Iowa Football

Iowa football #PaintedTower mailbag: Sorry, there are no easy games anymore

We start with trail technique and then move to the running game, which Minnesota did an excellent job taking away

Iowa defensive backs Jake Gervase (30) and Julius Brents break up a Minnesota pass last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Jim Slosireak/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive backs Jake Gervase (30) and Julius Brents break up a Minnesota pass last Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Jim Slosireak/The Gazette)

I survived the Dubuque party in Minneapolis last weekend. Great seeing my old Dubuque friends. I don’t know how I don’t have gout. I’m sorry they do.

Lots of questions this week. I can’t thank you guys enough for participating. For an old newspaper person, the interactive part of social media remains a lot of fun for me. Seriously. The fun outweighs the headaches by a mile. I’m lucky that way.

Here we go.

 

It’s a legit technique, but it’s not ideal.

Ideally, you want to stay on top of a vertical route. You hear safety Jake Gervase mention “staying on top” of routes a lot.

This is what Iowa does, especially with its third-down packages. Trail technique is part of the Cover 5 (two-on-one coverage) design for underneath defenders. You want to take away the easy, inside throw and force the QB to be precise on out-breaking routes. The safety plays over the top. The corner plays trail. The QB has to squeeze in that throw.

This is what Iowa usually does. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker does play some man. I’d hate to guess at the percentage. But in man, trail technique is a much more difficult proposition. You have to stay blind until the ball arrives. Huge percentage chance that’s going to be a penalty. In the NFL, it is every time.

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Trailing also shows up when a player is beaten on the outside. You lose technique or a shoulder, you’re in trail. This is reality for every defensive back. Even Desmond King. What made King a pro was the way he could turn at high speed and track the ball. That was a huge percentage of his picks in 2015.

Contesting the ball from the trail technique is difficult. Last week at Minnesota, brand-spanking new corner Riley Moss saw those reps for the first time in a game. Knowing when to stay blind and rake the pocket vs. turn and try to swat is an experience/preference thing. Lots of young defensive backs will struggle with it.

Julius Brents, the other brand-spanking new true freshman starter at corner, has uncommon length and so trail works a little better for him. On Moss, note how he grew during the game and found techniques that worked for him in the second half.

Parker is a great coach, but players need to go through this stuff for the first time. And then they need to learn what works for them.

Whatever we’re giving away this week, CLT is a winner. Thank you!

 

Specifically on D.J. Johnson, he’s been injured. I think he’s OK now, but this isn’t the kind of thing that comes up. I get to ask Kirk Ferentz maybe three or five questions a week. I wouldn’t burn one on this, but I can understand the curiosity.

With Johnson injured in camp, the door opened for Moss. He won Big Ten freshman of the week after two picks in his first start at Minnesota. Yes, it was a bit of a bruised banana with several targets going his way, but he hung in and improved by the fourth quarter.

My theory on throttled freshmen is Iowa wanted to be its best Iowa in September. Two trophy games and the Big Ten West Division title game Part I were in that block. So, not a lot of experimentation.

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In the last seven games, I could see Johnson or maybe Dallas Craddieth getting some time. Iowa will be tracking a lot of spread and spread rush teams (that’s basically the rest of the schedule, there is no Wisconsin or Michigan State).

I still think WR Tyrone Tracy could end up shedding the redshirt.

The other thing it could be with true freshmen is they’re not showing what they need to show in practice, so they stay in the redshirt zone. It could be that, too.

 

They don’t compare. At all.

I like TCF Bank. I think it’s the perfect stadium for Minnesota’s football program. The Gophers aren’t winning. I’m not sure people up there have bought in on P.J. Fleck. And, really, Fleck and the Gophers haven’t given them anything to buy in to.

It was lively in 2013. I think Minnesota fans smelled weakness after Iowa came off 4-8 in 2012. TCF was loud and lively. The “We hate Iowa” was ringing around the stadium. And then the game started and the Hawkeyes put Minnesota in a headlock and walked it around the stadium for three hours, pausing only for a little Gatorade.

At the end, TCF was as silent as an art house movie theater. No one said anything. They just tried to keep up with the captions.

 

I don’t think so. Not in the NFL. There would be a weak link. Not everyone from even Iowa’s best OLs were NFL-quality athletes.

I talked with Mike Humpal once about the difference between the NFL and college. Humpal went through a ton of knee injuries, but ended his senior year throwing punches for the Hawkeyes and being drafted in the sixth round by the Steelers.

He said think of the fastest of the fast and the strongest of the strongest. One false step and the fastest of the fast are making you a highlight.

If I had to pick a Ferentz era OL? I would hate doing that, but here it goes.

C — Bruce Nelson

G — Eric Steinbach

G — Marshal Yanda

T — Robert Gallery

T — Brandon Scherff

Anyone can feel free to try to talk me off that. You won’t.

 

1. Josey Jewell

2. Josh Jackson

3. James Daniels

4. Akrum Wadley

5. Other?

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I’m glad you guys asked about running back. It’s not great, Bobs.

Jeff’s question (excellent eye, BTW): Iowa wants to be able to run out of shotgun and 11 personnel for nothing else than to be able to run out of a passing formation or a different look.

If Nate Stanley is in shotgun, he’s passing like 80 percent or 90 percent of the time. Defensive linemen put on their pass-rush shoes. Defensive backs know it’s coming and have their coverages zipped up. Stanley is going to see pressure. It’s going to be a difficult play to complete.

Now, you throw some run out of the gun in there, defenses have to be more careful with their initial reads. The question is how effectively Iowa can run out of the gun. It was dicey with Wadley, who, I think we can all agree, had much better quick start than the current RBs.

I’m not sure Iowa is looking to hit home runs here. It’s kind of like Iowa’s read-option look. It’s another blocking angle for the defense to think about, but it’s not going to get Iowa to the goal line. Probably not. I think Wadley did take one of these to the distance at Purdue in 2016. This group hasn’t shown that gear yet.

Dave: Don’t freak on the audible thing. Yes, it’d be great if Iowa’s offense didn’t get stuck in pre-snap, but the weakside zone is the default for something else the offense wanted but the defense hasn’t given up. So, they kill switch to the weakside zone because there are simply fewer defenders on that side of the field.

This happens in football. Happens with Iowa football.

You have to give Minnesota credit. They invested in stopping the run and it worked. Iowa made it pay. This is how it’s supposed to work.

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But yeah, the RBs are going through their first seasons as profile running backs in the Big Ten. On a good day, the group is a B or B-plus. It’s getting the job done, but overall, it is about a C-plus right now.

Five games in and no 100-yard rusher. That’s a little bit on everyone.

Ccon4b: I’d love for someone to throw some percentages at me on this. Generally, I think there’s been less gap this year. I don’t think it’s a magic fix against an eight-man front, either.

I really think the “gap blocking saves the world” is an extreme generalization. Iowa runs more zone and so the zone scheme gets picked apart a lot more by fans and opposing defenses.

Iowa needs a running back right now who can make a play.

And that leads me to racecarpassenger’s question: Wadley is the biggest loss. Iowa has linebackers. Iowa is getting enough explosive plays through the air, but Wadley was three explosive runs a game. That moves chains and that gets Iowa into the end zone.

And Wadley was the back who could take a handoff out of shotgun and make it work.

Scott: Yes, it will. I think Iowa’s passing game has a chance to be Learjet SWAT team good, but it’s still inconsistent and the more moving parts, the less effective this offense is. Iowa likes to control tempo with the running game. 2.7 yards per carry isn’t going to get that done. But if Stanley’s dealing, obviously less of an issue.

How much do you trust the passing game? I think it’s fair to say it’s been up and down this season.

 

I think your pic shows the vast difference of opinion in what targeting is.

A ton of flags flew, though.

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I almost got fired once because I answered an email with a blue streak of expletives that would’ve made a crusty minor league manager blush. The company had an easy entry to have the conversation with me. They said, do that again and you’re fired. I said, that’s not the sell. The sell is, hey, you got to swear at a reader, you can only do that once.

Anyway, it was easy to throw that flag on me. I made it easy (both of those people are long gone, so hey, guess which finger I’m holding up — I kid, I kid, all good).

Targeting is putting an F-bomb in the email. Forget the interpretation, it’s going to get flagged.

I wrote a post about this earlier this week. Know the rule. It’s way more than just helmet-to-helmet. There are 10 different definitions of a defenseless player. How the hell is Amani Jones supposed to keep all of that straight while trying to make a play and not lose his job again?

He’s not. Make the play. Deal with the flag. (In this particular situation, with the game in hand and less than a minute left, you don’t want to put yourself in this position.)

Learn the rule, guys. And remember, it’s not going to be adjudicated in regard to how tough you think the players are or because that’s the way the game was called when you played.

This play is being called on optics. I’m sorry. It just is.

 

Great eye.

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Going into Minnesota, Iowa averaged 25.3 points a game. That’s not enough to be a double-digit team in victories or to put yourself in position to back into a Big Ten West title. Coming out of Minnesota, it’s 29.8 and that is a good number.

Generally, and I know I’ve written this here before, 28 points is good for an Iowa offense. Good, not great. It’s the road to 8-4. Thirty points is when things start to happen (2015 was 30.9, 2008 was 30.3, 2005 was a 30.0 and an outlier, 2002 was 37.2 and 2001 — sneaky good year — was 32.6).

Stanley is working through his mistakes. I don’t think an interception like last week ever happens again for him. He’s a smarter, better player than that. Brian Ferentz probably had a crack about making a wish and pitching a penny in a mall fountain.

But imagine if you’re a defense and now you really have to account for Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Does that excite you? It should.

As frustrating as Iowa’s offense can be at times, if it executes at a high level in the next seven games, Iowa has a shot to win all seven.

 

Any Iowa fan who thinks Iowa is just fine without tight end Noah Fant ... there aren’t any of those, are there?

Fant is 6-4, 250 pounds. Smith-Marsette, who probably is the fastest Hawkeye, said Tuesday they’ve never raced side-by-side and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. The 42-inch vertical. Total package as an athlete.

Jay makes a great point. Fant’s presence opens things up. Smith-Marsette said yesterday he can hear defenses account for “No. 87” in pre-snap. Fellow TE T.J. Hockenson said, oh yes, Fant’s speed opens things up for the other receivers.

I’m treating this as a “getting paid” year for Fant. He’s had drops. His blocking probably has cost him reps. Yes, he leads the Hawkeyes with 19 receptions and five TD passes, but I’m guessing Fant believes he left some cash on the table and he’s hungry to go get it.

So, he’s probably frustrated, but he’s also definitely motivated. Go get it, man.

Javelin: I think they both have five- to eight-year careers in the league. They’re NFL tight ends. Fant is going to get drafted higher because he will win the combine, but Hockenson’s blocking, work in traffic and feel for reading defenses will serve him very, very well.

Iowa is blessed here. I don’t say that often or ever.

Letsgo: Depends what the defense gives up. Wisconsin left the seam open a few times. Last week, it wasn’t there. They show enough deep routes with Fant to clear things out. Sometimes, that works.

Iowa wants to connect on the deep ball. All teams do. Iowa’s offense right now can’t afford very many “setup” plays, and the deep ball is low percentage. If they throw more, there’s still going to be maybe a 20 percent chance they hit.

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Iowa wants, and frankly needs, more efficiency. The play you should be asking about is the quick TE screens that worked some late last season. I like that play better than the TE jet sweep, which might cost Fant this week (he’s in concussion protocol).

AStoecken: What fun would that be?

 

I’d buy into this, but players change. The game has changed. Offenses have so many ways to attack now. If Indiana doesn’t want to play power football (and not many teams do anymore), it doesn’t have to.

A few readers have crept toward this thought, and I think it’s smart and could play out: Lots of three-step drops to neutralize that pass rush. Skip over the pass rush and hit the quick pass.

I digress.

I think Tom is exactly right. This is about Iowa being good. Right now, I do think Iowa is good. But, as I wrote last week, Iowa isn’t the kind of program that can put anyone in the rearview mirror.

I kind of felt this way in 2015. That road game at Indiana stuck out. Ferentz was pretty damn happy when that one was over.

And get used to this feeling, everyone. Besides Penn State, the rest of Iowa’s schedule is a parade of teams Iowa can and maybe should beat but might not.

We’ll all be crazy together at the end.

 

I kind of stumbled into that point when I wrote the Matt Nelson feature a few weeks ago.

Iowa’s D-line coaches Reese Morgan and Kelvin Bell ID’d Hesse, Nelson and Sam Brincks are de facto mentors for the young D-linemen. I went to Hesse’s home and did a story. I didn’t ask much about football there, wanted to keep it family, but I always do ask football. Parker got right to Chauncey Golston and spoke glowingly.

Golston is one of the few players I still haven’t talked to. I can’t gauge his leadership potential, but his play is inching forward every week.

As far as versatility goes, Golston needs some more power, but he’s a tough block for guards when Iowa does stunt on third down.

Be excited about the future of the D-line. Get Noah Shannon going as a 1 technique and then get really excited.

 

Yes, Ferentz talked quite a bit about that on Tuesday. He even pointed to the schedule and said, look at all of the spread offenses coming down the pike.

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To me, this is betting on Amani Hooker’s athleticism and talent. They haven’t done the strong safety as linebacker thing for a long time if ever. You can tell the coaches ID’d the back half of the schedule and I think that’s why they started working this in the spring.

You guys tell me, but I think Iowa has planned better for injuries this season. The “next man in” thing is always there, but it feels like Iowa has groups of players who’ve been ready (defensive backs, LBs and O-line).

When a unit suffers an injury and doesn’t miss a step, that’s good coaching and players doing their jobs outside of the spotlight. It makes or breaks seasons.

Iowa played about a dozen nickel and dime packages last week. When it faces offenses that don’t use tight ends much, you’ll see more packaging on defense. I think that emerged fully last season at Iowa State.

 

I think that’s the question with Iowa’s offense every season. I’m sure it’s maddening for you guys, but Iowa is a defense-first team.

The media has had an ongoing discussion on which unit would make the best basketball team. Stanley, of course, stood up for QBs, but said, yeah, he wouldn’t want to box out Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa. Tight ends wouldn’t be bad, either. Hockenson and Fant would be hard to deal with in the lane and on the wing. But then defensive back would have Amani Hooker running point and what a headache he would be for Stanley to guard.

If this actually went down, I’d be team #DLINE. Iowa’s best athletes are on defense. Feels like that’s been the rule of thumb since day 1 of KF.

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The state of the running game is going to have a say in this. Right now, I’d say this is an offense that’s going to have to prove it every week.

 

Didn’t get a look at that leaderboard this year. OT Tristan Wirfs showed up in a few weight-room videos. I’ve always compared him to Brandon Scherff in that I believe he’s got a lot of natural strength. My guess would be Wirfs.

 

The Wisconsin game was crucial. Now, the rest of the season I’d term the games critical.

Iowa loses at Indiana and goodbye Big Ten West. Probably. So, critical. but then there’s tricky Maryland in the only Kinnick game in October (man, that feels screwed up) and then at Penn State and at Purdue before Northwestern.

The last two games I’d put in the “bowl” category for Illinois and Nebraska. They’ll be crawling through the wreckage looking for a sliver of light. A chance to beat Iowa will be that sliver of light.

So, bring your barf bags. There’s going to be turbulence.

 

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz talks a lot about efficiency. In my mind, that’s measuring progress toward a first down. That’s why I track efficiency in the Stat Pak.

I’m not saying all of the stats I keep there mean anything, but I track efficiency by the metric everyone else does: 50 percent of the yardage for a first down on first down, 70 percent on second and then 100 percent of the yards on third and fourth down.

I still don’t know what’s good, but I track it and break it down to how many each team has in the first quarter. Last week, Iowa had had a 14-0 lead before the Gophers logged an efficient play. Minnesota got on a nice roll in the second quarter, but Anthony Nelson’s back-to-back sacks pulled their teeth.

Minnesota had some empty calories in the second half. Iowa had 21 efficient plays in the second and third quarters, so sustained effort until they could sit on it in the fourth.

It shows flow, but I have to think these are mile markers and it also speaks to what the defense is doing. The real meat of what Iowa coaches, I think, focus on is the actual coaching of the players in front of them. That said, the mile markers help get you there, too.

I think at the very least this tracks (marginal efficiency) how often a team produces successful plays. I don’t know how it’s not a bigger deal. (I have to get to a point where I track marginal explosiveness, the measure of how much additional yardage a team gets on the plays that are successful. I’m not there yet. I’d also throw opportunity rate into this, which is basically the measure of what a running back can get after the O-line hands him the first 5 yards. Kind of the measure of how many 5-yard runs a team produces.)

I also like tracking explosive plays. The thought there is easy, more the merrier.

Snaps are a big thing for me. I think there are stories in those that say something about how the coaches feel about certain players in a given time. Last week, OLB Barrington Wade got a toe wet, but that was it. I don’t think the coaches see him as a reliable, starting OLB yet, so he dipped his toe in and now has some tape to work off.

I also like tracking QB disruption that’s not sacks. I feel like defenses get ripped off here. Very few people track QB hurries and hits. Last week, Iowa had 12 hurries and three hits to go with five sacks. That’s telling to me. That’s why Iowa controlled Minnesota.

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

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