The most fascinating storyline of the 2015 college football season is that in an increasingly QB-driven game, there aren't any dominant QBs out there in position to lead their teams through the playoffs.
Most of the best teams in the country right now are led by running backs like Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leonard Fournette or dual-threat QBs like J.T. Barrett or Deshaun Watson. Trevone Boykin and Connor Cook are the closest the AP top 10 has to dominant passing QBs that can dominate a game.
Naturally in such a season as this, Kirk Ferentz's steady-going Iowa Hawkeyes are currently 7-0 and only a few road trips and a Big 10 championship game away from having a resume that would put them in the playoffs. Iowa interestingly only has three returning starters from last year's offense and only five on defense but they do have eight redshirt seniors in their starting lineup and a roster full of players who have been groomed in the same system for years and years.
They aren't flashy, but they just might have the system and players in place to allow them to fight and claw their way to a brilliant season.
Same old Iowa defense
When Norm Parker retired from coaching his over front, cover 2 defense at Iowa, Phil Parker (somehow no relation) just took over and resumed more or less the exact same defensive philosophy.
The essence of their defense is just playing sound zone, relying on fundamentals and technique up front, and making tackles. The Hawkeyes' assumption is that if you can't run the ball efficiently or land big hits with the vertical passing game you can't beat them and our own Bill Connelly's "Five Factors" suggest that this is a very reasonable assumption.
So, they'll tend to line up in cover 4 on standard downs with base 4-3 personnel, relying on a space-backer as their "outside linebacker" who will collision receivers on the outside and roam the flats at depth. He plays on standard downs regardless of whether the opponent is in a heavy formation or an empty set such as this one:
You can see that the space-backer (no. 44) is lined up outside of the hash marks in off-man coverage on a Northwestern slot receiver and has to carry him vertically without safety help over the top.
The player is Ben Niemann, a 6'3" 225 pound sophomore that Iowa had to beat out the likes of Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois to secure in recruiting. He already has three sacks on the year and has so far demonstrated the range to be able to make this strategy work for the Hawkeyes.
The real key is that Iowa wins up front with their defensive line and allows the linebackers to play with real depth in their pass drops so that opponents can't find passing windows and shred their linebackers in coverage. Because Iowa is so simple, lining up in the same base defense in snap after snap, allows them to be precise with their techniques and alignments to take away space from the offense. Of course, their players are also almost all redshirted and wait until their junior and senior years to contribute in this system. Suffice to say, they know what they're doing.
The other key is that their DL is very good and led the way as they held Wisconsin to just 86 rushing yards in a brutal, 10-6 victory earlier this season that has them sitting in the driver's seat in the Big 10 West.
Here's an example of them crushing Wisconsin's base power-O run on 1st and 10:
There are two things worth noting here in regards to how Iowa plays defense. The first is Niemann, lined up on the edge now as a contain/force player, who explodes into the backfield and makes the play from behind.
Secondly at the point of attack you see that there is zero movement by the powerful Badger OL against the Hawkeyes front:
The double-team of the three-technique has generated zero displacement, the Iowa DE is squeezing the kick out block into the double team and the play-side linebacker is already in the hole waiting for the run. Even the corner has met a TE block and is squeezing that lane closed as well.
Had Niemann not made the tackle from behind the running back would have been bounced outside to the safeties for at best a minimal gain. There is nothing here for Wisconsin...only pain.
This is the same variety of cover 4 that Iowa plays on every single snap. For the most part, the Hawkeyes are content to hold you to 2-4 yards per run with the utmost confidence that you won't be able to sustain a drive, but when they inflict a tackle for loss on you the drive is as good as over.
Scrappy midwestern offense
The popular formula for building a great team, namely to recruit the big time high schools across the country particularly in California, Texas, and Florida for the biggest and fastest athletes, is mostly foreign to Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa staff. Of the 26 main contributors on offense and defense, 21 are from the midwest or northeast and seven are from Iowa itself (two of which are former walk-ons).
The staff will find some receivers or DBs from Maryland, Florida, or Texas but the core of the team is midwestern and regional.
Part of the reason this is successful, besides the fact that the staff develops every player over multiple seasons in simple, technique-driven schemes, is because of the nature of Ferentz's offense. Iowa is a zone-blocking team all the way, relying in particular on stretch zone (also known as outside or "wide" zone).
Teams built around inside zone need big, powerful maulers that can push defenses off the line of scrimmage and control defensive tackles with big, burly OL. Power-based teams need mobile players that can pull and work in concert to execute blocks while on the move. Teams that rely on these schemes typically have OL filled with 6'4"+, 300+ pound road graders.
Then there are the Air Raid, spread passing teams that may use the above running schemes but choose OL for their length and ability to pass-set and be hard for opposing defenders to get around. Typically these are 6'5" or better and may be mobile but often lack punch at the point of attack.
Outside zone teams just need mobile, scrappy technicians that know how to work together. Iowa's OL looks like this:
|LT Cole Croston
|LG Sean Welsh
|OC Austin Blythe
|RG Jordan Walsh
|RT James Daniels
Left tackle and former walk-on Croston is the only Hawkeye with the kind of size and frame that people regularly tout when talking OL prospects. You can also see from this starting line-up that Ferentz's expertise at coaching present and future NFL OL has made it easier for Iowa to load up on more talented players from the region who fit the mold for his desired scheme.
The interior of Welsh-Blythe-Walsh are returning starters, indeed they're the only returning starters on offense, and represent the foundation of the offense. They run zone on virtually every other snap and they run it with precision and with very, very few negative plays.
Here's a sampling of zone from one of their pro-style formations:
You'll notice that RB Jordan Canzeri is simply running behind a wall of Iowa blockers for the first four yards before he even encounters a Badger defender in position to attempt a tackle.
The Hawkeyes execute their zone blocking schemes by looking to get under the DL's pads and move them off the ball before working their way across from them while relying on the positive momentum built up by controlling the defenders with leverage and combo blocks.
In other words, they reach opposing DL AFTER they blast them and put them on skates.
That means that assembling a group of shorter, scrappy blockers is more valuable than having the biggest, most athletic offensive line in the conference.
Ferentz hired former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis to blend a west coast passing attack with this base scheme in 2012 and they employ a lot of three receiver sets to allow that marriage to work properly, including both normal single-back sets with a tight end as well as spread-I formations run with the QB under center:
Iowa's most effective constraints for stretch zone are bootleg and play-action passing, which work better from under center, but this means it's very difficult to marry spread passing and zone running with RPOs in the Iowa offense. They'll have their WRs run routes on running plays from time to time but the passes are pre-determined and instead they rely on balanced play-calling over post-snap QB decision making.
If they ever find ways to marry their stretch play with RPOs from a shotgun alignment they may become much more lethal on offense. Even still, their system makes it very easy for them to churn out 1k yard backs and to stay ahead of the chains, which keeps them in games.
Iowa has two major roadblock in their path to college football's playoff, the first of which is an internal limit. While their styles on offense and defense mean that they tend to win the battle of efficiency and prevent their opponent from generating explosive plays, they struggle to get a ton of explosive plays themselves.
If an opposing defense can limit their gains on the ground with a loaded box and keep WR Matt Vandeberg covered it becomes very hard for Iowa to get big plays on offense. That means that Iowa often struggles to blow out opponents and when you play everyone close, bad things can happen when they shouldn't.
The other limit is the Big 10 championship game, which will likely pit them against either Michigan State or Ohio State. Iowa has been putting up wins over weaker teams that can't match their efficiency or beat them in the trenches, but what happens when they play a squad with the talent level of Dantonio's Spartans or Meyer's Buckeyes? Can they pull a big win like that out of their hats and secure a playoff bid?
There's a good chance Ferentz's Hawkeyes will be in position for us all to find out.