IOWA CITY, Iowa — Big plays and big moments stand out when watching a game live. There weren’t a lot of memorable plays in Iowa’s 14-7 win over Rutgers on Saturday, but several things jumped out on a second review that could have been overlooked easily while watching it live.
There wasn’t a lot of scoring, but a lot happened. Let’s break down the film.
Bring it on back
Let’s start with the game’s most controversial play. Iowa running back LeShun Daniels saw a 75-yard touchdown run called back because of an illegal cut block by offensive guard Ike Boettger on the backside of the play.
After taking a couple of steps, Boettger dives at Rutgers defensive lineman Darius Hamilton’s ankles. Here is the play.
Chop blocking is a point of emphasis for officials this year. The part of the rule in play here is if the chop block occurs before the player crosses the line of scrimmage clearly. If that happens, it’s a penalty.
Land of 10 colleague Scott Dochterman thinks it happened after Daniels crossed the line of scrimmage. So does Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. For my money it’s really hard to tell, though it doesn’t seem like he got there.
Part of Ferentz’s problem with the call is that it will vary from official to official based on interpretation. This won’t be the last time this is an issue in college football this season.
A point easier to agree on is Iowa’s penalty problem. Iowa took seven penalties for 57 yards. Want a reason why this game was so close? Look no further. The penalties killed drives and were a reason Iowa kept getting in its own way on Saturday.
The interior run defense was a problem last week. It was an issue again. Rutgers rushed for 193 yards and did most of its damage by attacking the middle of Iowa’s defense. This wasn’t just an issue late in the second half, when it seemed like Rutgers moved the ball on the ground as easily as North Dakota State did.
It was a problem the entire game. Watch these two clips from the first quarter. Rutgers running back Robert Martin got enough room for a car to maneuver in this first run. A strong first step allowed Rutgers center Derrick Nelson to wall off Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson. When Iowa coaches and players talk about getting a head across the body of a lineman to shore up interior run defense, they want to keep the offense from doing what Nelson did here.
Not every successful run up the middle went for big yards. There were plenty of 4- and 6-yard runs. On a third down, the Rutgers offensive line cleared out the first- and second-level defenders for Martin. Iowa safety Brandon Snyder hit Martin short of the first down. Martin fought for the extra yard to move the chains.
Still, Iowa won this game because of its defense.
It played its best near the goal line and kept Rutgers off the scoreboard. The Hawkeyes did it in the fourth quarter. They had already done it in the second quarter, though, it’s more apt to say linebacker Josey Jewell did it — in the best four-play stretch for any player on Saturday.
On first-and-goal he stuffed Rutgers quarterback Tylin Oden. On the next play, Jewell correctly read that Oden was keeping it on an option and headed right for him. Third down saw Jewell take down Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano on an option. On fourth down, he finished Laviano on a quarterback option after cornerback Desmond King wrapped up the Scarlet Knights signal caller. Here is the third down play.
The biggest play in the game came courtesy of the Iowa defense in the fourth quarter. Snyder correctly read that Laviano would throw to Rutgers wideout Andre Patton on a crossing route. Snyder said on the postgame radio show that he almost decided to jump the route and pick off the ball. Because he waited, Snyder hit Patton when he caught it. Snyder got one hand on the ball, knocked it free and fell on the loose ball. In a game where neither offense was making big plays it’s no surprise that a standout individual defensive play altered the game. Iowa scored the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession.
The Hawkeyes used their Raider package, which they employ in passing situations to disrupt and confuse the offense, more against Rutgers than any other opponent this season. It was a big success. Yes, Rutgers scored its lone touchdown against the formation, but the Hawkeyes consistently made big plays in the Raider look. The Snyder fumble was in the Raider. So was this sack by Matt Nelson. He started as a nose guard, but looped around the defensive end for a sack.
Six times Rutgers standout wide receiver Janarion Grant touched the football. Five times Iowa contained him. But a player like Grant only needs one chance to make a big play. On a swing pass, Grant made four Iowa defenders miss. Only three are shown in the following video.
Grant was injured on the play when King accidentally stepped on his ankle while making the tackle. Grant didn’t return. Rutgers moved the ball without him. The Scarlet Knights outgained the Hawkeyes 383-355 overall.
Where Rutgers missed Grant was in the red zone. The Scarlet Knights could have used his elusiveness and playmaking ability, especially on the drive that Jewell dominated in the second quarter. Instead of three quarterback runs, a play or two to Grant likely increases the odds of a Rutgers score there.
What’s up with the offense?
This was not the game the Hawkeyes needed after struggling offensively against North Dakota State. The biggest problem in that game, the running game, got resolved. Iowa rushed for 193 yards. No run was more important than running back Akrum Wadley’s 26-yard game-winning touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Watch Iowa left guard Boone Myers. He sent the Rutgers defender upfield and out of the play. Combine that with center James Daniels getting a pancake block and Wadley got plenty of room to run.
Re-watch the play. Iowa fullback Drake Kulick was darn close to a holding penalty down field.
The root of Iowa’s offensive problems was the inability of the wide receivers to get open. The Hawkeyes couldn’t get separation consistently. It was a factor in pass blocking and why quarterback C.J. Beathard threw for only 162 yards.
It became a bigger issue because the Scarlet Knights blanketed wideout Matt VandeBerg. He only caught four passes for 17 yards.
The rest of the receivers struggled to get open. In this clip, Beathard called an audible. VandeBerg ran a swing route. Jerminic Smith ended up in the middle of the field. It’s tough to tell if he ran a slant or an in-route. Riley McCarron ran a curl at the top of the frame. Beathard got enough time to look at every receiver. No one got open. He had to throw away the ball.
The offensive line caught plenty of flak on social media after the game. Iowa allowed two sacks, but the coverage had as much to do with Rutgers getting pressure as anything else.
Both sacks came at pivotal times. Iowa had the ball near midfield with 12 minutes left in a tie game. The first came on first down. The offensive line shouldn’t be asked to block for up to five seconds. That is a coverage sack.
There were times Rutgers got pressure on Beathard without relying on the secondary, but the offensive line looked better in pass protection this week than against North Dakota State.
The fourth quarter series that started with the sack came with some curious play calling. Iowa’s offense was at its best rushing the football. The coaching staff realized this. Iowa ran the ball 38 times and threw it only 23. In a tie game and approaching scoring position, a run game that improved as the game progressed seemed like an ideal time to rely on the running game.
Another head-scratching play was the decision to go for it on fourth-and-5 on the Rutgers 10 in the first half. The game was scoreless. It appears that Iowa was set on going for it based on the run play on third-and-8. It raises questions about Iowa’s trust in freshman kicker Keith Duncan.
The Hawkeyes didn’t convert the fourth-down play because Beathard overthrew Smith in the end zone. Analyst Anthony Becht said during the telecast that Beathard needed a perfect pass to convert. Iowa had no margin for error on this big play.
Third downs were nearly as big of a red flag for the offense as wide receiver separation. Iowa was 3 of 11 on third downs. The issue is two-fold. First, Iowa averaged 9.7 yards on third down. Third and longs are extremely tough to convert. Only four times did the Hawkeyes end up in a third-and-five or less.
Why so many third downs in obvious passing situations? First down success. Overall, Iowa averaged 5.5 yards on first down, but on first downs that would lead to a third down, Iowa averaged 1.4 yards. When Iowa didn’t get moving on first downs, it wasn’t going to move down the field.
Ninety-nine problems, but a touchdown ain’t one
Iowa put together one strong offensive drive. It went 99 yards at the end of the first half. It worked because Beathard made plays. He was involved in seven of the eight plays on the drive. He was 4-of-5 passing for 71 yards and ran twice for 25 yards.
Good play calling was also a key factor. Beathard faked a handoff to his right before pivoting to his left on a keeper to start the drive. The entire defense bit on the fake.
The Xs and Os led to Beathard’s 36-yard touchdown pass to George Kittle. VandeBerg faked a screen pass. Kittle started like he was going to block on the edge before turning it into a wheel route. The defense thought the screen was coming. Kittle was wide open.
Iowa did more good things than a live view may indicate, but that doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes aren’t still a work in progress. The run defense continues to be the biggest question. This will likely be another week where questions get asked about it.