Two things stick out in my mind about Saturday's win over Northern Iowa. First are the injuries to Damon Bullock and Greg Garmon and the ensuing emergence of Mark Weisman. And second, that the offense looked a whole lot more like the Iowa of old than it has the two prior weeks.
The running back situation
The two injuries were awful. In the stand, with no real information, the Bullock injury was scary. Both head coaches came out on the field along with about 5 or 6 from the medical staff. Hopefully it doesn't turn out to be as bad as it looked and he doesn't miss much time. At least the bye week is coming up, which will give him an extra week, if it takes that long to recover. Ditto on the Garmon injury...it looked bad, but hopefully he'll be back soon.
Both guys were playing well before their injuries. Bullock had 77 yards on just 13 carries and looked great. He had Iowa's longest run of the year, a burst for 27 yards on Iowa's first drive of the game. Then the injury, then Garmon. Garmon only had 3 carries before he was injured, and also had a nice kickoff return. Then his injury, then Weisman.
Weisman, already had scored a 2-yard TD on Iowa's first drive, but I wasn't exactly confident when he trotted out as the running back. Boy was I wrong. He looked fantastic. He hit the hole hard and hit defenders harder. He broke more tackles than I've seen in a long time. He racked up 113 yards on 24 carries and finished with all 3 of Iowa's touchdowns. He added 33 yards through the air. It was truly an amazing performance by a walk-on fullback.
Back to its roots
Somebody must have left a copy of Ken O'Keefe's playbook on Greg Davis's desk, because the offense on Saturday looked a whole lot like the offense of years past. It was a whole lot of pounding the ball, then using that to set up some devastating play-action. There was very little of the shot-gun, horizontal passing game that hasn't been effective the first two weeks.
On the Hawkeye's first drive, they ran the ball 9 of the 10 plays. It was a whole lot of inside zone, pounding it right up the middle. The offensive line created huge holes and forced UNI's linebackers and safeties to play the run first. So play-action was there and there was a whole lot of space between the linebackers and the safeties. Kevonte Martin-Manley found that space a couple of times...the first for a 26-yard gain that led to an Iowa FG, the second for 51 yards as part of a 4-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to start the second half and essentially put the game out of reach.
So, while there were a few questionable moments of play-calling (though they could somewhat be attributed to the fact that Iowa kind of went in to automatic mode for most of the second half), but a little more creativity in the red-zone may be needed. Though the 3 TDs by Weisman were great, there were still 3 other red-zone trips that Iowa came up short. Two ended on the 1 yard line...the first Ferentz decided to kick the FG, the second he went for it and came inches short.
Four factors in review
Start fast - For the first time this year, the offense got the memo when the defense didn't. It's becoming a trend that teams are winning the toss and taking the ball, then driving down the field against Iowa's base, vanilla defense. UNI had little problem moving the ball on its first two drives and led 7-0 and 10-7 after the two respectively.
The good news though, is that the offense started fast and kept up the pace. Iowa's first 3 drives all ended in points...and really you could say first 4 if you don't count the one that they let the clock run out to end the first half.
Establish the run - I already talked about this, but yeah, Iowa established the run in a big way. Iowa finished with over 200 rushing yards on 43 attempts. They didn't even back down from the run after the top two running backs went down with injury. I thought they might limit the playbook with Weisman back there, but he was doing everything an Iowa running back is asked to do, including lining up wide in 5-wide looks.
Exploit the mismatches - I'd say Iowa did a pretty good job of this. The obvious mismatch in Iowa's favor was the offensive line against UNI's front seven. Part of Weisman's big day was the big holes he had to run through. The O-line was dominant for the first time in run blocking and pass protection. And Iowa leveraged that to move the ball down the field and score touchdowns.
A big play - Neither the defense nor the special teams came up with a score, but there were a few big plays on offense. Iowa had 4 plays over 20 yards and each set up an Iowa score.
Of the games
Player of the game - Mark Weisman was undoubtedly the player of the game. I loved the "Weisman for Heisman" chant. He looks at worst Iowa's short yardage/red-zone back and the cliche thunder to Bullock's or Garmon's or Canzeri's (yeah, don't forget about him) lightning.
Play of the game - I'm going back to Weisman with this one. Towards the end of the first half, Iowa was facing 3rd-and-15 from UNI's 25. It looked like a sure longish FG was coming. Vandenberg dropped back to pass, and dumped it down to Weisman well short of the first down. But Weisman made the first guy miss, then was hit a good 3 or 4 yards short of the first down. But he plowed his way through about 4 would be tacklers, dragged the pile another 3 or 4 yards, and gave Iowa 1st-and-goal from the 4. And though Iowa failed to punch it in from there and did ultimately settle for a FG (a fumble on first down threw the whole thing off), that play showed that Weisman was a force to be reckoned with.
Good coaching decision of the game - I liked the aggressive call to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1 late in the game, but I'm going to use this space to give major props to Phil Parker for yet again making great adjustments at halftime. For the third straight week, Iowa's defense dominated the second half. UNI managed to only score a FG in the second half, and that came after an abysmal 11-yard punt from Kornbrath (who actually downed his own punt). Other than that, the majority of UNI's yard came on their final drive when Iowa was in full out prevent mode.
Defensive play of the game - I'm just throwing this one in here because Anthony Hitchens needs a little more recognition. He had his second straight double-digit tackle game and is currently 4th in the nation in total tackles with 37. He had his off-moments, yes. UNI's series in the second half when they scored a FG, Hitchens got completely schooled by Panther running back David Johnson 3 or 4 times. Hitchens missed a play in the backfield and missed a couple in the open field. He made up for it though with some jarring hits and a team-leading 10 tackles. (Honorable mention goes to Joe Gaglione who had another 1.5 TFLs and a sack.)
This was still Iowa vs. Northern Iowa, a FCS school (yes, a pretty good one). Iowa was bigger, faster, stronger, and showed it. It all went pretty much according to plan and that is promising.
Iowa should have another week like this against Central Michigan and then it's on to the B1G. And, as shaky as the first 3 weeks have been for the Hawks, it has been even shakier for the conference as a whole. There's no reason to think that Iowa can't compete in the Legends. Nobody looks unbeatable right now.