Each week, "One Defining Moment" will dive into the game's most important moment and break it down in all its glory, or in unfortunate cases, its horror. This week: an opening drive that set the tone for a dominant win
Well that was a lot more fun now, wasn't it? An Iowa team that had shown very few signs of life finally woke up Saturday and gave us a reminder of what successful football looks like. Should I temper expectations because it looks like MSU is closer to a U-10 team than a Big Ten team? Probably. Will Iowa revert back to "gouge your eyes out" levels of ineptitude on offense next week? Almost certainly. But I'm not here to let common sense stop me from enjoying a dominating win buoyed by strong play from all three phases. The defense and special teams came up with highlight-reel plays of their own (special shout-out to the punt return TD and pick-six within 27 seconds of each other), but it was the offense that showed the most improvement Saturday. It was clear from the first drive that the offense had taken a step forward and Sparty looked wholly uninterested in pushing back.
The Defining Moment
Iowa received the opening kick and came out of the gates firing. The 8 play, 75-yard drive featured everything we've been asking for from the Iowa offense. There was pre-snap motion, play action, moving pockets, jet sweeps, and creative playcalling. It kept the defense on its toes and kept the decisions simple for the new quarterback. The drive's highlight came on a 27-yard jet sweep to Charlie Jones that set Iowa up inside the Spartan 10.
A few plays later, Tyler Goodson punched the ball into the end zone behind a well-blocked line, and Iowa never looked back.
A Closer Look
Iowa has looked vanilla on offense in the first two weeks, all but shipping the defense their gameplan and hoping the offense will be able to overcome it. On the first drive Saturday, Iowa went against tendencies and created easy wins that allowed them to score early and gain momentum.
The drive started with Iowa's bread and butter stretch zone, the same one we decried last week (and for the last decade), but with a slight wrinkle. Petras motioned Sam Laporta across the line pre-snap to allow his line to read the defense and create some leverage on their blocks. It was a small adjustment, one that Iowa uses often, but it holds the defense just enough to give Iowa's offensive line the time they need to create Goodson's cutback lane. Does Iowa run this play too often still? Undoubtedly yes, but that doesn't mean that it can't be effective with proper setup and solid blocking.
On second and short, Iowa opted for a tunnel screen to Tyrone Tracy, picking up a first down and then some. It was a creative playcall, just like we called for last week when Iowa had second and short. It isn't a play that I need to see more than once a game, but branching off of a first down run, it works as a nice change of pace and keeps the defense running sideline to sideline. Plus, it's an easy throw at the start of the game to give your QB some confidence.
Nearing midfield, Iowa ran again, again using pre-snap motion to gain the advantage at the line. Following that, Iowa opted for a play-action roll out, finding a wide-open Shaun Beyer for another first down. Again, we're seeing Iowa's offense at its peak here. The entire B1G knows Iowa's goal is to run the football. Ferentz has preached it for 20 years and shows no intentions of changing. The obvious counter to that is the play-action pass. It forces linebackers to hesitate, which opens bigger holes for your running back and it gives your receivers an extra second to win their routes. Rolling your quarterback out also limits the reads he needs to make, simplifying the game for a new QB. Here, the TE leaks across the field (to the opposite side of the earlier screen) and Petras gets another easy throw to an open receiver.
- From here, Iowa had its entire playbook open. They'd run to both sides, passed to both sidelines, and the MSU defense had no idea who to key on or where the next play was going. This time, Iowa chose a jet sweep to Charlie Jones who came in motion to the right before taking the sweep going left. Jones' speed was more than enough to outrun the linebackers and he followed behind a block from the fullback to set Iowa up with goal to go. At that point, Iowa leaned on its strength, the running game, to punch in the first score.
It's hard to overstate the difference between Iowa's 2nd half at Northwestern and their first drive Saturday against MSU. They forced the Spartans to move sideline to sideline and attacked them in creative ways. The entire time, Iowa leaned on the run but stopped short of tying themselves to it to the point of becoming predictable. They gave Petras simple reads and early confidence and it led to him having his best game, even if the short-throw accuracy was still lacking at times.
It was similar to the way Rams and Titans run their offenses in the NFL and should be the model for the Hawkeyes moving forward. Work out of a few base formations to disguise the play, then use motion and the entire field to create space for your skill position players to work. It should be noted too that on plays like the screen and jet sweep, it's easy to see Smith-Marsette in for Tracy and Jones and these plays becoming effective ways to get the ball in your stud receiver's hands without forcing your freshman QB to throw 50 times.
On a day when the defense was dominant and MSU looked...not good, to put it kindly, (which, yikes, Michigan), the offense had the opportunity to work out some kinks and took full advantage. This offense doesn't need to be a powerhouse for Iowa to win games. If the defense and special teams are going to play as well as they did Saturday, and both played by far their best games of the year, all the offense needs to do is be average. If the offense can complement the other phases by taking care of the ball and keeping opposing defenses off-balance, this team is going to find their way to a successful season. For at least a week, I'm going to believe that the Ferentzes realize that too.