Rating: 10th
Turnover Margin: -3
Three Things to Watch
- Penalty yardage. Iowa has gained an additional 320 yards this season in penalty yardage. Iowa is the 2nd least penalized team in the B1G, and their opponents are also the 2nd most penalized in the conference. Illinois is the most penalized in the conference and not in the position to give up free yards.
- Illinois Punt Return Yards. The Illini are the best punt return team in the conference, and Iowa is in the middle of the pack in yards allowed. Taylor has a big leg and flips fields. Illinois has a chance to moderate the advantage with their punt return game.
- Iowa 3rd down conversions. Illinois is the worst defense in preventing opponent conversions on 3rd down. Iowa is the worst in the conference in converting. The Illini need to force Iowa to punt, and punt early in drives.
Scouting Review - Offense
Iowa has already announced that Brian Ferentz's contract was not being picked up for next year. The announcement has not changed Ferentz's approach to the game. The last couple of games are absolute mirror images of the beginning of the season. Last week against Rutgers was an outright offensive explosion by Iowa standards. The Hawkeyes keep winning, so if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Iowa is snakebit this year with injuries. The Hawkeyes were expecting a big year from Michigan QB transfer Cade McNamara. McNamara made it through 5 games before a season ending injury. He looked injured all season, and the results were not what everyone expected. McNamara has been replaced by Deacon Hill, who was a 3rd string back-up at Wisconsin last year.
The injuries extended to the new primary receiver the Hawkeyes were expecting to take over. Erick All was another transfer from Michigan, this time at TE. All made it seven games before his own season-ending injury. His TE counterpart, Luke Lachey, was another top target the Hawkeyes were counting on to jazz up the offense. Lachey made it three games prior to his season ending injury. Kaleb Brown is an Ohio State WR transfer they thought would add an explosive threat, and he has only played in three games thus far.
The Iowa offense was never supposed to be explosive or dynamic. It was expected to be competent though. The Hawkeyes have been unable to find a rhythm until last week. Kaleb Brown finally looked like a player who was at Ohio State, and the OL was back to its standard. The OL has been plagued with injuries as well.
Iowa has three basic formations. There is the I-formation with one or two TEs. There is the shotgun formation with multiple TEs. There is also the ace-formation with multiple TEs. When Ferentz really gets wild, they will go empty, but the empty formation will always lead to a quick perimeter pass. The Iowa offense runs about 14 plays total and are predictable based on formation.
The Iowa offense is run first, and they mix up the scheme with play-action passing. When they decide to pass, the concepts all come from the West Coast offense playbook. Ferentz works the perimeter in the passing attack to help loosen a stacked box. Opposing defenses have been stacking the box all season.
A basic run play for the Hawkeyes is the inside zone. The Hawkeyes run 2 TE sets (which has been a challenge this year with all the injuries). Historically Brian Ferentz used a lot of zone blocking as an OL coach and early on as OC.
Ferentz has incorporated the Wham block to cut down backside pursuit. The Hawkeyes will utilize this play most often in short yardage run situations.
Ferentz is predictable. The success rate for Iowa will be very poor, but the Hawkeyes will try to grind out 3-4 yards per rush.
The play Iowa must lead the nation in running the I-formation iso-lead. Iowa is one of a few schools still using a fullback, and Ferentz loves to run isolation up the middle. The advantage of the play is it forces opposing defenses to stack the box.
Ferentz has added an added wrinkle this year with more WR motion. The Hawkeyes appear to run away from the motion most often, which makes sense as the DBs will be bouncing away from the motion. The play is designed to get the RB isolated on the safety.
Minnesota short-circuited the Iowa run game by stacking the line of scrimmage and relying on the interior DL to win individual battles to disrupt the run game. Illinois has a few guys playing DT who have that capability. The fear is the Hawkeyes being able to overwhelm the 2nd level of the Illini defense.
The Hawkeyes also have the gap blocking scheme options. Ferentz mixes in the counter run scheme, which Illinois should see often on Saturday if they are stacking the box.
The Hawkeyes want to play this game in a phone booth and physically overwhelm the Illini. Iowa uses tight splits and 2 TEs frequently to allow vertical seams to open. The Counter play allows the Hawkeyes to downblock on the Illini DTs and it helps negate the penetration. In a departure for Iowa, Ferentz will mix up the formation and look on the counter play.
The H-back is one of the blockers in this case. The H-back against Rutgers was mainly a tool as a Wham or Counter blocker.
Iowa loves to run play-action, which allows the ducks from Deacon Hill an opportunity to be completed downfield. Iowa ran a couple of dangerous plays downfield against Rutgers. I think the Illini single high safety is vulnerable to TE seam passes.
Rutgers was in a 2-high shell here, but the far safety's eyes were following the outside receiver. He let the TE release freely. As Illinois begins working in Resetich, they are susceptible to deep shots like this.
Iowa does have a few nice little counters in their arsenal. One play Iowa has used for years is the jet sweep with the motioning WR.
Kaleb Brown is the motioning receiver and will be the best athlete on the field when Iowa is on offense. Ferentz needs to isolate Brown against Illinois corners to free up the flats. Illinois will utilize man coverage, so Iowa used the motion to isolate the RB on LBs.
The Hawkeyes were able to isolate Kaleb Johnson on the edge when the Purdue OLB rushed the QB vs. staying with his assignment. The Illini are going to be susceptible to this.
The passing attack is all set up on West Coast passing concepts. The Hawkeye's attack is fundamental. It must be, Deacon Hill was 3rd string at Wisconsin for a reason. Graham Mertz he is not. For Hill, they will try to give him clear throwing windows, and an easy way to do so is with Levels.
The Hawkeyes use the 2 TE sets often but will often use twin and trip receiver sets to run concepts.
The Trips set-up was not necessary, this is a two-man route concept. The outside receiver is pulling the corner opening the Out route against a safety. Nico Ragaini is the receiver on this play. Ragaini is a 6th year senior and a steady part of the offense. Unlike every other receiver for Iowa over the last few seasons, he didn't transfer out to an offense to take advantage of his skills.
Minnesota gave a good primer for Hill what an 8-man coverage looks like against their passing attack. Ferentz uses zone beater principles, and the receivers do a nice job with option routes after reading the coverages.
This play is indicative of the passing attack for Iowa this weekend. The Hawkeyes will look to press the sidelines and freeze the box defenders. The hope is to get single coverage on the perimeter and beat the Illini defender in single coverage for an explosive play.
No Iowa offense review is complete without a screen. The Hawkeyes will use both WR and RB screens. Here is a jailbreak WR screen.
The Hawkeyes will hope the safety is frozen on the interior and the WR is able to break free down the sideline. If not, they will be happy with an easy throw to the WR on the perimeter.
Illinois runs a five-man front, and I don't foresee the Illini dropping the OLBs often. Iowa wants to run, so opponents have been stacking the box to slow down the Hawkeye offense. Iowa was able to successfully use the perimeter and Deacon Hill was able to move the ball through the air finally last week. Illinois will press the corners to take away the easy throws, so it will be incumbent on the safeties to stay out of conflict and avoid the deep threats down the seam.
Scouting Review - Defense
Phil Parker is the best coordinator in the B1G. For unknown reasons, he has remained in Iowa City and is a career lifer. If he was opposite a competent offense, he could be playing for national titles. It appears he likes second tier bowl games instead.
Parker played under George Perles at Michigan State, and the Iowa offense is the closest throwback to the time he was a player. Parker's strength is developing talent and creating comprehensive units. Iowa has been able to forge effective units at all levels for multiple seasons. This season is impressive, he lost his top DL in the off-season to a gambling suspension. He also had a DB suspended early in the season. The upshot on the DB suspension, with DeJean out they have an experienced backup ready.
Scouting Iowa is pretty straightforward. They play their lanes and zones, and pressure opposing offenses to press. Iowa creates enough confusion with coverage changes and line slants to speed up the QB decision making.
Iowa is replacing a Butkus winner from last season and somehow this defense looks improved for last season. And that was an incredible defense. The core of the Iowa defense is a 4-2-5 alignment. The CASH player is a hybrid safety/linebacker. Historically Iowa has leaned harder towards the LB side, but lately has moved closer to safety. Cooper DeJean was considered for the role in the spring.
The backend coverage last season was almost exclusively Cover 2, and the Hawkeyes still tend to sit in a Cover 2 shell. With his current personnel, Parker has moved to more Cover 3 this season for coverage. It has allowed him to run Robber coverage underneath. The baseline looks like this.
The Hawkeyes zone defenders can be moved but they ensure they keep the play in front of them. Iowa will frustrate opponents by forcing them to string together drives and continue to make plays. The Robber coverage looks similar to this.
Iowa was walking down the safety more often against Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights QB is more RB than QB.
The Hawkeyes run fits are about maintaining gap integrity and forcing backs to bounce plays to the perimeter.
Iowa might be the most effective team at shutting down RPOs. The DBs keep their eyes in the backfield as they drop into zones, and the LBs play their lanes. The DL is good at holding their gaps as well. In this case they were dropping into a Cover 3.
Against heavy formations, Iowa will walk down a LB or the Cash as an overhang defender.
The overhang defender does a great job of closing down the edge and forcing the run back inside. The Reggie Love bounce to the edge doesn't work against Iowa as they hold their lanes. The OL needs to win 1:1 matchups against the Iowa DL to get the run game moving. Altmyer's legs would be useful in read-option to open up the edge.
The Iowa DL in passing situations will stunt, which is a Phil Parker specialty. Iowa has been looping defenders more this season, which is a testament to the strength of the secondary. Parker is confident the secondary can hold up coverage while the rush gets home.
Minnesota did a nice job opening up the throw to the edge with a moving pick by the tight end. Illinois will use rub routes to free up Williams in addition to quick change of direction routes with Williams underneath.
Illinois has been adept at shooting themselves in the foot this year. The Hawkeyes will be more than happy to let the Illini do that. Parker is going to mix coverages and create confusion on quick reads. Penn State and Manny Diaz did it to great effect against Illinois. Parker will try to replicate the performance. Lunney will need to scheme easy throws for the offense along with a patient run game to put up points on the Hawkeyes.
What does it mean?
Both teams have been unlucky with turnovers this season, and both are negative for the season. If either team has a bad turnover game, it will be impossible for the offenses to catch up. The Illini have had five turnovers the last two weeks but have been able to overcome it. Iowa is undefeated when they force a turnover this season.
The Hawkeye offense is finally starting to round into a semblance of competence. Illinois made the 2nd worst offense in the B1G look explosive last week. If Iowa comes close to replicating that performance this game will be a blow-out. If the Illini are able to move the ball efficiently, they will be in the game to the end.
For Illinois to Win:
Iowa runs an offense Illinois has experience against this season. Iowa will look very similar to the Nebraska, Penn State, and Minnesota offenses. When Illinois stymied the opposing run game, they win (Minnesota/Maryland). When they don't, they lose (Nebraska/Penn State). Illinois is well equipped with their DL to hamper the Iowa run game. The Illini need to stop the run plain and simple.
The Illini offense will be the key to the game. Illinois must move the ball efficiently, and not put the ball at risk in the air. With Cooper DeJean out for the season, Illinois has an advantage with Williams operating in space. The Illini rushing attack will be key as the Illini utilize a mash unit at RB. Illinois should be happy to grind out yards but need to stay ahead of the sticks. The key for Illinois is to stay patient, and avoid trying to make something happen which leads to a mistake.
For Iowa to Win:
Phil Parker is an amazing DC. He teaches his defense to play by the book, ignoring risks and sticking to the principles. The defense is Iceman from Top Gun, ice-cold, no mistakes. Parker lost his best DB this week, and his best DT in the off-season.
Last week was a revelation for the Iowa offense. They were effective moving the ball, and Deacon Hill looked like an FBS quarterback. Iowa will plod along hoping to break one big play. They are not efficient or explosive, but with that defense they are only playing for a few opponent breakdowns to win the game.
Iowa has allowed a single touchdown in the last four games. They've only allowed more than one twice this season. Illinois put up a touchdown in every game, and Nebraska was the only game without multiple TDs. It's hard to get a read on this game, it will be dictated by field position, and the wildcard is turnovers. The one constant in the game is Taylor, and that will make a difference. My heart is with the orange and blue, my bet is with the Hawkeyes to cover.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: