IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa demolished Nebraska 56-14 on Friday. It was almost as one-sided as the Hawkeyes’ victory over Ohio State. It also was against a team that had dropped five of its six games entering this one and saw its coach, Mike Riley, fired after the game.
Is there anything to learn that could help the Hawkeyes going forward? Potentially plenty, especially in the rushing game. Let’s explain.
A running-game solution
The most interesting part of Iowa’s win isn’t the 313 rushing yards. It’s in how the Hawkeyes did it.
They did the unthinkable. They abandoned their zone-run blocking scheme. In the second half, Iowa exclusively ran a gap-style blocking scheme, and the running game took off.
“I’m pretty sure we stopped running [zone],” center James Daniels told Land of 10. “The second thing is, you don’t know how they’re going to play. When you find out how they’re playing, you can adjust to it. I think we stopped running it. Two, we found out how they were going to play it. Then you just adjust differently.”
The stats are good in both halves. It’s due, partially, to Iowa using some gap-style runs in the first half. The stats significantly improved once the zone-blocking plays started gathering dust in the playbook.
This was a common play the past few weeks against 3-4 defenses such as Wisconsin or against Purdue, which switches between 3- and 4-man fronts.
Iowa’s zone-blocking scheme is a lot like a symphony in which multiple instruments work together to create a magnificent sound. If one instrument is off, the sound isn’t the same.
It’s similar with the zone-blocking scheme in which offensive linemen work together on blocks to create creases.
Opposing 3-4 defenses started shooting gaps, and linebackers and defensive tackles made their way to the ball carrier before the offensive line could get to them. Land of 10 broke this down after the Wisconsin game.
Iowa switched to a gap-style blocking attack, using some plays in the first half. In this scheme, the offensive lineman is now responsible for the gap in front of him.
On Iowa’s first second-half touchdown, the line fires off straight ahead. Daniels and offensive guard Sean Welsh push the defensive lineman 4 yards downfield.
Their double team, along with a block by fullback Drake Kulick on a linebacker in the hole, creates a rushing lane in which only one defender is in position to get a hand on running back James Butler before he is about 7 yards downfield. Butler takes care of the rest, running through two defenders, to reach the end zone.
Altering the blocking scheme let Iowa neutralize the linebackers who kept getting through the gap between the center and guards. It also let the Hawkeyes assert their dominance.
As Wadley took a third-quarter handoff to his right, the entire line tries to seal off the defensive line, creating a rushing lane on the edge of the defense. For Wadley, it’s an easy run as he follows his line downfield for a first down.
Those kinds of plays were rare against 3-4 defenses the past few weeks. Nebraska is Nebraska, a team allowing 214.8 rushing yards per game.
It’s a little early to say the Hawkeyes solved their problems with the 3-4, but at a minimum, they found a blueprint to use going forward.
Iowa can’t threaten Wisconsin for the top spot in the division until it improves the run game against the 3-4 defense. It’s the Hawkeyes’ biggest issue with the Badgers. Black Friday was a good start.
Looking a lot like Iowa football
The Hawkeyes won the game in a span of 11 snaps and two kickoffs in the third quarter.
It started with a 74-yard kickoff return by Ihmir Smith-Marsette; a holding call negated a touchdown on the play.
Five plays later, Wadley capped off a 22-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown.
On the next play, Butler scored on a 12-yard run.
In just over 5 minutes of game time, a tie score morphed into a 14-point Iowa lead. The Hawkeyes did it playing the kind of complementary football they love to talk about.
The special teams contributed with the two returns. The defense forced a punt, and the offense did everything Iowa wants. It ran the football and used the passing game to create big plays.
This stretch started the string of 42 unanswered points Iowa scored to finish the game.
How much of this is sustainable against better teams? It’s really the one question Iowa didn’t answer in the regular-season finale.
To be fair, the Hawkeyes couldn’t. A game like this, or the Ohio State one, serves as the counterpoint for those in the fan base expecting a little more from the season, wondering how something like the Northwestern loss happens when this kind of play is possible.
Consistency isn’t Iowa’s friend, but it needs to be if the team is to win its first bowl game since 2010. The start of the second half showed the blueprint to follow.
It wasn’t the only blueprint put together Friday. What Iowa learned about blocking the 3-4 might not factor into the bowl game, but it is a long-term benefit when the best team in the Big Ten West division runs it.
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