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Film Room: How should Northwestern attack the dominant Iowa defense?

Hint: Don’t run the ball on second and long.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, Inside NU’s Film Room will allow one of our writers to dive into the highlights from Northwestern’s past games or future opponents in order to give you the quality analysis you need heading into the following week. The ‘Cats desperately need to upset the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes if they want any chance to salvage the season, so this week we’ll take a look at what makes Iowa’s defense so good and what other teams have done to find success against them.

It’s indicative of the ‘Cats’ misfortunes this season that the week after they faced the number one overall defense in the SP+ rankings, they now take on the ninth-ranked defense in the nation by that metric. Iowa hasn’t given up more than 20 points all season, and just two weeks ago they limited a Penn State team possessing the country’s eighth-best offense to a modest 17 points.

While their 11 team sacks on the season are surprisingly lower than expected for an elite defense, the Hawkeyes have a very talented line highlighted by projected first-round draft pick A.J. Epenesa. The star defensive end has only recorded three sacks this season, but his highlights are jaw-dropping.

Penn State’s Rasheed Walker is a 6-foot-6, 314-pounds left tackle, yet Epenesa shoves hi backwards like a rag doll.

Since when has a defensive end been able to block punts on speed rushes off the edge? I need answers!

But it’s not just Epenesa that can leave opponents shell-shocked in the blink of an eye. On this third down early in the game, we don’t get to even see what routes Penn State was trying to run. Defensive tackle Chauncey Golston disregards the initial double team and gets upfield quick enough to sack Sean Clifford only two seconds after the snap.

After re-watching that Iowa-PSU game, I’m fully ready to jumpstart the Golston bandwagon. Watch how he perfectly diagnoses this run play: the big man doesn’t overpursue, but stays committed to holding the edge, ultimately making a tackle for loss thanks to his impressive patience.

You might be wondering why I haven’t brought up any exotic schemes concocted by the Iowa coaching staff, or how some switchable zone coverage design makes their passing coverage tough to decipher.

That’s because Iowa’s whole defensive mindset is one of simplicity. They line up in a standard 4-3 base, leave their corners in one on one coverage, quickly disrupt the pocket with either four or five rushers and trust that the opponent will make the mistake rather than their defense’s back line.

Take this play, where Iowa’s defense runs a straight man cover with four non-crossing rushers on the defensive line. Nothing special happens, but Epenesa and Golston do a good job collapsing the pocket, which baits Clifford into an early throw that has little to no chance of completion with blanket coverage across the board.

So how do you counter a simple but solid defense? The answer is a simple offensive game plan. Specifically, get the ball out of your quarterback’s hands as quickly as possible. Despite their struggles to score that night, Penn State did manage to put together quite a few long drives where they dink-and-dunked there way down the field. This play works perfectly because of the speed with which the play develops after the fake handoff.

Last week, Iowa surrendered their highest point total of the season, giving up 20 to the 2-5 Purdue Boilermakers. That number is a bit deceiving, as Purdue put up 10 of that 20 in the final three minutes of the game while trying to mount a comeback. Still, Purdue had more success than most do against the stingy defense of the Hawkeyes, and once again it was due to allowing fast decision-making and getting the ball out of their quarterback’s hands as fast as possible.

This crucial second down five-yard conversion is a perfect example of not overthinking the offense. Seeing Iowa lined up in their typical man-to-man and each defender giving a slight cushion, both receivers to the bottom of the screen run three-step slants to the middle. Even if Iowa’s Matt Hankins had recognized this on-time, he’s not getting there quick enough. It’s too much distance for him to cover while defending a short route.

The routes don’t always have to be this simple, either. Purdue wide receiver David Bell runs an intermediate post and quarterback Jake Plummer fits it in between defenders, but the genius in this play is that, just like we saw with Clifford earlier, Plummer is able to throw this ball immediately after the play action occurs.

I struggled to find clips of successful running plays against the stout Iowa defense, as they currently rank eighth in the country by total rush yards allowed. Purdue sure couldn’t get anything done on the ground, being held to 33 yards on 18 attempts. Penn State fared better, earning 177 yards in the run game (albeit on a gargantuan 53 attempts). They ran this little short-pitch to their running back a number of times.

But I doubt Northwestern can utilize this. Penn State’s success wasn’t based on scheme, it was based on getting their top-tier talent in open space as quickly as possible while successfully setting the edge. Northwestern’s outside run game, when it is present, is slow-developing, and their zone-blocking scheme could potentially have some trouble against the athletes this defense boasts.

I’m personally a fan of Iowa’s defensive setup. Too often, college coaches try to implement over-complicated schemes and trust in their own tactical capability, which only serves to make their players stressed and more prone to mistakes. These players are college kids, mistakes should be expected. Creating a defense where your success comes from banking on the opponent to screw something up rather than on your own player to make something out of nothing makes all the sense in the world.

Last week was when Mick McCall should have emptied the kitchen sink. Ohio State has some of the most talented athletes you’ll ever see. The only way to combat them is to run a myriad of counters, reverses and trick plays, trying to turn their aggressive tendencies into an advantage and catch them over-pursuing the initial action.

If you just line up and do exactly what Ohio State has seen you do on film already, you’ll get absolutely destroyed, which, shockingly, is what happened to the ‘Cats on Friday night.

Iowa is the opposite. Now is the time to just do what makes you comfortable. Don’t get tempted into trying to hit home runs. Don’t run sets you haven’t had time to really practice on. Just focus on getting the ball out quick. Make the game simple for the quarterback, whether it’s Hunter Johnson, Aidan Smith or Andrew Marty, so they don’t have to try and read the defense, but instead can make one move and throw to their first option.

In the immortal words of Dwight Schrute, “K.I.S.S.—Keep it simple, stupid.”