This week, Ohio State takes on the Iowa Hawkeyes in Columbus in a game of rivaling philosophies.
Iowa’s head coach Kirk Ferentz brought his son onto the coaching staff to run the offense, and it shows every single week. The offense is unoriginal, incredibly basic, and probably hasn’t changed much since Brad Banks was leading Iowa in 2002. Without a modern passing attack, and an incredibly simple run game, Iowa is easy to prepare for defensively.
Despite how archaic the offense is, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has routinely led defenses ranking among the best in the country. This will be the most significant challenge the Buckeyes’ offense has faced so far. The Hawkeyes aren’t complicated, but they are disciplined and play their scheme with a lot of consistency. Defensively, the Hawkeyes limit the run game, and their coverage forces a lot of turnovers. Stroud will need to be sharp, and Ohio State will need to be balanced to break down the Hawkeyes.
Ohio State hasn’t played a defense like Iowa’s, and breaking down their coverage is not easy. Defensively, the Buckeyes will need to bring the toughness and dicipline.
Watching Brian Ferentz’s offense should be against the Geneva Convention. For Iowa fans, I send my condolences on having to watch this every week, and I can not imagine how torturous being a fan of such a bland offense feels on a week-to-week basic.
Despite having multiple tight ends capable of being dangerous in the passing game, Ferentz routinely calls plays that send two wide receivers out while keeping his tight ends inline to pass protect. The glorified extended offensive linemen make running their patented wide-zone just that much wider.
Really, there is not much going on here, and the national statistics show that Iowa’s offense is among the worst offenses in the country. The film below shows a few key concepts and why Iowa isn’t effective.
The passing game for Iowa falls apart quick. They run long developing routes, and Spencer Petras takes forever to get the ball out. That recipe for disaster has led to two passing touchdowns and 5.8 yards per pass attempt through six games. When the passing game has found success – which is rarely – the Hawkeyes are able to use their tight ends in mismatches.
In the first play, we see the two main issues that plague Iowa’s entire offense against Rutgers. Iowa is in 2nd-and-goal from the 6-yard line, and despite all their issues passing the ball, the Hawkeyes run a passing play. The play-action does not get any defenders to bite, and the route concepts do not create any confusion for the back end. Rutgers gets pressure and has every receiver accounted for, and Petras is sacked. The weak play-action and lack of dynamic play makers makes this basic play a disaster.
The next play shows how even when Iowa’s play isn’t bad conceptually, they do not have a quarterback to execute. To start, Iowa motions out their running back to create quads to the short side of the field. This is not ideal, and creates incredibly bad spacing for the receivers. Even with these negatives, two receivers still come open on the play. The tight end comes across the formation and is standing by himself. Petras takes his drop and the wheel route is open immediately.
In this scenario the receiver should sit at the sticks, given the cushion he has. Regardless of if there was miscommunication on the wheel route or a bad throw, the end result is the same. Petras also locked on to one receiver and had an easier throw to the tight end.
In this last play, Iowa relies on the screen game to pick up a 3rd-and-long. This is actually probably where Iowa’s offense is at its best. Once again, Brian Ferentz was in his absolute bag. He calls a running back screen against Rutgers and they almost get a first down. The screen pass takes fold and is well-timed, giving the linemen time to get up field. This play is well-blocked, but the lineman can’t hold his block long enough to break off a big enough gain for the first down.
The passing game is bad, but the run game might be even less inventive. Relying on a mix of zone run schemes, including inside, outside, and wide zone plays. Ohio State should be familiar in stopping this because the Buckeyes run all three schemes as well.
In the first play looking at the run game, they have a successful run against Rutgers utilizing their bread-and-butter. Iowa runs their wide zone concept, and this play gives us a good look at how this works when blocked correctly. Iowa brings two defenders, giving this a pin-and-pull action with the tight end split blocking across the formation. The non-pullers on the offensive line wall-off the defenders, creating a running lane. The pullers clear out the filling linebackers.
They rip off a nice gain here, and this shows the true strength of Iowa’s offense — getting their linemen moving and opening up running lanes for the back.
Iowa is in the red zone in the next play. Rather than passing in a 2nd-and-Goal situation from the 5-yard line, they decide to keep the ball on the ground. They run a similar concept blocking wise, but the run-action itself is an inside handoff. Illinois gets immediate penetration up front, and the puller has no chance to get out in space. This play gets blown up in the backfield for a loss of three.
The issues here are spacing and the blocking scheme itself. With the spacing and this type of hand off, there was never any chance this would be a positive gain.
Nothing more needs to be said about this unit other than the fact Iowa won a game this season 7-3 with two safeties and a field goal after forcing a punt from the opponent’s end zone. Iowa runs a mix of two-high coverages, including Cover-2 man under, Cover-2, and Cover-4 looks. Iowa excels at forcing teams to be impatient, leading to turnovers.
In pass coverage, Iowa does not bring a lot of pressure, but they do like to mix in stunts in the pass rush. Iowa is aligned in their goal line Cover-2 man coverage, and they are keeping everything in front of them. To create conflict for the offensive line, the Iowa defensive line runs a stunt to the left side of the front. Illinois is able to block this and give their quarterback time to throw. Despite not having a great pass rush, the coverage behind the formation is organized, and forces an incompletion.
When Iowa does bring pressure, this makes their coverage that much more dangerous. The mix of blitzing and the discipline on the back end is a recipe for forcing mistakes. Iowa fakes rushing the linebacker, who ends up playing as a spy, but this fake allows the other defensive linemen to wrap around the protection. The rush gets home and forces the quarterback into a bad throw. Iowa picks the ball off and they return the interception for a touchdown.
Iowa’s ability to create turnovers will be a challenge for C.J. Stroud and the Ohio State offense. If the Buckeyes can limit the pass rush and give Stroud time, he has shown the ability to sit back, picking apart the zone coverages across from him.
The defining trait of Iowa’s run defense is their flow to the football. Flow is the defense’s natural pursuit of the football. This is what Iowa does best with All-American linebacker Jack Campbell and their defensive line. Iowa has been stout in stopping opposing teams’ run games, and this is where Ohio State will be most challenged. If they can run the ball against Iowa, they can dominate this defense. But if they can’t, Iowa’s defense can settle in, creating a lot more challenges for Stroud.
In this first play, Illinois picks up a first down running the speed option to the short side of the field. Illinois is able to block Iowa initially, and this is enough in the 4th-and-3 to get the first down. What this play shows is how well Iowa sheds blocks and gets to the football. The initial push gets Iowa impeding the linebackers, but they still get there to limit any bigger gains. Iowa may give up yards, but they are sure tacklers and they get all their hats to the ball.
Illinois runs an outside zone here. The Hawkeyes once again show how disciplined they are. The defensive line gets up the field, forcing the running back to take the ball outside. This allows the linebackers to flow freely to the outside. Iowa’s defensive end is able to make the play in the backfield, but even if the running back gets outside there are two linebackers scraping the line to make the play.
The offensive line and running backs for Ohio State will need to be at their best to get the run game going against the Hawkeyes.
Iowa is an interesting football team, but if I never have to watch their offense again, I’d be in a much better place in life. I’d like to apologize to you the reader for having to watch this offense play football. For the Buckeyes, their improved defense should have no issues keeping the Hawkeyes offense out of the end zone. The lack of originality for Iowa is the main issue, and Brian Ferentz should be charged with robbery.
Defensively, even the great Phil Parker can’t make up for the failures of the offense. Iowa’s defense is by no means creative, but it shows when a group of players is well-coached, they don’t need complex schemes. Iowa forces turnovers and creates a lot of issues for offenses by staying disciplined. When the Hawkeyes are able to put up points, most of it steps from defensive scores or starting on short fields. For Iowa, the dichotomy between the two sides of the ball tell the story of their program.
Ohio State has a great opportunity to see what their offense can do against a real challenge. For the Buckeyes, if they can continue to have their same level of success against Iowa’s defense, start placing your wagers for an Ohio State championship. If the defense can just show up, the Buckeyes should have a clear path to victory in this one.