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Fee Fi Foe Film: Iowa
This week Michigan plays Iowa, which means I just got done charting every snap of an offense coached by Greg Davis. I'm pretty sure this is grounds for a hostile working environment lawsuit, but thankfully I'm not particularly litigious. Since I couldn't bear to watch last week's Iowa-Purdue pillowfight, I took a look at the Hawkeyes's matchup against... Indiana.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Pro-style. The Hawkeyes spent the entire game in a one-back formation—because using two backs is clearly begging for an AIRBHG strike—with 35 snaps from under center and 16 in the gun, most of the latter coming on third down situations.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Iowa mostly utilizes zone blocking. As in, somebody should tell Greg Davis there are run plays besides the zone stretch. Just a thought.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Grind it out. Greg Davis needs plenty of time to contemplate his next playcall (okay, okay, it's a zone stretch—you got me).
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): James Vandenberg rarely takes off except in instances of extreme panic; with sacks removed, he's got 126 rushing yards on 31 carries this year. I'll give him a 3.
Dangerman: In this offense? An oxymoron.
Okay, if I have to choose someone, it's senior wideout Keenan Davis, whom the BTN announcer described as Iowa's "big-play threat"—he has 46 receptions for 560 yards (12.2 ypc) and one touchdown. He averaged over 14 yards per catch across from Marvin McNutt last year, but in case you haven't been following the Hawkeyes this season, the offense has taken a bit of a turn.
Zook Factor: This category could easily be named after Kirk Ferentz (except, strangely, when he plays Michigan). In this game, down three points with 4:52 left, he punted on 4th-and-inches from his own 28-yard line; this isn't that egregious for Ferentz, but Advanced NFL Stats has the break-even point for that situation (actually, 4th-and-1, so this is generous) at a 0.56 success rate, and 4th-and-1 situations are conveted at a 0.76 success rate. He actually had his offense out on the field until a review of the spot, which stood, before sending out the punt team.
Iowa got the ball back with 18 seconds left and couldn't produce a miracle drive.
Ferentz will probably grow a pair against Michigan, because this is what he does, and it probably won't matter.
HenneChart: The advantage, for a given definition of the word, of Davis's dink-and-dunk offense is that your downfield success rate doesn't look terrible thanks to a series of throws three yards "downfield":
This was also Vandenberg's best game of the Big Ten season by a wide margin—his 7.3 yards per attempt was a full yard over his next-best conference effort and well above his average of 5.5(!) in six B1G contests. While the structure of the offense usually allows Vandenberg to avoid crippling mistakes, he threw a bad interception into the end zone when he expected Indiana's cornerback to pass the receiver off to the safety, and instead the corner dropped right into the throw. You'll also see later that Vandenberg missed a golden opportunity for a long touchdown pass.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man, this is a mess. Iowa's offensive line is an injury-plagued wreck. Only center James Ferentz, right guard Austin Blythe, and right tackle Brett Van Sloten are in the same spots they were in the first game of the season. The opening-day starter at left guard, Matt Tobin, has moved out to left tackle. Blythe is, frankly, not good at all; Iowa rotated backup Nolan MacMillian into the interior in an attempt to shore up their myriad issues to little success—he's listed as the backup right tackle this week. This line can't open up holes and gives up heavy pressure when Vandenberg hangs out in the pocket.
Naturally, Greg Davis thought it would be a good idea to run a crapton of zone stretch and some inside zone, and running back Damon Bullock—who actually looked pretty solid when he had a seam—averaged 3.3 yards per carry against the #118 rush defense in the country (the Hoosiers give up 5.2 ypc).
As is his reputation, Davis called for a large number of underneath throws, mostly short hitches and crossing routes with the occasional slip screen or bubble. Vandenberg has his best success off play-action, faking that stretch play and bootlegging, then making a simple read with the field cut down. Iowa went to this a few too many times, however, and in the second half Indiana blew up a couple of these plays by blitzing off the weak side, getting a free hitter in Vandenberg's face and forcing throwaways.
The receivers are decent; Davis can get open downfield and Kevonte Martin-Manley is dangerous after the catch. Vandenberg also has a big underneath target in sure-handed tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. There's not a huge big-play threat, regardless of what the BTN has to say, however, and that makes it pretty easy to keep a lid on this offense. Greg Mattison should have some fun dialing up blitzes against an overmatched line without having to worry much about getting burned over the top.
This was Iowa's one true deep shot, coming off that zone stretch play-action, and it should've gone for a touchdown. Martin-Manley comes free on a post but Vandenberg underthrows him, getting a long completion but forcing KMM to go to the ground to haul it in:
Indiana's safety had to bite on the run fake for this to work, however, and Michigan's safety duo of Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon haven't proven to be particularly susceptible in that regard.
Base Set? 4-3. Iowa will put their linebackers in the slot, too, including having hulking MLB James Morris in single coverage against a tight end in the slot; this went about as well as you'd imagine.
Man or zone coverage? Almost exclusively zone, usually with plenty of coverage deep. Norm Parker is no longer the defensive coordinator, but Phil Parker (no relation) hasn't exactly changed this defense's identity.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Very GERG-like. Iowa barely blitzed at all, choosing to rush four and sit back in coverage. It's no surprise that the Hawkeyes are 111th in the country in sacks and tied for 93rd in TFLs.
Dangerman: Micah Hyde is one of the better cover corners in the Big Ten, and holds up well in the rare instances he's called upon to play man up on a receiver. He also had a nice TFL in run support on 4th-and-short to end an Indiana drive.
This is a pretty mediocre defense statistically—51st in total defense, 60th in rushing, 59th in pass efficiency—and they play one of the more vanilla schemes I've seen. Iowa rushed four on just about every play, dropped into relatively soft zone coverage, and let Indiana eat up small chunks of yardage en route to 473 total yards.
The defensive line can't generate any pass rush, as the numbers indicate, though they're decent against the run. While there aren't any major penetrators, they hold up well enough at the point of attack, allowing an above-average linebacker corps to come in and make tackles.
Those linebackers—Morris and OLBs Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey—are 1-3 on the leaderboard for team tackles, with Hitchens leading the way with 114. Both outside guys are solid sideline-to-sideline and quick enough to hold their own in underneath coverage. Morris is more of a thumper, at his best when he can flow downhill to an interior run play; when asked to play in space or shed a block, he doesn't do so well.
The safeties barely came into play, mostly because they sit so far back on just about every play while all the action goes on in front of them. Hyde and B.J. Lowery are an experienced and adept cornerback duo and don't get beat often. When Iowa gives up yards in the passing game, it's mostly due to the ease with which teams can pick apart their scheme, as you'll see below.
Indiana's final drive of the first half started at their own 13 with 2:13 on the clock; normally I'd chalk up the following to Iowa deciding to play too soft at the end of the half, but this is how they played all game. The Hoosier move 87 yards in six plays; five of those snaps are pictured below, with the only omission a draw on 2nd-and-2 on the fifth play of the drive. This is how to pick apart soft zone coverage.
First play—screen, with only Morris (far right) even remotely in the area at the catch:
Second play—a quick hitch against Cover 3, and the receiver has plenty of room to break a tackle and get over ten yards of YAC:
Third play—a perfectly-thrown corner route in front of the safety, with a flat route holding the corner just enough to leave room for the throw:
Fourth play—the receiver sits down between levels for an easy pitch-and-catch:
After a draw, the final play of the drive is another corner route to beat the Cover 2:
Whether it's Denard or Devin in the game, Michigan should be able to move the ball through the air, with plenty of time to stand in the pocket and pick apart the same vanilla zones over and over.