Craig Has The Scout - Iowa 2017
Ghosts of the Football Game Past
Two Friday night games in a row. A bye week to prepare. A complete and utter failure.
So, to be fair. I didn't expect Illinois to win. I actually predicted a 27-9 loss. I didn't think Illinois would be able to consistently run the ball, and I assumed Nebraska would hit short routes and pound the edges of the Illinois DL. That pretty much happened all night.
So, then, why the negativity on Friday night. I'll tell a story for this one. I once owned a car that had a minor exhaust leak. I was road tripping in a sleet storm in the car, which meant ice pellets would come in and pelt me if I rolled down a window. So, you can either deal with the discomfort of being pelted but staying alive, or roll up all the windows and deal with the suffocation from the carbon monoxide seeping in. Or you could make a change and go back and forth. Illinois chose the comfortable version that led to death last week, at no point did they do something on offense that was a risk which resulted in a slow death.
*Coming Up *
Who: Iowa Hawkeyes
When: 11:00 am - October 7th, 2017
Where: Kinnick Stadium
_Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz. _The dean of football coaches in the B1G. Ferentz has been around forever, and the man most of the country would say best describes B1G football. Which is fair, he hasn't seen a punt he doesn't like. He has found a formula that works in Iowa City, and has been able to recruit to it for two decades. His team is remarkably consistent in statistical rankings every year, but with the uncertainty of the B1G, he will oscillate between 4-10 wins. This year's edition is not great, but right on track for seven or eight wins.
_Offensive Style: _Brian Ferentz takes over as the offensive coordinator, but most things have not changed for the Hawkeyes. Ferentz is emphasizing the pass game a bit more this year vs. previous years under Greg Davis. The result is remarkably similar, with similar yards per play as last year. The pass game though improved while the run game has lost some steam. Brian Ferentz made a big point in the spring about the focus on finishing, which has been an issue for the Hawkeyes this season.
_Defensive Style: _Phil Parker remains the DC at Iowa, a position he has held since 2012. The Hawkeyes utilize a base 4-3 defense, running primarily Cover 3 and mixing in a little Cover 2 behind it. Parker prefers Cover 3 with the Strong Safety playing robber in the middle zones. The Hawkeyes rarely go Nickel, and will utilize a good mix of blitzing in the front 7 to go with the softer back end coverages.
_Specialists: _Desmond King was a great returner for Iowa in 2016, and his loss has left Iowa without a go to returner thus far. Add in a perfectly acceptable set of kickers, and the Hawkeyes are 34th in Special Teams S&P+. Which is better than Illinois' 74th.
Three Things to Watch
_Iowa's inability to get its run game going vs. freshmen DL. _Iowa rushed 25 times for 19 yards against Michigan State. After they ran 23 times for 82 yards against Penn State. This might be the worst rushing team Iowa has had in a decade. In the other corner is an Illinois defense that has given up 500 yards rushing in its last two games.
_If Iowa lets Illinois hang around. _Iowa should have beaten Penn State and played the spoiler. They didn't, then followed up that dramatic loss with a complete dud against Michigan State. Ferentz is known to let hangovers last for multiple games in his tenure, and it leads to some bizarre losses. Iowa should take the Nebraska blueprint and pound the Illini, but with the Hawkeyes trying to exorcise some demons they might struggle early giving Illinois some momentum.
_How many snaps Jeff George Jr. takes. _George was given the nod for the game, and we will see how much leash he has as the starter. Chayce Crouch struggled against Nebraska, and it allowed Nebraska to stack the box and take away any chance Illinois had to move the ball. George came in late and moved the ball against South Florida, but is known for bad interceptions. If George takes all the snaps on Saturday, Illinois is competitive.
Scouting Review - Offense
Iowa has an identity on offense, in a way Wisconsin and Navy do. Year in and year out, Iowa is going to run heavy run formations and be very balanced on offense. At least, that was the M.O. until this season. Iowa has struggled to move the ball all season, primarily because the ever reliable running attack has glitched. Tim Banks and Penn State gave a really nice blueprint on how to shut down the Hawkeyes, and Michigan State executed it to perfection. Going forward, the Hawkeyes need to debug the run game.
Penn State came at Iowa with a heavy blitz all game, mainly off the edge. Michigan State used less pressure, but let the linebackers play overly aggressive against the run. The result was more impressive than the Penn State performance. Once Iowa was unable to establish the run, the offense ground to a halt. From Ken O'Keefe (Ferentz's first OC and this year's QB coach), to Greg Davis and now to Brian Ferentz, Iowa has relied on the run to establish the passing game. With the run game being essentially neutralized, Iowa has come to rely on more 3 wide receiver sets which is not the strength of the offense.
Iowa at its core would like to run the entire offense out of the I formation. (Apologies, I have work travel this week and will not be able to do as many diagrams as normal)
As you can see in this same image here, Michigan State was walking a Nickelback (circle in blue) up to the line of scrimmage and playing ultra aggressive at the snap of the ball.
The Iowa response was to tighten the WR splits to the OL to try and add extra blockers to the scheme.
Sparty responded by walking the LB back into a normal formation. Iowa countered this look with this play.
As you can see on this play, the Hawkeyes beat the safety over the top, but Stanley was a little long with the throw. Iowa was forced to throw to relieve the pressure though, because they absolutely could not run against this defensive alignment out of the I.
Iowa then tried to initiate the run game using an H back lined up over the Tight End. While in this formation, Iowa used quite a bit of motion to try and create assignment misses by the defense.
Anytime that Iowa was in this, Michigan State was bringing one or both of the LBs. The Iowa interior OL was unable to prevent penetration and the run game again was stagnant. The blueprint then is to bring pressure against the Iowa interior (Penn State also mixed in some Bear fronts) and force the RBs outside the tackle box.
The blueprint will be hard for the Illini to execute. Illinois will not be able to blitz the middle with the LBs like Sparty did. Bringing LB pressure up the middle will require the Illini DE's to hold the point of attack. Isolating the DEs will be Iowa's primary objective, and they will run specific plays to exploit this. The first is a zone blocking run to the edge in single back. Get used to this play, they will run it a ton.
Iowa will most likely use a lot of motion against Illinois in this set. The tight end moving from one side to the other will create a weak front by the Illini. You'll notice Wyoming also did not bump the DL on the motion, leaving the play side guard uncovered creating a clean shot on the LB, but also a vertical crease in the defense. This allows the Iowa RB to stay inside the tackle box and prevents undue pressure on the Iowa interior.
Against Penn State, they ran the same play with dual tight ends, and the Nittany Lions kept the defense tight on the inside and spilled the runner to the perimeter, while having the DTs play the run aggressively. The penetration prevented the vertical crease the running back is looking for.
Illinois could have success doing the same if they can get penetration up the middle using the DTs, but will struggle to do it with LBs.
Running in the gap between the nose tackle and the weak defensive end will continue to be an issue for Illinois as they are winning very few 1:1 battles on these plays. Iowa will want to exploit this advantage as it covers up the weakness of the offense so far this season. Although Iowa does not run this often, they will run it this week against the Illini based on the weakness of the Illini in stopping it.
Illinois will need a great game from the DTs to stop the Iowa rushing attack.
Under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have been using the screen game similar to last season. RB screens have always been a staple of the offense.
This year, they are mixing in a WR tunnel screen to go along with it. Illinois was burned by this against South Florida, and I am sure that Iowa took notice.
Based on the success of the Huskers against Illinois last week, Iowa might forgo this play and run the counter instead. In normal passing downs though, this play will be high up the play card for Ferentz.
They run this out of the I formation mainly, and pass about 75% of the time out of shotgun. Nebraska had lots of success out of a 2 TE look, and utilized very little I formation. I would imagine Iowa will do the same, forgoing the fullback for either a tight end or a wide receiver.
The final play I see Iowa utilizing is a crossing route.
If the Illini are forced to bring pressure with the LBs, the Hawkeyes should be able to take advantage with a route similar to this. Nebraska picked Illinois apart with a slant route, but Iowa utilizes the TEs more and this is most likely the route they would choose.
Iowa should mimic Nebraska and pound the Illini perimeter running, then attack the soft zones behind the Illini LBs. Nate Stanley at QB has been solid, and is an upgrade from Tanner Lee. As you might recall, Lee lit up the Illini last week, and I would expect Stanley to do the same.
Scouting Review - Defense
As mentioned previously, Iowa is a 4-3 Cover 3 scheme primarily. While no team runs a single defensive backfield scheme, Iowa is the closest to staying with a single scheme. Here is the base Hawkeye look.
When they have an extra receiver bump out, they use the Will LB to match up.
What makes it successful is the linebacking corps led by Josey Jewell. The WLB is Brian Bower, who is versatile enough to play in tight and bumped out in a Nickel position. With a tenacious and versatile middle linebacker like Jewell and a flexible backer like Bower, it allows the Hawkeyes some degrees of freedom on defense. When Iowa does go Nickel, they tend to run soft coverages on the perimeters and avoid getting beat deep.
Success against the Hawkeyes has come a few ways this season. The first is to have Saquon Barkley in the backfield. Since Illinois is lacking that option, they will need to utilize the Wyoming method. A running attack that is straight ahead, and a quick passing game to the sidelines. George starting actually benefits the Illini this game since he has more zip on his sideline passes.
Iowa will probably avoid getting too fancy against Illinois. I do see them blitzing some to pressure George in the pocket, he tends to make rash decisions with pressure in his face.
What does it mean?
Against Illinois last year, the Hawkeyes pounded the rock on the perimeter and opened up holes all day. The Illini DL had some highlights when they got penetration, but that was not often enough. The final log was 49 carries for 252 yards.
The Iowa defense last year saw Illinois use a passing QB in Lunt, and he attempted 41 passes and completed only 19. There is no reason to think Illinois will not have similar numbers this year. On both sides of the ball, this should be a lather, rinse, repeat effort for the Hawkeyes.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to give George a clean pocket when he passes, and they need to establish Epstein in the ground game. The Illini will also need to be positive in the turnover column. Oh, and I forgot to mention, they need to break a few big plays, Illinois is really struggling to finish in the red zone. With those three things, Illinois can win this game.
For Iowa to Win:
Iowa almost beat Penn State because of bad turnovers. They also could not run the ball. If Iowa gets the run game going finally, and avoids Illinois being -3 in turnovers, they will win the game.
Last season Iowa had one of their best rushing games of the season, and had 3 rushing TDs in the game en route to a 28-0 win. I expect Iowa to dust off that game plan and do the same this season. The Illini graduated five DL from last year, and with seniors they could not hold the point of attack, I expect worse with freshmen. On defense, Illinois went with the passing QB against an Iowa front that lost some talent, but Illinois is playing two freshmen on the OL as well. Last year's score feels dead on for this season, I'll take Iowa to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: