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: a disastrous 4th down play in the red zone to cap off a disastrous night in Indy.
I tried to keep my expectations low this week. I watched the Hawks all year and knew the uphill battle they were going to face against one of the most ferocious pass rushes in the country. I told myself what was going to happen all week and yet, as soon as the game started, I was talking myself into a Hawkeye win.
Missed field goal? Well, did you see how we moved the ball? Two straight big plays given up and a 14-3 halftime deficit? We're right there except for two lapses.
It wasn't until the end of the third quarter when Iowa reached the red zone once again, that I finally accepted the fact that Iowa's offense (and I don't mean the players) had no business being on the field.
Iowa found themselves going for it on 4th-and-3, down 21-3, because they knew how rare it was to even have a hint of a scoring opportunity. It could have been the start of something. Instead, it was an emphatic end to any Hawkeye hopes.
Midway through the third quarter, after Iowa finally made a needed QB change (choosing to start the less mobile QB against the best defensive line you've faced all year should be grounds for firing in its own right, as should not making the change until there was an "injury"), the Hawkeyes put together a long drive and found themselves inside the Michigan red zone.
A 5-yard run on first down was followed by an ineffective 2nd down run, setting up a manageable third-and-four for the Hawks, their best scoring opportunity of the night. A designed 2-yard out route (another fireable offense) set up fourth-and-two. Down 18, a field goal would have made it (barely) a two-possession game, but the Hawks elected to be aggressive and attempted to convert the fourth down play, hopefully putting seven points on the board. (I didn't hate the decision because I was fairly confident Iowa wasn't going to come up with two better touchdown opportunities in the game. The fact that the Hawkeye coaches agreed is damning evidence that even the Ferentzes understand how bad this offense is.)
Instead of glory though, Iowa found disaster. A poor play design, bad execution, and a stout Michigan defense combined to create a worst-case scenario for the Hawkeyes, sapping all remaining hope and underscoring the dysfunctional offense that derailed a magical season.
A Closer Look
To say the fourth down play call was poor would be an understatement. I think the intended target is Luke Lachey leaking out to the weak side after selling a block at the line of scrimmage. Iowa has run similar leak plays before and has even seen some success with them.
The first problem here is that it's a long-developing play against an extremely strong defensive line. Iowa used rollouts all game, finding some success, but was coupling them with play-action to hold the defense, or quick routes to beat it before they could react.
The mediocre attempt at play-action here is run to the same side that Padilla rolls out to, which only pulls more defenders towards him, which again, I think is actually the goal. If the play works, it means the weak side defenders crash down and leave our crossing tight end wide open for an easy touchdown pass, which brings us to the second problem.
The Michigan defense does not seem to care at all about stopping the run on the play. Either they trusted their front four to stuff a run attempt (likely), or they saw something in Iowa's lineup/presnap calls that keyed them into the fact that it was a pass play (also likely). Watch #32 on the weak side. He takes his time to watch the play and then takes away the leaking TE. As soon as he didn't rush into the backfield, the play was doomed.
Even with the primary route being taken away, the Hawks had one other option with Sam LaPorta running a crossing route of his own. He may have eventually come open, if the Hawks could have provided Padilla a bit more time (the third problem).
Luke Lachey chose to block air before starting his route and Monte Pottebaum was too slow to chip the free rusher Lachey left, which meant the responsibility fell to Tyler Goodson, who did all he could, but was no match for the Michigan defender.
The Iowa play call gave the Hawks few options, both of which were long developing on a day when Iowa was always going to have to get the ball out quick. Michigan's defense read Iowa well and dared them to run on fourth-and-short. Instead, Iowa opted for a faux-play action call that was likely doomed from the start and had no chance at all once two different Hawkeyes missed blocks.
Poor design, poor execution. The story of the Hawkeye offense all season.
The moment hardly determined the outcome. The Hawks were unlikely to get to 21, even if they did find a way to finish the drive with a touchdown. Instead, the moment was defining in the way it perfectly encapsulated the game and the entire Hawkeye season.
Iowa's offense was never more than mediocre, but the Hawks did find a way to reach the Wolverine red zone a few times throughout the game. As soon as the field shrunk though, so did the Iowa appetite for creative or even functional playcalling.
We've watched the 5-yard curls on third-and-seven all year, but it happened yet again on the play that preceded the disastrous fourth down with the designed 2-yard out route. Over and over again this season, Iowa's play calls have taken away any opportunity for the Iowa offense to succeed.
This Hawkeye offense achieves its goals if it doesn't lose the game. There are no expectations that it should go out and actually win it. It's the reason a few earrant throws by Padilla led to his benching against Nebraska and it's the reason that you can't fault the players for the lack of offensive production.
The futility is by design. It doesn't stop Iowa from racking up 9-win seasons, but it will forever keep Iowa from making the next step. Maybe that's the best the Hawks can do. I think there's a way to do better, to improve the offense without turning it into a unit that gives away games. Clearly, the Ferentz family disagrees.