Iowa Football

No secret to the QB sneak: How Nate Stanley and the Iowa O-line make it work almost every time

23 sneaks have produced 82 yards and game control for the 2019 Hawkeyes

Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) rushes for a first down against Purdue Boilermakers in the first quarter of t
Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) rushes for a first down against Purdue Boilermakers in the first quarter of their NCAA football game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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SAN DIEGO — At the snap, Nate Stanley’s helmet stripe almost perfectly aligned with center Tyler Linderbaum’s stripe.

The other two figures in the frame are big, cardinal-colored backsides of Iowa State defensive tackles, one of which belonged to nose tackle Ray Lima, one of the Big 12’s best interior defenders.

It’s first-and-goal from Iowa State’s 1. The Hawkeyes trailed, 14-9, with a little more than 12 minutes left in the game. The defense knew what was coming.

“A lot of times, their D-line knows it’s a sneak, just based off film and whatever our tendencies are,” Iowa middle linebacker Kristian Welch said. “It comes down to their will versus our will. That comes down to the weightlifting and all, everything. Everything we do goes into that play.”

The “play” is the QB sneak. The No. 16 Hawkeyes (9-3) backed over that squirrel several times in 2019.

It was a good year for Iowa’s quarterback sneak, arguably the sport’s least sexy play, but ultimately one of the most vital. Sometimes, it does come down to that yard, half yard or inch and you have to be able to get it when you need it and especially when they know you need it.

Stanley ran 23 sneaks this year for 82 yards. They were an incredibly productive 82 yards, with 19 first downs or touchdowns. The four unsuccessful sneaks came from inside Iowa’s 3-yard line. Backup QB Spencer Petras even got to punch a sneak from 1 yard into the end zone against Middle Tennessee State.

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When Linderbaum snapped the ball against the Cyclones, he drove into the left side of Lima’s body. Just next door, guard Kyler Schott absorbed and pushed defensive tackle Joshua Bailey off the line of scrimmage. Guard Landen Paulsen drove into the other side of Lima and put himself between ISU linebacker Mike Rose and Stanley, making an incredible block that is almost impossible to see in the forest of arms, legs and behinds.

Linderbaum pushed through. Paulsen pushed Lima to his back. Stanley crashed in from the 1 to give Iowa the lead in an 18-17 Hawkeyes victory in September.

“Ultimately, it comes down to can the offensive line get a good push and then can you find a gap just like a running back would have to,” Stanley said. “We expect to make yards on the play. Sometimes it is a little surprising (Stanley referred here to the sneaks that went for 6 yards this season), but it comes back to how hard our offensive line comes off the ball.”

Tyler Linderbaum is the epicenter

Make no mistake, this starts with the center.

Linderbaum has a hard time holding back a smile when asked about QB sneaks. The redshirt freshman from Solon has demonstrated, in his first season, a certain taste for mayhem. If you’re on social media, you’ve seen the GIFs of Linderbaum driving defensive tackles into the turf and then maybe reminding them to lift more weights next time.

“Tyler and Shooter (Schott) love those plays,” Stanley said. “They just get to wedge together and go hit somebody. They love doing that, as any great O-lineman should.”

For the record, Linderbaum’s favorite sneak this year was the one against the Cyclones.

“That’s all 11 guys just trying to push the ball,” Linderbaum said. “It’s a credit to all 11 guys getting low. The fullback and the running backs help, too. They come in and push Stanley, too.”

 
 

But Linderbaum is at the epicenter. Slo-mo watch the Iowa State sneak. He turned on the earthquake machine.

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“You’re kind of in the middle of it and you’re just doing whatever you can for the team,” Linderbaum said.

Linderbaum’s philosophy on sneaks is incredibly complex. Kidding, sneaks are what Welch called them. “Chaos.” Stanley said he’s kicked bodies off him.

“Just get low,” Linderbaum said. “Get lower than your guy and just don’t give up. Keep pushing the pile until you get the first down.”

From the defensive perspective, Welch broke down Iowa QB sneak 2019 this way:

“It starts with the center and the two guards next to them,” Welch said. “It just comes down to them being able to get push and leverage. Nate isn’t necessarily the weakest guy on the field, too. He’s got some size to him. You’re going to have to tackle him, because he won’t just go down.”

Stanley’s 6-foot-4, 243-pound frame absolutely comes into play. That also makes him a big target in these situations, for both teams. Fullback Brady Ross gave Stanley a big push against Iowa State. Stanley might’ve generated his own power on that sneak for a millisecond. Ross drove him into Lima’s chest and the turf.

“Sometimes the D-line will submarine and that can take away your ability to drive your feet,” Stanley said. “Otherwise, you’re kind of crawling over people.”

What about those future NFL tackles?

Let’s pan out a little. Iowa has a pair of giant tackles in Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. There’s not a heck of a lot they can do on a QB sneak. Yes, on the play where the inch matters more than anything, the two biggest and strongest guys on Iowa’s line often try to double back inside to get some push on Stanley.

“I’m just trying to drive my feet and move the pile,” Wirfs said. “Tyler and the inside guys get us going on sneaks.”

 
 

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Iowa carries itself as an offensive line program. You know it nerds out on QB sneaks, successful ones, during film review.

“Oh, 100 percent,” Wirfs said. “Just watching how much we move the pile and the power that it takes to do that.”

The implications of the sneak

Of course, this works both ways. When the defense stops a sneak, that’s jet fuel.

“On the goal line, points are on the table,” Welch said. “We like to think of it as a four-point play if we can limit the offense to a field goal. It’s even better if we hold them to no points.”

The Iowa State TD sneak might be the biggie for the year (technically, the 2-point conversion run at Wisconsin, the one where the QB ran the ball and it didn’t work, was a QB draw). There were 23 of them, though. Successful sneaks turn into first downs and game control. You want to be able to trust your offense when you need that yard. And, logically, the easiest way to do that is straight ahead with the sneak.

“(The sneak) is a huge play in a lot of situations during the course of the game,” Stanley said. “Thinking back, one of the biggest ones we had was at Northwestern to seal the game. It was a huge play that allowed us to continue a drive and put the game out of reach.”

The QB sneak usually comes with huge implications and it’s very much one-on-one, almost a six-second sumo wrestling match in the pits. That probably resonates with an Iowa offensive line that will include four wrestlers (Wirfs, Schott, Linderbaum and Paulsen) on Friday against No. 22 USC (8-4) in the Holiday Bowl.

Plus, it plays to the very reason a lot of people like the game. They plug in the earthquake machine.

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“That’s a play where there’s no thinking involved, it’s just moving somebody,” Stanley said. “They love those plays. They love those opportunities.

“As much as people think O-linemen are meatheads, our O-linemen think a lot out there on the field. They face a lot of situations where they have to pick up complicated blitzes and stunts, so when they get the opportunity to just go hit somebody, they love it.”

Yes, they do. Linderbaum’s conqueror’s smile screamed that.

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

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