That Iowa upset Ohio State wasn’t unthinkable. The Hawkeyes nearly beat Penn State earlier this season, ruined Michigan’s undefeated run a year ago, and have a long history of causing top teams problems at Kinnick Stadium.
But a 55-24 drubbing with 487 total yards of offense? That’s not how the upset story in this game was supposed to be told.
Ohio State came in ranked in the top 10 by S&P+ in offense and top 20 in defense, and there was little expectation that Iowa would top 20 points, much less 50. 2017 Iowa had been standard Iowa: playing 17-10 games seemingly weekly.
The Hawkeyes marched up and down the field anyway, with 244 passing yards at 7.6 yards per attempt and 243 rushing yards at 6.8 yards per carry.
Here’s how Kirk Ferentz’s notoriously conservative Hawkeyes blew the Buckeyes off the field.
Iowa pounced on lots of turnovers.
J.T. Barrett threw four picks in this game, giving him five on the entire year. The first was a pick-six that put the Buckeyes in an immediate 7-0 upset alert. The next came just before the half and gave the Hawkeyes a short field that they traversed to make it 31-17 going into the locker room.
INT No. 3 set up an Iowa FG, and a very athletic No. 4 by Joshua Jackson negated a long Ohio State drive.
All told, the Hawkeyes scored 17 points off Ohio State turnovers — via a defensive touchdown and two offensive drives covering all of 31 yards — and erased plenty of likely Buckeye points.
Ohio State’s reliance on throwing short routes over the middle was due to bite them hard at some point, and that time proved to be in Kinnick:
Iowa didn’t allow Ohio State’s five-star line to control the game.
The Buckeyes have a lot more weaknesses than you’d guess. The reason most of them don’t show up: Their DL often stops things before they start. Between their eight (!) main linemen in the rotation, they’ve gotten about 12 tackles for loss and five sacks from each defensive end position and about six tackles for loss and two sacks from each defensive tackle position.
Every game plan for scoring on Ohio State’s defense has to start with, “How do we prevent their DL from destroying this?” And the Buckeyes are loaded with former blue-chip athletes at just about every position. Not many teams are going to look good trying to out-athlete them in one-on-one matchups.
Iowa had a few different answers that weren’t just “rely on our consistently well-coached and strong offensive linemen,” which would have been inadequate. One was to use a lot of double-TE formations with receivers bunched and stacked, in order to create free releases and quick reads for QB Nate Stanley.
One big ploy was to line up in unbalanced sets, with both wide receivers and both tight ends aligned to one side of the field, before bringing the TEs back to the boundary side of the field. Against the initial unbalanced set, the Buckeyes would try to play both cornerbacks over the WRs, and Iowa’s use of motions really tested their ability to make checks and preserve favorable matchups:
On this play, the Buckeyes don’t properly cover either of the TEs and allow Iowa to play pitch-and-catch over the middle of the field. The nose tackle gets a good push against a double team, but it’s all for naught — the ball is out quick.
Iowa came back to this later on the same drive:
This time, the Buckeyes bracket the inside route that’d hurt them on the previous play with their weak-side and middle linebackers, but outside TE Noah Fant runs by safety Jordan Fuller for a touchdown.
Iowa’s TE tandem of T.J. Hockenson and Fant combined for nine catches, 125 yards, and four TDs.
Ohio State gave up on playing the matchup game and tried to stop the Hawkeyes with zone coverages.
They flipped this from being a contest of athleticism to being a contest of assignment awareness and fundamentals, a contest that evidently didn’t favor the Buckeyes.
Another factor in negating the danger of the Buckeye DL was Stanley’s height and poise in the pocket.
That was perhaps aided by Nick Bosa foolishly head-butting Stanley after a throw (on that same drive as above) and getting himself ejected.
This play really broke the game open for Iowa:
The Hawkeyes had taken the lead 24-17 thanks to that TE-heavy drive and then picked off Barrett. It’s pretty miraculous that Stanley gets this ball off — being 6’5 probably had a lot to do with it — and the rest is just something that can happen when a guy like Akrum Wadley has the ball in space.
On this next play, Stanley gets the ball off in the face of a free rusher, throwing on a blitz-beating shallow cross to a WR who got a free release from a stack set and was able to run away from safety Damon Webb underneath. You’ll notice Iowa is in the same double-TE set and using motion again to confuse Ohio State.
Finally, there was this number, a perfect picture of how this game reversed the expected outcome:
It might be a while before Ohio State fans recover from the sight of star Ohioan defensive end Sam Hubbard desperately clinging to Stanley’s ankle while the Hawkeye fires a pass to a wide-open tight end in the back of the end zone.
Stanley’s ability to hurt the Buckeyes with TEs was a huge factor. Throwing against Ohio State’s cornerbacks would have been tough, and the game plan was designed to make it difficult to avoid that, but throwing in the middle against linebackers and safeties is a lesson Iowa might’ve taken from Oklahoma.
A little trickery didn’t hurt.
Another sign Iowa was playing more ruthlessly than usual, but in a very Ferentz sort of way: A fake kick that set up a touchdown and was a throwback to the 1950s.
Finally, Iowa set up its own best athlete to be the star of the show.
Wadley got 23 touches that went for a combined 158 yards, breaking through a few times.
He did a lot of damage on lead runs, such as this early outside zone to the weak side of the Buckeye formation:
Or this iso play from an unbalanced formation:
Wadley is slippery between the tackles and can turn a small crease into a surprising gain and a bigger crease into an explosive play for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa was leading its fullback into weak-side linebacker Jerome Baker and forcing middle linebacker Chris Worley to scrape over the top to make the tackle. Worley would try to go under the double team and make the stop from behind, rather than fighting over the double team, which left safeties to make stops behind Baker taking on the lead block.
That didn’t work out so well, and it’s a good bet that the offensive staffs from the Michigan schools took note of this tendency.
Iowa had a plan to turn this game into a contest of fundamentals, rather than a test of athleticism.
But it turned out Iowa’s athletes are plenty good enough to really do damage, especially when the other side is too busy thinking.