A win is a win is a win. I had to keep telling myself that on Saturday. It's hard not to come away from that game with some serious worries about the upcoming season. But it's in my nature to remain optimistic and I think there were some signs that Iowa is on the right track.
First things first...since I took the time to write about my keys to the game, I'm going to take the time to recap how they went.
Make Jordan Lynch throw the ball - This was a good reflection of the overall game...Iowa managed to make Lynch throw the ball just enough to matter. Lynch hurt the Hawkeyes with his legs multiple times, especially early in the game. His third down, super obvious to everyone but apparently the Iowa defense, quarterback draws were devastating. The 73-yarder in the third quarter was by far NIU's best offensive play of the game. But Iowa adjusted defensively. They didn't really blitz a lot, or at all, but kept more men in the box to defend the run. After his 73 yard run, Lynch ran the ball 5 more times for just 8 yards.
Making Lynch throw the ball worked great too. He completed just 6 of 16 passes for 54 yards. Those numbers make Vandenberg's look not too shabby (and shabby they definitely were). Besides a nice pass 25-yard pass to Martel Moore (who got away with a push off) over Micah Hyde in man coverage, Lynch really struggled.
In the fourth quarter, when Iowa was mounting a comeback and when the Huskies desperately needed to move down the field after Damon Bullock's go-ahead TD, Lynch was awful. He was 1 of 5 passing for -1 yard (yeah, negative).
Special credit here goes to Greg Castillo who came in for the injured B.J. Lowery (who, side note, should be just fine...just a bruised rib). He didn't miss a stride and promptly came in a broke up a pass. He also had the play of the game saving John Wienke's punt from trickling into the endzone and allowing his teammates to down it inside the 1 yard line. This play ultimately set up the Iowa's lone and game-winning touchdown.
Use the tight ends - The tight end play that sticks out most in my mind was when C.J. Fiedorowicz completely whiffed on a DE that led to Vandenberg getting sacked. But really other than that, the tight ends played pretty well. Fiedorowicz had 3 catches for 21 yards and Zach Derby added 2 for 10.
While those numbers aren't super impressive, none of the passing/receiving stats were. The Greg Davis #HoriztonalOffense meme was in full force on Saturday as Vandenberg averaged just 3.9 yards per passing attempt. He only took one shot down the field and only even looked downfield a couple other times. His longest pass of the day was a short throw to Keenan Davis who made a guy miss and had about 15 yards after the catch. So passing wasn't really a big thing...and the TEs didn't have a huge chance to be show cased. I think that'll come as everyone gets more comfortable with the offense. It has to...right?
Third downs - Ugh. I hate reading what I wrote about this on Friday, because it was all too true.
The key here is to contain Jordan Lynch. How many times in the past couple of years have we seen Iowa get an opponent in 3rd and long only to have the QB scramble and pick up the first down? Too many.
Ugh. Yeah. Actually, NIU was just 6/15 on third down conversions. That's not too bad by the defense. But all 6 of those came on rushing plays, 5 of them were by Lynch, and 4 were QB draws on 3rd-and-long. So that was not good.
The good thing, though, was Iowa's defense forced 4 3-and-outs, a 3-play drive that ended in a fumble, and a 4-and-out that essentially ended the game. The defense only allowed 2 long drives that both resulted in points. And both of them were early in the game, before Phil Parker made adjustments.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa was 8 of 18 on third down conversion. Not great, but not awful. The horizontal offense did set up a lot of 3rd-and-medium type of plays and Iowa struggled to pick those up. Vandenberg was sacked, a lot, or just didn't find a receiver down the field.
The great thing to see, though, was that Iowa was very effective at 3rd-and-short. Mark Weisman had a couple of FB dives that were effective (one came on fourth down in a welcome aggressive call) and Bullock was very good on third downs (his TD came on a 3rd-and-9).
Managing the slop - The weather didn't turn out to be as bad as weather.com was predicting and wasn't a factor in the game. Soldier Field's condition wasn't great and there were a couple of plays that I noticed players having problems getting their footing. I don't think that was a huge factor though either. There was no shortage of slop however.
The passing game never got its footing and the offensive line looked like it had never seen a stunt before. The defense missed a lot of tackles, especially early.
But Iowa kept the penalties at bay for the most part...just 3 for 30 yards. There weren't any dumb pre-play penalties either, like false starts or illegal formations, which Northern Illinois had a few of.
Also, Iowa had no turnovers. Bullock did have 2 fumbles along the sideline that rolled harmlessly out of bounds. None of Vandenberg's passes were in any danger. Really going back to 2009 when Stanzi was guaranteed to throw at least 1 interception per game, Iowa quarterbacks have kept it close to the vest and haven't taken too many risks. Maybe that's why the offense on Saturday looked so horizontal...Vandenberg just didn't want to pull the trigger on those long throws so either checked down or took a sack. Better safe than sorry...I guess.
The horizontal offense
This was the first time we have ever got to see new coordinators under Kirk Ferentz since the first game he coached. Looking at home the two called the game was probably the most interesting aspect of the game.
So Pat Harty wrote a post about how the offense didn't really look any different. (Long side note: He still puts his name in the title of his posts...nobody else on Hawk Central does this and they do put the autor's name with a little link to their profile under the title of the post. Plus, it's not like I couldn't figure out who the author was when reading his posts because he's the only person I know who never uses more than 1 sentence per paragraph. I don't get it.) I don't think we were watching the same game. The offense looked very different than Ken O'Keefe's version. It featured more short passes, fullback rushing the ball, motioning a TE out wide, a faster tempo even when huddling and blazing fast when no-huddle, more runs out of shot gun, a whole lot more screen passes, a smaller reliance on play-action, etc, etc...
The biggest and most frustrating difference was the lack of any vertical passing game. That was a staple of KOK's offense...play action, bomb it down the field. That pretty much was KOK's passing offense. Texas fans warned us about Greg Davis' love for the short passing game, but I honestly didn't believe it would be this bad or this frustrating.
It actually worked well between the 20s. Iowa successfully drove the ball up and down the field for most of the game. The Hawkeyes had 6 drives of 8 or more plays and 5 scoring drives. The big and obvious problem was the way the offense stalled right around the 25 yard line. Though Iowa spent most of its time on the Huskies' side of the field, I think they only took one legitimate shot at the endzone. It's like Greg Davis believes there is some magical forcefield that protects the endzone from balls thrown in the air and the only way to get the ball through the forcefield is in someone's hands or to kick it over. We have a 6-7 dude who is fast, strong, and outweighed the guys covering him by over 50 pounds. I think lobbing it up to him might have just worked. Also, Ken O'Keefe totally would have taken a shot at the endzone immediately following the turnover at the 14 yard line. Seriously.
The defense stepped up
For all the worries about the defensive line during the off season, I'd say they played pretty well. They struggled some early before Iowa added extra defenders in the box, and whatever was said to them at halftime worked. In the second half, the defensive ends really started to play well. Joe Gaglione had 3 TFLs, a sack, and a forced fumble. He finished with 6 total tackles, tied for third most on the team. He currently leads the entire B1G in TFL. Dominic Alvis is second in the conference with 2 TFLs and he was the one that recovered the fumble Gaglione caused.
The linebackers also improved as the game went on. They got swallowed up a little early in the game. Morris got completely shoved out of the play on Lynch's long TD run. But Hitchens and Morris both had 8 tackles and were effective run stopper once they started to be more aggressive and had less responsibility against the pass.
And as a whole, even though it felt like the defense was really struggling, NIU only score 10 points in the first half and 17 overall. The Huskies only gained 201 yards, only had 12 first downs, and only had 21 minutes time of possession. That should equal a win every week as long as the offense is competent.
Of the games
Player of the game - No question it was Damon Bullock. While I predicted he would ultimately lead the team in all-purpose yards this year, I never would have expected the 176 performance he had on Saturday. He showed good vision, broke tackles, looked fast, and always fell forward (he had just 1 negative run). Add in his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, something Iowa hasn't had for quite some time, and he looked great out there. He accounted for 2/3rd of Iowa's offense. Oh, and in case you forgot, he saved the game with his 23-yard touchdown on a very well-blocked outside zone.
Play of the game - It was the punt downed at the 1. Great punt by Wienke. Great play by Castillo to keep it in play. It was exactly what Iowa needed at that point in the game. The special teams did their part. Then the defense did their's forcing a 3 and out. Then the offense did their's scoring the game winner. Also, great move by the coaches to have Wienke be there pooch punter. Connor Kornbrath had his first career punt earlier in the game and standing in his own endzone booted it 50 yards. That's was nice to see. But Wienke executed the pooch punt perfectly and if that's all he has to focus on during practice, then he should be able to continue to do so. Plus, in pooch punt territory, it seems like the perfect place to try a fake punt...and having a former QB with his hands on the ball, there are options there.
Good coaching decision of the game - While I kind of ragged on Greg Davis's play calling, I did really like the 3rd-and-9 outside zone that Bullock scored on. Had it gotten blown up in the backfield, I would have seriously questioned why the hell we were running on third down with the game on the line. But it work and was brilliant. That's not my good coaching decision of the game though. My favorite call was the 4th-and-1 fullback dive on the 5 yard line. Typical Ferentz probably kicks a FG there, and the drive did ultimately end in a FG. But I liked the aggressiveness and the somewhat unexpected run by the rarely used fullback. It was an easy 2 yard gain, and Iowa probably should have punched it in for a TD, but oh well. And speaking of field goals, Mike Meyer was great. He missed the one 40-yarder but followed that up nailing one from 50. He finished the game 4 of 5 and was named co-special team player of the week in the B1G.
Wrapping it up with some optimism
I'm usually a pretty optimistic guy, and I do think there are some reason to be optimistic about this season. Really just correcting the red-zone offense and Iowa looks pretty good. Imagine if Iowa's gets TDs instead of field goals, even on just a couple of those trips deep inside NIU's territory, we're looking at a very comfortable win.
And, hey, this was Iowa's first game under new coordinators. The offense is a work in progress. The line is young, the receivers are still trying to figure it out, the running back depth is incredibly thin...but it still went okay and should only get better. NIU may be a MAC team with a MAC defense, but they had basically their whole defense back from last year and were probably better than any of us gave them credit.
And the defense was actually pretty good. The only reason I was feeling down on it was the QB draws. Other than that, Iowa pretty much locked it down. Now, there are some running quarterbacks that Iowa is going to have to deal with and deal with very soon. But if the 4th quarter, aggressive defense shows up, instead of the first half defense, I think we'll be okay.
So with that, I'm at about 2300 words and that's probably more than enough. An ugly win, but a win nevertheless.