IOWA CITY, Iowa — The box score says Iowa lost 38-31 to Northwestern on Saturday, but the box score doesn’t do justice to what happened.
A second glance revealed a game probably a little more one-sided than the score indicated. That’s not good news for Iowa, but hints of what Iowa must do were evident.
There is a lot to digest so let’s break down the film.
The Wildcats won the game in the second half by scoring a touchdown on three successive series and turning a seven-point Iowa lead into a 14-point Northwestern advantage.
The Hawkeyes had seemed to find their footing, holding the Wildcats to 32 yards over their previous 17 plays. But then Northwestern couldn’t be stopped. The Wildcats put together three touchdown drives of at least 75 yards and churned out 232 total yards.
What happened? Northwestern took advantage of Iowa miscues, the defensive line couldn’t get any penetration, and Wildcats receivers got open time and again on both short and intermediate routes.
The play of the safeties wasn’t strong during these three touchdown drives, especially on the first one. Brandon Snyder fell for a stutter step on a deep route and was flagged for pass interference on what would have been a touchdown. Shortly after, Miles Taylor was beaten for a touchdown by Northwestern receiver Austin Carr after the play broke down when quarterback Clayton Thorson scrambled to buy time for his receivers.
The second touchdown combined Iowa’s problem at the point of attack and with tackling. The Northwestern line cleared the first and second levels of the defense to open a big hole that running back Justin Jackson used to put a juke move on Taylor, clearing the way for a 58-yard touchdown run.
The inability to get a defensive push let Northwestern churn out rushing yards. The Wildcats gained 198 overall. It also gave Thorson plenty of time to sit in the pocket and find receivers that kept the chains moving.
The third Northwestern touchdown came when Thorson, in a clean pocket, found Carr in the middle of the field. Iowa was in zone defense. Snyder never wrapped up and Carr bounced off, making his way into the end zone.
Northwestern exposed the Iowa pass defense, but never really tested Iowa cornerback Desmond King during this stretch. It can be hard to judge the play of defensive backs watching the TV feed, but King appeared to play well again, recording four tackles and two pass breakups.
Sometimes, defensive mistakes can be hidden. An offense may run a play the other way or a big play by someone else can cover it up.
Saturday, especially in the second half, the opposite happened. Iowa miscues seemed to be amplified by Northwestern, resulting in big plays.
Northwestern didn’t just move the ball on three drives. It was the more consistent team getting down the field. The Wildcats scored 17 points on their first four possessions. Yes, good field position helped, but the Wildcats kept the chains moving and made plays.
This Jackson run off tackle, where linebacker Josey Jewell can’t grab Jackson and the Hawkeyes lose containment, is similar to the type of play that would come back and haunt the Iowa defense in the second half.
So what does the Iowa defense need to look like? Take a look at this third-and-1. Iowa gets the best of the Northwestern offensive line. There is no hesitation from Jewell. He breaks on the ball carrier and makes a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
The question now is how often the team can repeat it. Consistency hasn’t been Iowa’s friend lately.
On second glance, more questions arose about the offense. There was one good stretch – consecutive Iowa touchdowns drives in the second quarter sandwiched around a Northwestern turnover – but, too often, Iowa couldn’t move the football.
Iowa’s offense is very hot and cold. When the Hawkeyes couldn’t kick it into second gear, the offense is heading to the sidelines.
There really isn’t a middle ground. It’s been a season-long issue. On Saturday, Iowa didn’t score on nine possessions, not counting the series with one kneel down to end the first half. Only two of those drives went at least seven plays.
Iowa only gained 66 yards on the drives it didn’t score on for an average of 1.6 yards. Lost yards on sacks played a role in that low figure, but it doesn’t change that Iowa didn’t move the ball.
A disturbing trend emerged: Iowa kept making mistakes that cropped up on every drive. Here’s a breakdown on the non-Iowa scoring drives:
|Number||What went wrong|
|4||Dropped pass on first down|
|6||Penalty and sack|
A lot played into it. The third series looked to be moving. Iowa was in second-and-1 before a face mask penalty and a false start made it third-and-26.
Sacks were a big problem. Northwestern consistently recreated pressure off the edge, like when defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo bull rushed through Iowa left tackle Cole Croston to make a sack.
It wasn’t a great day for Croston in pass protection. Odenigbo recorded four sacks, Northwestern had six. Blocking was a problem. So was Iowa repeatedly passing on third down, even in third-and-medium or third-and-short situations. The pass was coming. The Wildcats kept stopping it before it could get started.
How Iowa scored
The Hawkeyes did score 31 points. It wasn’t all bad, but a trend emerged here just like with the non-scoring drives.
The offense required a jumpstart to score nearly every time. Here’s what happened.
|First touchdown||Desmond King 32-yard punt return|
|Second touchdown||Desmond King 32-yard punt return|
|Third touchdown||Iowa fumble recovery on the Northwestern 35|
|First field goal||Riley McCarron 38-yard punt return|
|Fourth touchdown||Nothing to set it up|
The Iowa offense needed to big special teams play if it was going to score. The one drive it didn’t happen saw a 46-yard reception by wide receiver Jerminic Smith.
It’s not really surprising on a day when the offense struggled to string together first downs it needed a boost to get into the end zone.
More on the returns to come.
Speeding up play
Iowa’s best offensive success in the first three quarters came when it brought out its up tempo look. The Hawkeyes used it on both second quarter touchdown drives.
Why didn’t they go back to it? They never really had the chance before falling behind by 14 points. The three Northwestern second-half touchdowns were sandwiched around two Iowa three-and-outs. It’s hard to push the pace when the offense is heading to the sideline as quickly as it got onto the field.
The wide receivers
How did Iowa look without Riley McCarron? It was a mixed bag, but it wasn’t all on the wide receivers.
Separation wasn’t as big of an issue as it was last week at Rutgers. They did make plays. Smith hauled in that 46-yard reception.
Here, McCarron scores on a 15-yard catch. He’s the closest receiver to the quarterback on the top of the screen. He quickly gets to the outside shoulder of the defensive back. It’s there, a few steps off the line, where he wins the play. He dekes the defender and gets separation as he breaks outside.
Jay Scheel stepped up, too. Iowa is unable to throw a screen to the right upon the snap. Quarterback C.J. Beathard pivots and throws the ball down field to Scheel on the left for an impressive toss and catch.
McCarron looks to be the new primary wide receiver target for Beathard. He led Iowa with eight receptions, 78 yards and one touchdown.
Iowa did some nice things passing the ball, just not enough. The sacks and Northwestern pressure were a factor, but more big plays are needed. There were a lot of short and intermediate routes. Tight end George Kittle was a non-factor. Northwestern ensured he didn’t get open. He did drop a pass. The Hawkeyes need more than a catch for 18 yards from arguably its best passing game threat going forward.
Where the offense can go
The Hawkeyes were impressive while moving the ball down the field in nine plays over 75 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. It was the best Iowa looked on offense. It was also a glimpse into what the offense needs to be without VandeBerg.
The first time Iowa found run success was here. The Hawkeyes ran four times in their first six plays. There were two first downs. The third first-down play was a play-action pass that went 46 yards to Smith.
Right there is the blueprint: Iowa needs to run and then play off it for some bigger passing plays. For this to work, the Hawkeyes need to be willing to look down the field. It didn’t appear that was always the case with Northwestern.
Run success is paramount. Land of 10’s Scott Dochterman wrote that Iowa abandoned the run game too early on Saturday.
The Iowa running backs rushed for 107 yards and 3.4 yards. It wasn’t outstanding and there wasn’t a truly great run. There were a lot of 3-, or 4-yard runs. No Iowa run went for 10 yards or more on Saturday.
Iowa never got the run game going despite 24 early rushing attempts. But too many runs were like this Wadley pitch.
The running game got a little bit of traction late, but that isn’t a formula for success for this team.
Putting the special in special teams
The best thing Iowa did was return punts and kickoffs. King returned for punts for 77 yards and added 85 yards on three kickoff returns. McCarron took a punt 38 yards and a kickoff 54 yards. The Iowa blocking on the returns was excellent. The return game was why Iowa scored 31 points. It gave the offense short fields.
The Hawkeyes didn’t need help, but got it on this line-drive punt. The Wildcats don’t have time to cover the kick. Nobody is within 20 yards of King. Key blocks by linebacker Tristan Welch and fullback Steve Manders allow King to nearly get into the end zone.
This was a game where Northwestern outplayed Iowa. It was almost that way from start to finish. There was a second quarter stint with a couple of Iowa touchdowns and a Northwestern turnover, but the Wildcats were the superior team for the rest of the game. They deserved to win the game.
That’s not going to be easy for Iowa or Hawkeyes fans to digest, but that’s what the tape showed. The question now becomes what will Iowa do to combat what stood out on film.