IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa-North Dakota State game wasn’t fun on Saturday. It likely wasn’t fun to re-watch for the Hawkeyes in a Sunday film review.
That’s because of what stood out upon an additional viewing: A lackluster second half that was especially worse in the fourth quarter. The defensive line didn’t play to its level of capability.
Here are some thoughts on what happened in the 23-21 loss for the Hawkeyes, starting with what went wrong late.
The problems for Iowa’s defense extended beyond the final two possessions. It was really the entire second half. The Bison finished with 363 total yards, and 233 of those came in the second half. One hundred twenty-six yards came on 20 fourth-quarter plays.
Iowa couldn’t stop North Dakota State. Really, the Hawkeyes couldn’t stop the rushing attack. The Bison threw the football six times in the second half, but they did not need to do so since they ran the ball 26 times for 203 yards.
North Dakota State did most of its rushing damage on Iowa’s defensive interior. It was apparent during the game the that Bison ran the ball between tackles. It stood out even more upon a film review how much success there was.
Case in point is a 35-yard Lance Dunn second-half run. The North Dakota State running back didn’t get touched until he was 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Upon the snap, the left guard and tight end pulled, sealing the interior of the line. The right tackle also neutralized his defender to create the hole. Dunn broke a tackle after getting a first down. The only thing to save a touchdown was a great individual play by Desmond King, who caught Dunn from behind and ripped the ball out while taking him down. But North Dakota State recovered the fumble and scored two plays later.
North Dakota State won with a series of offensive plays like that last one in the second half. The Bison had four second-half possessions. They scored two touchdowns. They converted one field goal. The only time they didn’t score, they missed a 50-yard field goal.
Iowa still led 21-14 when North Dakota State took the ball with 12 minutes, 20 seconds left. The ensuing 15-play, 80-yard drive was reminiscent of Michigan State driving down the field on Iowa in the Big Ten championship last season.
The Bison were methodical. They were precise. They executed again and again — and there was nothing Iowa could do to stop it. At one point, North Dakota State ran seven straight times. The Bisons had a 16-yard run on the drive, but mostly they thrived on a steady diet of five-yard type runs that got the Bison into the end zone.
After the Bison scored to make it 21-20, the ensuing two-point play call was odd. After rushing the ball, North Dakota State called a play-action fake. Iowa didn’t bite. The pocket presence of quarterback Easton Stick is the only thing that kept the play alive. It was a surprising play call. North Dakota State had no problem getting three yards on the ground the entire drive.
The play call wouldn’t matter. Neither would wondering if the 1:53 left on the clock would be enough time for the Bison to lean on the run for a potential game-winning drive. North Dakota State’s first play was a quarterback draw (again, the Bison would find success up the middle). Stick would go for 29 yards. Just like Dunn on the big third-quarter run, Stick wouldn’t be touched by a Hawkeyes player until he was well down field.
There would be a 10-yard pass and two more runs up the middle, but it was Stick’s run that set up the winning 37-yard field goal.
It would be one thing if North Dakota State asserted its dominance early and kept it up all game, but that wasn’t the case. Iowa looked good in the first half. The Hawkeyes controlled the line of scrimmage. The Bison had rushed 23 times for 36 yards at intermission. Their only points came from a defensive touchdown.
So what happened? The answer lies in North Dakota State’s blocking and Iowa’s ability to shed blocks. Shedding blocks was a priority for the Hawkeyes in Week 2 against Iowa State. There was success against the Cyclones.
Iowa finished with four tackles for loss and three sacks against North Dakota State. In the first half, the Hawkeyes got into the backfield, disengaging from blocks and making tackles.
It was a different story after intermission. The North Dakota State offensive line locked in on blocks. The Iowa defensive tackles were out of position. The linebackers didn’t react fast enough several times, and missed tackles starting increasing in frequency. Only one sack came in the second half.
This was an odd game for the Iowa quarterback. First off, he wasn’t his best, but he did make some plays. He would finish 11 of 22 for 152 yards with three touchdowns and 1 interception.
Accuracy was an issue, especially early. It started on the first play. Iowa was backed up on its 2-yard line. Tight end Greg Kittle got behind the defense on a play-action fake. Beathard overthrew the wide-open Kittle, who potentially had a touchdown if he had caught it. Ball placement was also an issue on screen passes. Beathard struggled with those throughout the game.
Not all 11 incompletions were on Beathard. Dropped passes became a problem. It stood out most on Iowa’s first true chance of the year to run a two-minute drill. Iowa started on its 21-yard line with 1:45 left in the second quarter. Jerminic Smith dropped a pass on first down. So did Akrum Wadley on second down. Both receivers had plenty of space to catch those passes. Poor execution caused Iowa to punt after three plays.
Iowa appeared to avoid a major blow when Beathard went down in the third quarter with what he said was a left shoulder/collarbone concern. Beathard said he was fine after the game, but it was hard to judge him as a passer after the training staff looked at him. Beathard threw only three more passes. Was it because of the hit he took? Sure, it’s possible, but the Hawkeyes only ran 10 plays the rest of the game.
Beathard completed two of three passes for 14 yards and one touchdown when he returned to the game. He threw the touchdown pass to Matt VandeBerg two plays after coming back in. Beathard had been flushed from the pocket because of a blitzing Bison (more on pass protection coming up). Beathard rolled to his right and threw across his body, usually a dangerous throw. Beathard said he was looking for Kittle. VandeBerg, running toward his left, stole the reception for the score.
The offensive line will not be getting a good grade for its play against the Bison. Throughout the game, the Hawkeyes were unable to get a consistent push or create holes for the back to run through. The Hawkeyes rushed for minus-14 yards in the fourth quarter. Iowa’s offense is designed to win games by rushing.
The inability to run the ball completely altered the offense. Iowa became one-dimensional, but pass-blocking issues let North Dakota State to neutralize the aerial attack, too. The Bison only recorded two sacks, but consistently got into the backfield.
The pass-protection problems hurt Iowa the most in the first half when North Dakota State linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker hit Beathard and caused an interception return for a touchdown.
Upon the snap, the defensive ends twisted and took an inside pass rush. Iowa’s left tackle, Colin Conner, stayed on the defensive tackle too long. He couldn’t get to Gee-Tucker, who blitzed from about five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Gee-Tucker hits Beathard on his release. The ball flutters to North Dakota State’s M. Stumpf and he scampered 21 yards for the score.
The Stumpf touchdown was indicative of the issues Iowa had with its pass protection. Beathard said the Hawkeyes should have picked up Gee-Tucker. He said the same thing each time when asked about a sack or a play where the Bison got pressure on him.
Iowa struggled picking up blitzes. The left side of the line had problems with pass protection on a number of occasions.
The Hawkeyes played without starting offensive linemen James Daniels and Sean Welsh. Playing reserves was likely a factor with the way the offensive line played, but more went wrong up front by having a few second-teamers playing.
All the problems with the offensive line combined in the final Iowa drive. The Hawkeyes were ahead by one point with 3:41 to go. Two first downs ends the game. The Hawkeyes ran for minus-2 and 1 yard on the first two plays, followed by a sack.
Play calling was an issue with the fan base immediately after the loss. “Old Kirk” references were popping up on social media about the conservative nature of the plays. The inability to execute was a bigger concern than specific plays. And, actually, it was the “New Kirk” Iowa fans embraced last year that led to arguably the best individual play for the Iowa offense.
When Iowa went for it on fourth-and-3 from the North Dakota State 30-yard line in the second quarter, wide receiver Riley McCarron ran a route that ensured he got into the end zone. McCarron faked an outside route to his right before cutting back inside. The move caught the defender off guard. When McCarron caught the ball, no one was there to keep him from running into the end zone.
Also, Iowa running back Akrum Wadley only took four handoffs. The last one came midway through the third quarter. Iowa stuck with LeShun Daniels. Wadley wasn’t effective (no one was), though he did produce Iowa’s biggest run with an 18-yard carry. Daniels rushed six times after the last Wadley run.
The comment was made after the game that North Dakota State out-Iowa-ed Iowa. There is a lot of truth to that assessment. North Dakota State played smashmouth football and controlled the line of scrimmage. Iowa was out-executed by a FCS team. That may be a tough sentence to swallow, but it’s the truth.
Still, this was a game Iowa likely should have won. The Hawkeyes had a series of miscues, some large and some small, and the Bison took advantage of nearly every single one.
A lot went wrong, especially on both sides of the line, but everything appears to be fixable. It will take plenty of work, if that’s to happen.