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: Iowa finally opens up the playbook for two creative touchdowns, the second of which gave the Hawks a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
That number five ranking is starting to look more and more threatening next to the Iowa name. Iowa's taking care of business, but this doesn't feel like a potential CFP team, at least not yet. For most of Saturday, I wasn't sure this looked like much more than a mediocre Big Ten team.
It took almost three quarters and a fortuitous turnover for the Hawks to finally have an opportunity to take control of the game. To their credit, that's exactly what they did. A beautiful play design pulled the Hawks even and a subsequent quick three-and-out gave them the opportunity to take the lead. OC Brian Ferentz again dipped into the usually forbidden "creative playcalling" section of the playbook and dialed up a perfect fake screen route, capitalizing on the Rams' aggressiveness to set up a wide-open Sam LaPorta touchdown, punctuating the defining four-drive sequence of the game.
Iowa gave up the lead late in the second quarter. For half of the third quarter, the Hawks struggled to wrest control back until a Rams fumble deep in their own territory set up a nifty run by Tyrone Tracy to tie the game. Iowa's defense forced a three-and-out on the next drive and a solid punt return from Charlie Jones put the Hawkeyes near midfield.
First down was an incomplete pass and second down was an unproductive run. Facing third and 11, the Hawkeyes set up to run a tunnel screen, a similar play to the one that led to the momentum-swinging interception in the first half. But this time Petras faked the screen as LaPorta broke upfield. The Rams bit, and LaPorta was left alone to waltz into the end zone and give the Hawkeyes the lead.
A Closer Look
The fake screen only works if you can convince the defense you're actually going to throw a screen pass. To Brian Ferentz's credit, the tunnel screen has been an Iowa staple for a few years now. I talked last week about Tracy catching one and earlier in the game the Hawkeyes tried a similar play, although that one ended in a disastrous interception.
INT off a PA tunnel screen pic.twitter.com/41dx1yQu3A— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) September 26, 2021
On the interception, it was the screen itself that was the payoff for the run misdirection, but the play failed due to poor execution across the board. When Ferentz dialed up the counter, he knew the Rams were likely to be aggressive against the screen again. They had seen a similar play on film and on the field, they were playing aggressively at the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and their backs were against the wall, no doubt pushing them to look for the big play.
On the snap, the safety and linebacker bit hard on Tracy's route. LaPorta did just enough to feign that he was going to block and Petras sold the screen with a strong pump fake. At that point, the safety had no shot at catching up to LaPorta and all Petras had to do was throw a catchable ball.
Iowa does a good job of setting up a tendency and then working against it. Too often though, the goal of those against-type calls is a 12-yard crossing route or a 6-yard slant. When Iowa gets creative, both in their initial playcall and how they play off of that, the results speak for themselves.
All three Hawkeye touchdowns Saturday caused me as much exasperation as they did joy. Whether it was the long ball to Johnson, the creative statue of liberty run for Tracy, or the fake screen that gave the Hawks the lead, each one felt completely un-Iowa.
Iowa has a formula and they're going to stick to it. They want to run the ball, chew the clock, and control the line of scrimmage. When it works, it's an intimidating and dominating style of play. The problem is, every single opponent knows what Iowa wants to do and Iowa doesn't do enough to punish opponents when they over-commit to stopping it. Even more infuriating, Iowa clearly has the plays to do so. We saw it Saturday and we've seen it in some of Iowa's best wins in recent years (see: USC in the Holiday Bowl or Ohio State in 2017).
Now, we obviously can't run an offense consisting only of trick plays and Iowa is never going to turn itself into a Big 12 Air Raid offense, but too often Iowa seems content to run on first down, try a short pass on second, hope they can pick up third-and-medium, and settle for a booming punt otherwise.
I get that Iowa has one of the best special teams units in the country and a ferocious defense, but the offense puts so much pressure on those units to be perfect when the offensive playcalling is so conservative. There's a way to find a balance, to scheme open receivers that make it easier for Petras, and easier for Goodson and the running game too. Iowa clearly already has these plays at their disposal. We just don't see them enough.
The Hawkeyes were able to make it through the first four weeks, but the offense is going to have to do more if Iowa is going to make this season into something special. It was encouraging to see the creativity in spurts Saturday, but it's going to need to continue as the Iowa gears up for the rest of conference play.