One Defining Moment: Illinois

By erut17 on November 22, 2021 at 2:39 pm
go charlie go
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK
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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: Charlie Jones wakes up Kinnick, and the Hawks, with an electric Kick Return Touchdown.

Illinois' first drive Saturday had me seeing all kinds of ghosts and horrors. The Iowa defense let a previously ineffective offense drive down the field with ease and when the special teams gifted Illinois three more points, I was preparing for a long day of frustrations and expletives.

Thankfully, Charlie Jones was there to exorcise my demons. Iowa didn't dominate after his spectacular return touchdown, but the play sent a jolt through Kinnick Stadium and the Hawkeyes that seemed to wake them from their Saturday afternoon slumber.

The Moment

Illinois used its first possession to do absolutely anything they wanted against the Iowa defense and took an early 7-0 lead. Iowa's first possession showed some life but stalled around midfield. A special teams disaster gave the Fightin' Bielemas (minus the Bielema) a short field and they quickly turned that into a 10-0 lead. 

Suddenly Iowa was in a double-digit hole with an offense ill-prepared to erase any sort of deficit. 

Enter: Charlie Jones.

Jones took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards, tying record for the longest kick return touchdown in Iowa history, pulling Iowa back into the game and electrifying what had been a quietly nervous Kinnick Stadium

A Closer Look

Kickoff coverage is all about lanes. The kicking team doesn't send all eleven players at the ball carrier. Instead, each player is responsible for a portion of the field, almost like a zone defense.

Iowa's return strategy is to find a cutback lane once the kicking team breaks their coverage lanes. In particular, Iowa looks to set up a return towards the right before cutting back to the left. Once the defense is moving side to side, Iowa creates a crease for the returner, not dissimilar to their zone running strategy on offense. If the returner can make it through that crease, it almost always leads to a huge play. I would have just called it a coincidence, but Ihmir Smith-Marsette's returns from his years at Iowa show a very consistent setup (against Nebraska, ISM was so fast he didn't need the final cutback, but the setup was clearly the same).

 

Charlie Jones is no ISM, but he's plenty athletic in his own right and takes advantage of the cutback lane created by Levar Woods' unit. As soon as he found the crease, there was no chance the Illini were going to catch him.

Special teams can be a hard unit to judge because they're mostly forgotten outside of the spectacular or horrific, but Coach Woods has consistently created one of the best special teams units in the country. Iowa knows how to appreciate their special teams and I still think we're not giving Coach Woods enough credit. His side has enabled Iowa's field position style of play to succeed and whatever he's earning, it deserves to be more.

Impact

Iowa looked unprepared in all phases to start Saturday's game. The defense had no answers for...Brandon Peters (?) and the punt team's error threatened to knock the entire gameplan off course. There have been a few different times this year (Penn State, Wisconsin, and now Illinois) where Iowa hasn't come prepared at the start of the game. Against Penn State and Illinois, flashpoint plays turned the game's momentum and woke up the team, but Iowa can't rely on lightning in a bottle to bring the energy every week.

I shudder to think about what would have happened without Charlie Jones' touchdown return Saturday. Do we think the Iowa offense was going to drive down the field and score? I have serious doubts and the rest of Iowa's offensive output Saturday did nothing to quell those fears. Padilla still gives Iowa more options, but that hasn't yet translated into offensive production. I mean:

Outside of a drastic philosophy shift, which isn't going to happen, Iowa will continue to rely on game-changing plays from their special teams and defense to win games. Lucky for Iowa, Phil Parker and Levar Woods are two of the best coordinators in the country.  These two units are doing all that they can to keep Iowa competitive, but at some point, the offense is going to need to hold up their end of the bargain. Iowa's defense carried the team for the first part of the season and on Saturday, the special teams unit (shout out to Caleb Shudak while we're here) took their turn. Here's hoping the offense is willing to pitch in at some point in the last two weeks.

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