What Did We Learn: Week Four

September 24, 2011

Written by Jon Miller

Hawkeye Nation

We know the Iowa Hawkeyes are 3-1 heading into their bye week.  I had them 4-0 at this point, as I didn’t see them losing to Iowa State.  Say what you will about that game, but Iowa State was the better team the day the game was played, so you can’t take anything away from the Cyclones.

Well, I guess you can try, as I still see some of that on the message boards…makes the rivalry fun.

What did we learn about Iowa in Week Four?  Here are some of my thoughts…

DYNAMIC OFFENSE:  Iowa ran a dive play on it’s first play of the game…it’s next four plays came 17, 25, 10 and 12 seconds after the end of the previous play, as the Hawkeyes went to the no-huddle offense.  That got down them down to the ULM 10 yard line after the ‘in the bucket’ fade play to Marvin McNutt.  Iowa then went for it on 4th and goal at the 1 yard line and scored a touchdown.

This is the type of attacking offense that Iowa fans have wanted to see for a long time.  I will admit that I am enjoying this wrinkle that Iowa shows, but it’s not a drastic change in philosophy…OK, for Kirk Ferentz, it might be a tad towards the drastic side, especially as Iowa went for it on 4th and 1 from the 50 later in the first half.

What it comes down to is this; this coaching staff is taking advantage of the offensive weapons it has.  They are ‘Scratching Where it Itches’ to borrow a Hayden Fry figure of speech as well as offensive philosophy.  They are aligning offensive philosophy with offensive personnel.

Iowa ran 44 plays in the first half and gained 18 first downs.  Yeah, that’s not a typo, it actually happened.

Iowa has not become a spread team, nor will they.  However, they are using formations that spread out the defense which makes it easier to run the football.  Iowa used a lot of its 311 personnel on Saturday (3 WR, 1 TE and 1 RB), which makes it real hard to stack the box with eight defenders, and next to impossible to commit eight defenders to stopping the run.

Would Iowa be doing this if it had a top of the line fullback this year?  Maybe not, and I think that factors into things.  However they also have the most talented quarterback of the Ferentz era from a pure throwing skills standpoint as well as the best wide receiver trio of the Ferentz era.

I realize some will want to argue that last point, but in my opinion, 2011 McNutt is better than 2010 DJK.  2011 Keenan Davis is close to as good as the 2010 Marvin McNutt and Kevonte Martin-Manley is better than the 2010 Keenan Davis.  None of that is to slight anyone, either, it’s just how I see it.

Iowa has the horses and they are choosing to let them run…or pass.

This no-huddle wrinkle is going to give opposing defensive coordinators something else to prepare for when Iowa comes up on the schedule.  It also seemed to calm James Vandenberg down a bit, as he had his best start to finish game of the 2011 season.  He got into a groove on that first drive, completing all four passes and he didn’t suffer from phantom footsteps the rest of the game as he had in the first three games.

Vandenberg also seems more comfortable starting out from the shotgun, where he can look down the field as opposed to being under center and running play action or the bootleg game where you turn your back to one side of the field for a brief time.

Play action and the bootleg game will remain a part of Iowa’s game plan.  The running game isn’t being demoted to a second class citizen and Iowa is not going to go run and shoot.

However, these wrinkles are productive and they will remain a part of the 2011 (and likely 2012) offense.

What we did not see on Saturday was any shotgun handoffs or draws, something I think you will see in two weeks against Penn State.

Iowa’s running game will be a beneficiary of this passing attack, be certain of that.  It comes at a good time, too as Marcus Coker had his best game of the season against ULM.

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Yes, I realize he has rushed for more yards in a game this year than his 113 from Saturday, but he got those on just 18 carries and his footwork was a lot better this game than it has been all year.  He was picking them up and putting them down quicker and he ran with more confidence, accelerating into holes and keeping his shoulder pads square to the line of scrimmage.

The Hawkeyes also played Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri at running back.  Each of those players is faster and quicker than Coker, and they can be utilized better between the 20’s and in the more traditional I-formation or 311 sets, where they may not have to do much in the way of pass blocking.

Bullock had two noticeable attempts in pass protection and served as a speed bump, as he was knocked on his rump both times.  Neither resulted in a sack, which is a good thing.

Canzeri showed today why I have been excited about him since signing day, and that was reinforced during Iowa’s August open practice.

When he gets the ball, he is going towards the line of scrimmage and quickly.  I guess a Fred Russell comparsion would be the best I can come up with, though I am not predicting a similar career…Canzeri is small and will really blossom from an offseason with Chris Doyle.  But give this kid a few carries out between the 20’s after Coker has tenderized the meat, and you are going to see something.  Of course, all of this reminds me of how much Iowa misses Mika’il McCall, who would have had a very good season had he stayed healthy, but that train has left the station.

This offense has a lot of weapons, the offensive line is good and capable of getting a lot better and the tight ends have barely been involved in the action thus far this year.  As dynamic as this group is now, I think it still has exponential improvement possibilities, which is exciting.

THE BERNSTINE EFFECT:  I was ready to tweet this on Saturday afternoon before Marc Morehouse beat me to it; were it not for James Vandenberg, Jordan Bernstine is Iowa’s MVP so far.

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He is everywhere on the field for the Hawks..returning kicks, covering punts inside the five yard line, laying out tacklers as a blocker on punt returns and making plays on defense.

I could be wrong here, but it seems like his energy level is infectious, ala the Bob Sanders Effect.  Bernstine has been like this since getting off the bus in the season opener, when Ferentz said he and McCall were playing at a different tempo than anyone else on the field against Tennessee Tech.  Iowa sorely missed his presence against Iowa State as he was battling an illness and he was one of the lone bright spots against Pitt for the first two and a half quarters.

He was a bright spot all day on Saturday and he is going to play his way into the NFL if he remains healthy.  It seems that each year, Iowa gets a breakout performance from a fifth year senior who has either been buried on the depth chart or has battled injury problems in his career.  Bernstine is having that type of season.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE PERFORMERS:  You can say the same thing about Tom Nardo.  He has had two very good games back to back, and he had 12 tackles on Saturday against ULM.  12 tackles for a defensive lineman?  That’s a lot, and Nardo was a very disruptive presence.  He is the lone lineman that has gotten better each week.

Tanner Miller made several big hits on Saturday and you could actually see the time he spent in the film room this past week come to the fore.

There was a play in the first quarter where ULM ran motion from the outside into the backfield, and Miller shaded it, following the motion man and actually ran up into the far side slot.  ULM gave the ball to the motion man on a reverse, jet-sweep style of play, and Miller was just waiting in the hole for the runner, and tackled him for a loss.  This was on ULM’s first possession, so if you recorded the game o yourself a favor and go watch that.  Seldom can you so easily identify film study paying off before your eyes, but you can on this play.

As the season goes on, those plays where he was making big hits on receivers are going to turn into pass break ups and interceptions, as his reaction times improve, which they will.  The fact that he was making so many bang-bang hits shows you how far he has come in a few weeks.  He is going to get there, and this secondary is improving right before our eyes.

DINK & DUNK SEASON IS OVER:  Iowa played four spread-based offenses in its first four games, something that is going to change the rest of the year.

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Sure, Northwestern is going to run a similar offense to some that Iowa has faced thus far, and these preparations will pay dividends as the Wildcat’s are Iowa’s second Big Ten opponent.

However, most of their future opponents will be more traditional, or at the least less ‘cute’.

ULM had some unique plays and looks…some I have never seen before or variations that I have never seen…several plays where an underneath receiving target paralleled motion with the quarterback and served as a slick release…plays that were akin to the shovel pass, but more sophisticated.

I predicted ULM would score 17 points, which is just what they got…they are just crafty.  By the way, I picked Pitt to get 27…my predictions haven’t been so great in recent years, something many of you remind me of, so I need to point out a few that hit the mark 😉

Penn State threw for its first passing touchdowns of the season on Saturday.  They are still unsettled at quarterback, they have an average at best offensive line and their defense suffered a huge loss on Saturday as LB Michael Mauti was lost for the season with an ACL injury.  This is a winnable game for the Hawkeyes, more so than I thought it would be before the year began.

After that, it’s Northwestern in Kinnick, under the lights for a 6pm start.  Iowa is not going to lose this game, this year.  Not going to happen.  OK, that is me projecting.  I hope it doesn’t happen, but you have to expect Dan Persa to miraculously be healthy and accurate for this game, even though he has yet to play a snap this season.

Then it’s Indiana at home and Minnesota on the road and half of the Big Ten season is over.  If Iowa can navigate that portion of the schedule 3-1, they will be in the hunt for the Legends Division title.  If they can somehow go 4-0 during that stretch, you have to really like their title chances with Michigan and Michigan State at home and Purdue, one of the three worst teams in the league, on the road.

OK, I am getting way, way too far ahead of myself, considering this Iowa team still has a ways to go with regards to defensive improvement and the offense finding consistency.

However, the schedule is favorable in a year that needed a bit of help.

Iowa entered this season with the fewest number of returning starters in the Big Ten.  It signed 25 players in its 2012 recruiting class, with 24 making it to camp (Rodney Coe did not).  So far, they have played 10 true freshmen…

That’s a lot of new faces…which means this team has a chance to improve exponentially the rest of the way, based on what I have seen.  It may also mean they could experience some road game bumps in two weeks with so many new faces out there…

Part of the excitement for the 2011 Iowa football season in the unknown; we just don’t know what to expect, but we’ve seen reasons to be optimistic.

Not that it takes much to make Iowa fans optimistic, present company included.

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