I still haven’t gotten over Iowa straight-up housing Ohio State, 55-24.
As always with upset blowouts, it’s not simply that the winning team dunked all over the losing team, it’s how they did it.
The Hawkeyes played nearly the entire third quarter with a 31-17 advantage. A 14-point lead over Ohio State isn’t exactly a safe one (ask Penn State about that). You could see a reality in which Ohio State would hold on just enough to break through in the fourth quarter.
An Iowa drive that petered out just before the red zone forced the Hawkeyes into a field-goal situation.
Except they did this instead of opting for the field goal:
This is called the lonesome polecat formation.
Here’s what the formation looks like on the chalkboard, although not the exact play Iowa ran:
After the game, Kirk Ferentz mentioned that the Hawkeyes copied from someone, but he didn’t know who. For a run-first, conservative, Ferentz-coached team, the original source of the play is as unlikely as you could find.
The formation was originated by the father of the run ‘n’ shoot offense, Tiger Ellison.
Back in the 1950s, Ellison’s high school team was struggling and, as the story goes, he drove by a park and saw kids running plays in unusual formations. Ellison was frustrated with his team’s inability to run the ball in a conventional fashion. So he had an idea:
He then went to his staff and tried to sell them on a crazy idea that he had come up with, the Lonesome Polecat (known today as the swinging gate or muddle huddle). The coaching staff thought he had lost his mind. In fact, Tiger Ellison admits in his book that he did in fact lose his mind by stating, “We do not wish to sell the Lonesome Polecat as a basic offense. That would be a departure into insanity. We used it basically for half a season because we needed to escape from reality.” From that, the Lonesome Polecat was born.
Here’s how the play worked.
The long snapper is eligible to run a route because he’s not “covered,” meaning the two receivers to his right are off of the line of scrimmage.
To the left, Iowa’s got a full offensive line, just like the diagram shows; it just isn’t in the middle of the field like we’re used to seeing. This means the long snapper is sort of like a tight end ... who happens to be snapping the ball while very far away from the offensive line.
Iowa also shifted into this from what I’d imagine was something like a conventional field goal set. We don’t know exactly what they shifted from, because ESPN’s cameras didn’t catch it, but they did get the motion.
As if the defenders’ eyes weren’t confused enough, the Hawkeyes added motion to get Ohio State all out of sorts.
Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker (red box) was probably the most likely player to carry long snapper Tyler Kluver on a vertical release. But put yourself in the head of Baker or safety Jordan Fuller (red arrow above). On a play neither player has likely ever seen, what was the more likely place for the ball to go:
- The long snapper, who is typically barred from catching the ball by rule?
- The motioning player from all the way across the formation?
You or I would probably take option B every time.
That’s exactly what Iowa wants you to do. The decoy worked to perfection.
Look back at the GIF as Kluver pauses a beat before he releases, disguising himself. Don’t mind me — just a normal long snapper, nothing to see here. Except a first down, that is. Kluver likely scores if he doesn’t trip.
This is the new dawn of Iowa special teams.
In March, Iowa changed special teams coordinators, adding the title to tight ends coach LeVar Woods’ business card. Ferentz lauded Woods’ ingenuity with perhaps the most self-aware statement he’s ever made in the press (Ferentz might be the most traditional coach in college football).
“If it's an original thought play, then it didn't come out of my brain, that's for sure,” Ferentz said after the Ohio State game. “LeVar has done a great job with special teams. Kevin Spencer has been great, I think, addition, but LeVar has really embraced it. We copied it from somebody. I'm not sure who, but we copied it and thought it might have a chance to go. Figured that was a pretty good situation for it.”
Ferentz also said he was quite worried about the throw. Colten Rastetter wasn’t a high school quarterback, as some fake punters often are. That release isn’t exactly how you’d draw it up (neither is this one from earlier in the season), but it got the job done.
Iowa scored on the next play to go up 38-17, and the rout was on.
Urban Meyer isn’t supposed to get beaten in a special teams chess match, by the way.
It’s supposed to be the other way around. Meyer is the special teams maven who has the block or fake at the right time. At Florida, Meyer was renowned for rewarding special teamers. Meyer was also special teams coach at Notre Dame.
But it could be said that he has lost his touch a bit. In the wake of the Penn State game, Meyer was forced to evaluate the kick coverage phase, particularly after Saquon Barkley returned the opening kickoff for a TD last week.
"A lot of it has been the placement of the kick, so we've adjusted that, and it's changed," Meyer said. "What's the definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”
Then again, there is no real way for Ohio State to scheme this one up. It doesn’t look like Iowa’s run this type of play in a game before.
ESPN’s play-by-play guys mentioned a visit to Iowa’s children’s hospital during the game.
They visited a kid named Sam Burke, who said he wanted Iowa to win the game on a fake field goal, per the broadcast. Steve Levy said that Burke’s dad joked “remember who our coach is,” as a nod to Ferentz’s conservative nature.
I’d say Sam got his wish.