The Good: Nathan Stanley
After giving up a 10 play, 65-yard touchdown drive, the score was tied 14-14 in the middle of the third quarter. There was a general uneasiness about the game and things went from bad to worse when C.J. Beathard injured his shoulder while diving for a first down on Iowa’s own 37. North Dakota State’s defense had stifled Iowa’s running game. They were 5-time FCS Champions and they looked every bit as dominating as a Big Ten Champion. This was the situation Nathan Stanley walked into.
You’d expect Iowa to go conservative and have Stanley hand it off until Beathard was diagnosed. Instead, Greg Davis went aggressive and called a play action pass, which NDSU bit on (we’ll get to this later) and Stanley found George Kittle over the top for a 37-yard gain. Two plays later, Davis called a screen to Kittle which went for eight yards, setting up a third and short at the NDSU 14. Two run plays later and Iowa was up to NDSU’s 11-yard line and Beathard was ready to come back in. As Stanley jogged off the field the crowd provided him with a well-deserved standing ovation.
It wasn’t the easiest situation to walk into and Stanley could’ve just turtled up or handed the ball off. Instead, he came out confident and took Iowa from their own 41 to NDSU’s 14. Iowa’s future will be just fine in the hands of Nathan Stanley.
The Bad: Everything Else Offense-Related
Where to start. Let’s begin with the first play of the game for Iowa’s offense. Usually, when you’re backed up on your two-yard line you come out in the power I-formation and drive forward. Instead, Greg Davis made an aggressive play call, just like he did with Stanley (I believe it was the same play, actually) and called a play action pass. North Dakota State bit, Beathard had time, and he overthrew George Kittle. If he were to connect I’m not sure whether or not Kittle would’ve been tackled before making it all the way to Riverside Casino. Instead, Iowa went three and out and punted.
That play was a microcosm of the Iowa offense on Saturday. The Hawkeyes couldn’t run because NDSU was selling out to stop the run. Yet, instead of calling play action, which NDSU bit on heavily, they came out in obvious formations and ran obvious plays. When it looked like Iowa was going to run, they ran. When it looked like they were going to pass, they passed. Did Iowa call a single running play out of the shotgun? Shovel passes don’t count. There was little misdirection offered by the Iowa offense on Saturday aside from the aforementioned plays.
The questionable offensive line play definitely didn’t help. Yes, I understand that they were down two starters. With those glaring absences at center and guard, you’d figure that the Hawkeyes would not call running plays directly through those blocking lanes. If you figured that, you’d figure incorrectly. And if we had concerns about pass protection the first two weeks, the offensive line performance on Saturday only confirmed those fears. Iowa needs Welsh and Daniels back. Simple and plain.
When the game was over, there were concerns about Akrum Wadley’s health. He’d only carried the ball four times for 20 yards. The news on him? Well:
Big stat today: Akrum Wadley 4 carries. Iowa's most electric player. Ferentz said afterward he was fine.— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) September 17, 2016
The Bad: Iowa’s Defense Getting Iowa’d
What defines Iowa football? What do you think of when you think of Iowa football? Smash mouth. Wearing the defense down. Slowly and methodically driving down the field. Using the run to open up the pass. Literally beating the opponent into submission. Running it down their throats because you know and they know that they can’t stop it.
That happened on Saturday. Except Iowa wasn’t the team doing it.
It was North Dakota State that was doing it.
We should’ve seen it coming. With the way that Iowa’s offense was performing, we knew that the defense could only hold out for so long. The half a million dollar S&C coach could only do so much because after all, these are human beings and not machines. In the unpublished NDSU big units piece I wrote the following:
This is one of the most experienced offensive lines the Hawkeyes have faced so far this season. Their interior is easily the largest, as NDSU’s average weight at center/guard is 318 lbs. Iowa State’s is 301 lbs. Miami’s is 296.
Iowa was dominated on the inside. And sure, Jaleel Johnson was being held on nearly every play and there was atrocious officiating throughout the contest, but that doesn’t explain poor tackling and the linebackers taking poor angles.
During NDSU’s 80-yard, eight-minute drive for a touchdown, something Anthony Becht said stood out to me. He noted that Iowa wasn’t substituting players. I think it’s a Ferentz tradition to not substitute defensive players but I found myself asking “Why?” Is he so concerned that Iowa may field a guy who isn’t as talented as a starter and could make a mistake? Is he of the opinion a tired starter is better than a rested reserve?
On these long drives, Iowa needs to start rotating more players on their defense. Because by the fourth quarter, they simply couldn’t hold the line against the Bison. There would be no valiant stand like at Syracuse. This was the Battle of Thermopylae and Iowa was the 300. It was exactly like what we saw in Indianapolis during the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State. Iowa lost the game of inches, if only by an inch. And if Iowa’s defense doesn’t start making adjustments to address an opponent’s sustained drive, they’ll lose more close games.
If only by an inch.