IOWA PREVIEW: Day of the Bird

A Thanksgiving read while you wait for that turkey to cook and/or try to avoid a family political discussion

INFO AND STATISTICS:

COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 23rd season (176-108 overall)

2021 RECORD: 9-2 (6-2 Big Ten; T-1 in Big Ten West)

POLL RANKING: 17th Associated Press Poll, 12 Coaches’ Poll

SP+/FPI/F+ OVERALL RATING: 18th SP+/25th FPI/21st F+ (Nebraska: 33rd SP+/28th FPI/30th F+)

VEGAS SPREAD (as of Wednesday, November 24): Iowa -1.5, 41.0 Over/Under

SP+ NEBRASKA WIN PROBABILITY: 47 percent

SP+ SCORE PREDICTION: 23-22, Iowa

Ferentz’s tenure at Iowa is old enough to have graduated from college and moved back in with their parents while looking for a job. Coaches who immediately replace a legend, as Ferentz did with Hayden Fry, almost never do well, but, aside from a slow start and a brief lull in the early 2010s Ferentz has done nothing but produce quality teams.

Iowa was never the actual close to the second-best team in the country following its “LET’S SEE IF WE CAN SUSTAINABLY GET FIVE INTERCEPTIONS A GAME” start, but this is still a very solidly top-15/20 team on the strength of its straight-up nasty defense.


PERSONNEL:

BEST PLAYERS:

  • Tyler Linderbaum, Center, #65: The best lineman in the country and a likely top 15 pick after this season, the junior has been just a good pass blocker this season but has a 96.0 (!!!) run blocking grade by Pro Football Focus. He has a high school wrestling background, which you can see in his movement skills; excellent body positioning; and understanding of body leverage/angles that is all perfect in the Hawkeyes’ zone-blocking scheme.

  • Riley Moss, Corner, #33: One of the Hawkeyes’ two elite outside corners, the in-state former two-star recruit was one of the 15 best Power 5 corners in zone coverage last season per PFF, and he has picked up where he left off with four interceptions in only eight games. He also is a solid player in the run game at almost 200 pounds.

  • Zach VanValkenburg, Defensive End/Edge Rusher, #97: In the passing game, the super senior has a low sack total but is getting heat on the quarterback at a good rate, with 26 total pressures and 16 hurries. He’s a stout run defender and very difficult to move at 6’4 and 270 pounds, though on film he did seem like he was susceptible to option plays because he had a tendency to over-pursue (HMMMMMM).

  • Matt Hankins, Corner, #8: The other outside corner, the senior from Texas has played in all five of his seasons on campus and led the P5 last year in passes defensed out of zone coverage (he has five more this year).

COOLEST NAME ON THE ROSTER:

Deuce Hogan, Quarterback, #2

“Deuce Hogan” is the name of the villain quarterback on an overwrought Friday Night Lights-style teen drama, and I mean that in the best possible way.


WHEN IOWA’S OFFENSE IS ON THE FIELD:

STATISTICS:

UNIT SP+/FPI/F+ RATINGS: 

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 93rd SP+/104th FPI/94th F+ 

  • NU DEFENSE: 22nd SP+/22nd FPI/15th F+

YARDS PER PLAY (national rank in parentheses):

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 4.50 yards per play (124th)

  • NU DEFENSE: 5.27 yards allowed per play (43rd)

POINTS PER DRIVE (national rank in parentheses):

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 1.87 points per drive (94th)

  • NU DEFENSE: 1.85 points allowed per drive (28th)

RUSHING:

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 115.27 rushing yards per game (12th in Big Ten, 113th nationally)

  • NU DEFENSE: 143.36 rushing yards allowed per game (8th in Big Ten, 57th nationally)

PASSING:

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 177.9 passing yards per game (10th in Big Ten, 113th nationally)

  • NU DEFENSE: 222.8 passing yards allowed per game (9th in Big Ten, 57th nationally)

20+ YARD GAINS PER GAME:

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 3.27 20+ yard gains per game (1.09 rush, 2.18 pass)

  • NU DEFENSE: 3.63 20+ yard gains allowed per game (1.36 rush, 2.27 pass)

HAVOC PLAYS PER GAME (tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed, interceptions, fumbles forced):

  • IOWA OFFENSE: 10.63 Havoc plays allowed per game

  • NU DEFENSE: 11.6 Havoc plays per game

COORDINATOR:

Brian Ferentz, Fifth Season

I had a whole thing written, but instead I am going to say there is no greater example of nepotism than Brian Ferentz’s tenure as offensive coordinator at Iowa.

SCHEME

Primary Formations: Singleback, I-Formation, Shotgun

Primary Personnel: 12, 21, 11

Tempo: Never Unless Situationally

Motion: Average

Run Concepts: Outside Zone, Inside Zone, Split Zone

Pass Concepts: West Coast Quick Game, Play-Action Boots And Shots

Standard Downs: Stay On Schedule With The Run Game, Play-Action For Chunks

Third Downs: Avoid At All Costs, Maybe Throw It But Definitely Don’t Turn It Over

There’s a general misconception that the Hawkeyes under Kirk Ferentz don’t play “good” offense; they may play conservatively, but historically they have executed and coached some elements of “TRYING TO SCORE POINTS” very well, such as zone blocking and play-action design, and they’ve produced some really quality offensive players.

That is not true this year — the memes are accurate. This offense has been putrid. Despite having the best run-blocking offensive lineman since Quenton Nelson, they are the second-worst rushing team in the Big Ten (ahead of only Rutgers) and have a passing game that often looks dysfunctional, if not downright scared of having to be throwing the ball.

Starting quarterback Spencer Petras was … not very good for a lot of the season and suffered a shoulder injury that kept him from starting the last three games. Backup Alex Padilla was an improvement, before dropping an absolute stinker against Illinois last week. It looks like Padilla will start again vs. NU, with Petras as the backup.

Outside of Linderbaum, the Hawkeyes line has graded out as just average. Running back Tyler Goodson looked like an absolute zone-running demon early in his career, but has not quite lived up to that hype ever since. The other skill position player to know is Keagan Johnson, a Husker legacy and Nebraska’s top receiver target who committed to Iowa last spring with (what some viewed as) some spicy words about the Nebraska program. He has probably been Iowa’s best receiver already as a true freshman.

Schematically, I think another misconception is that Iowa is this big power running team like Wisconsin: It’s not. It does like to run the ball a lot and do it with a fullback and tight ends on the field, but the Hawkeyes are a zone running team — linemen moving and flowing in tandem based on defensive alignment and positioning, with a running back reading what is happening and picking a hole or cutback lane. In fact, they almost never run the power and counter — only about 14% of their plays the last three years used a pulling lineman, according to PFF. Their passing game is heavily based on play-action off that zone running scheme — using those moving linemen to influence linebackers and safeties and then booting away from them/hitting shots behind them. They also like to utilize plenty of timing West Coast passing concepts like slants, spacing and hitches. Just in general, the Hawx play offense a lot closer to a team like the 49ers than they do the Badgers, and I don’t think that’s always the way they’re viewed.

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WHEN IOWA’S DEFENSE IS ON THE FIELD:

STATISTICS:

UNIT SP+/F+ RATING: 

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 3rd SP+/5th FPI/4th+ F

  • NU OFFENSE: 30th SP+/37th FPI/31st F+

YARDS PER PLAY (national rank in parentheses):

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 4.47 yards allowed per play allowed (5th)

  • NU OFFENSE: 6.56 yards per play (19th)

POINTS PER DRIVE (national rank in parentheses):

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 1.26 points allowed per drive (9th)

  • NU OFFENSE: 2.18 points per drive (72nd)

RUSHING:

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 103.73 rushing yards allowed per game (4th in Big Ten, 13th nationally)

  • NU OFFENSE: 184.82 rushing yards per game (5th in Big Ten, 46th nationally)

PASSING:

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 211.10 passing yards allowed per game (6th in Big Ten, 38th nationally)

  • NU OFFENSE: 272.6 passing yards per game (4th in Big Ten, 23rd nationally)

HAVOC PLAYS PER GAME (cumulative tackles for loss, sacks, passes defensed, interceptions, fumbles forced):

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 11.0 Havoc plays per game

  • NU OFFENSE: 7.3 Havoc plays allowed per game

20+ YARD GAINS PER GAME:

  • IOWA DEFENSE: 3.27 20+ yard gains allowed (0.27 rush, 3.0 pass) per game

  • NU OFFENSE: 6.26 20+ yard gains (1.54 rush, 4.72 pass) per game

COORDINATOR:

Phil Parker, 10th Season

Parker is about as consistent and stable of a defensive coordinator as there is. He’s been a part of the Iowa program in various capacities forever and understands what works there, has a plan and develops players who fit it. He was recently named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant, for a reason.

SCHEME:

Standard Downs: Even Front 4-2

Primary Coverages: Cover 4/6, Cover 2

Blitz Frequency: Almost Never

Third Down: Funky Alignments/Zone Blitzes That Inevitably End With Four Rushers

With a base four-man front, low blitz percentage and absolutely insane focus on limiting big plays, Iowa’s general defensive strategy is very, very similar to the way NU has played this year.

No other defense in the country plays more zone coverage than the Hawkeyes, who were sixth nationally in Cover 4 percentage and third to last in Cover 1 percentage last year. The Hawkeyes have also been near the top of the country in creating pass-breakups and interceptions in the past several years — something not typically associated with playing a lot of zone defense — which should tell you something about the quality of the secondary players rotating through Iowa City right now. Aside from their outside corners, nickelback Dane Belton is also an outstanding player who can both cover well and play the run from that pivot spot.

Iowa also almost never brings more than four rushers — it will utilize “zone blitzes” to drop unexpected guys into coverage to try to confuse quarterbacks, but it ranks in the bottom fourth of the country in blitz percentage. That has been a bit of a problem this year; if this Iowa defense has a weakness, it’s a lack of a natural pass rush since Daviyon Nixon has departed (after terrorizing NU last year).

The complexion of this game changed with the news Adrian Martinez will not play with a shoulder injury. This is a decidedly PRO-ADRIAN newsletter, while acknowledging that he has some shortcomings as a processor that may be endemic to his nature as a player. But no matter how you feel about his performance on the field, every NU fan should have nothing but love for a player who has played his ass off and fought through injuries and unfair fan criticism for little reward while never complaining or representing himself as nothing but an upstanding dude. While I don’t think this is the end of his Husker career, if it is, I think we should all be appreciative.

His replacement is redshirt freshman Logan Smothers. A quick scouting report on Smothers for those who don’t know: He’s lightning fast, accurate, and reportedly a pretty quick processor per Husker coaches. He does not seem to have the arm talent or size Martinez does, but he might be the most quick-twitch runner that we’ve seen at NU since TAYLOR Martinez. I’ve been excited to see him play since he signed. I would also recommend everyone watch the first play of his high school highlight film to see one of the absolute nastiest step-back juke moves in recorded history.

Some things I’ll be watching for from Smothers are to see if he can handle NU’s quick-game passing concepts better than Martinez and if his added explosiveness in the running game can make NU’s triple option plays hit a little quicker.

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SCORE PREDICTION:

Iowa 17, Nebraska 14

As much as I’d love to pick the Huskers in the season finale (and probably would if Martinez were playing), “backup quarterback vs. one of the best defenses in the country” almost never turns out well. I also think injuries have caught up to the defense a bit, which is now down five starters. Iowa also seems to be good for about one special teams or defensive score a game this season, too. The Huskers will be fired up for this game, but the Hawkeyes also still has a lot to play for.


PROGRAMMING NOTE:

With the short turnaround for Friday’s game and the holiday, the Wisconsin recap and the Iowa recap will be a combined post, sent out sometime after the conclusion of the season. Which will also depend on me not eating so much stuffing I die. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. GBR

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