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You can't even see the seams in Iowa's tight-knit passing game

This group is 'finishing each other's sentences' tight

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley passes the ball against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley passes the ball against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Seeing Iowa produce in the passing game like an unholy blade through defenses the past couple of weeks makes you realize how difficult this is.

If it were easy, it would’ve looked like this from the day Hayden Fry handed Kirk Ferentz the baton.

It’s not easy.

/ The Gazette

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz sees experience falling into place. Last year, quarterback Nate Stanley was a first-year starter. Brian Ferentz was in his first season as offensive coordinator. Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson were taking their first steps in becoming mismatches for linebackers and safeties all over the Big Ten.

Wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith were true freshmen just trying to figure out where their classes were. Nick Easley was a first-year walk-on who apparently didn’t need any breaking in. He led the Hawkeyes in 2017 with 51 receptions.

“Just had a lot of young players last year on offense,” Kirk Ferentz said. “I think it showed at times. We were very inconsistent. Sometimes we looked really good. At least right now we’re a little bit more consistent. We certainly can improve in that area. I think we just have a little bit better balance now, better experience.”

Experience is one answer. It’s not wrong. Execution is another.

Pass protection might be the most improved element for this offense. The No. 22 Hawkeyes (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) have allowed just six sacks this season. That’s the best in the Big Ten and No. 13 in the country.

Maryland (4-2, 2-1) is the challenge this week. With wind in the forecast, it might be tougher to get Air Iowa off the ground, but Air Iowa might be on the cusp of being wind-, defense-, sack- or whatever kind of -proof you want to use.

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You’re seeing a practiced, well-coached group that understands the “concepts” Brian Ferentz is putting in front of them.

When they say “concept” ...

“With conceptual football, you have to know what everyone is doing,” said Hockenson, who has averaged 28.1 yards per catch (10) in the last three games. “You have to know what the guy next to you is doing. You have to know how what you’re doing affects him, how your route affects him, how your block affects the guy next to you.

“You can’t just know what you have to do. You have to know what all 11 guys on the field are doing. Otherwise, you’re not helping the offense.”

You’re seeing a depth of knowledge in year 2 of what Brian Ferentz wants to do that simply wasn’t there last season.

Iowa's main receiving targets: Last 3 games

PlayerReceptionsYardsTouchdowns
Noah Fant111584
Nick Easley11942
T.J. Hockenson102813
Brandon Smith101350
Ihmir Smith-Marsette71381

Generally, concepts deal with routes. Flat 7 tries to isolate cover 2 zone defenders that Iowa sees regularly in the Big Ten. Tight end stick routes. Deep crossers. Four verticals. Those are designed to affect defenses.

Stanley is affecting defenses more and more this year with his eyes, getting a safety to move off out of where he wants to go with a turn of the head. That was something Hockenson mentioned after Stanley tossed six TDs passes in last week’s win at Indiana.

One big difference between Brian Ferentz’s passing game and Greg Davis’ is the scheme seems to mesh better with what Iowa is and wants to be. Tight ends have elevated in profile since Davis retired after the 2016 season, which, at 1,991 yards, was Iowa’s lowest output in the passing game since 1982. Tight ends are a lot more Iowa than stop routes run while receivers are trying to figure out which way a defender might break.

Then, there’s self scouting.

Stanley knows his guys. Of course, he’s practiced with them since early August. Beyond that, Iowa films and breaks down every practice. Part of the coaching there is Stanley learning the strengths and weaknesses of his receivers.

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That shapes things at the moment of truth, when it’s time to actually put the ball in receivers’ hands.

“We try to practice as many situations as possible,” Stanley said. “A lot of those times, those plays are made in practice before they’re made in games. But also, it’s just the type of athlete all of those guys are.

“I know that Ihmir can run by anybody. I know that Noah and T.J. and Brandon can go up and high point the ball against anybody. Having that confidence in their physical abilities as well as knowing they’re going to be doing what they need to do mentally has really helped us grow.

“I feel very confident with them right now.”

Stanley does tailor some of his throws to fit each of his receivers’ skill sets. Fant has a 42-inch vertical leap. Hockenson is at 39. So yeah, playing to their strengths is a good idea.

“It can definitely alter your decision-making on the field,” Stanley said. “Throw the ball farther for Ihmir. With Noah, T.J. and Brandon, you maybe throw it up a little higher so they can go up and get it.”

Stanley did forget Easley. Smith-Marsette picked up his QB.

“Nick is a great route runner and he never gives up on a play,” said Smith-Marsette, who has averaged 19.7 yards a catch the last three games. “He’s got great hands. Nick is going to be reliable on third down.

“Nate is going to play to our strengths. I think that shows how much he’s progressed. He’s going to play to our strengths and choose the throw that he believes is best for him to make a completion.

“That’s what everyone on this team loves about Stanley. He’s going to play to your strengths. He’s going to put it on the money for whoever it is out there.”

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Smith-Maresette had his QB. That’s the kind of chemistry Iowa’s offense has going right now.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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