TAMPA, Fla. – The 2016 season has been a roller coaster ride for this Florida Gators football team.
The huge road win in Baton Rouge that was supposed to be a home game. The terrible offensive performances against Arkansas, Florida State and Alabama. The inability of the offensive line to keep the QB healthy for what seemed like the 10th consecutive year.
After all of that, the Gators’ prize is a trip to Tampa to play the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl. Fortunately for Gators fans, Jan. 2 falls on a Monday. Most everyone has the day off from work and the hangovers will have had an extra day to dissipate.
Also fortunate for Gators fans, Iowa is nowhere near the caliber of the Michigan team that obliterated Florida last year in the Citrus Bowl.
I examined the film to see exactly what the Hawkeyes are. What I see is a solid team with tendencies that the Gators can exploit, both on offense and defense.
Florida Gators offense vs. Iowa Hawkeyes defense
When watching tape of the Iowa defense, one thing immediately jumped out. The Hawkeyes don’t seem to have a nickel defense.
In the screenshot above, you can see that Penn State aligned with three wide receivers and a tight end in the backfield. Iowa countered with its standard 4-3 defense (linebackers circled). This means that there are four defensive backs to cover those three wide receivers.
So unless Iowa plays single coverage on all of the receivers, a linebacker is going to be isolated against the tight end.
That’s exactly what happens on this play. Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell (43) takes a step inside because of the fake to the running back, allowing the Penn State tight end to get the corner.
Two plays later, Iowa linebacker Bo Bower (41) completely loses the tight end while in coverage, allowing a huge play that led to a TD.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. The same thing happened against Michigan, although the Wolverines didn’t use a three-receiver alignment to achieve it. On this play, they instead occupied a linebacker with tight end Jake Butt, allowing the fullback to slip into the flat.
This is relevant to Florida fans because the Gators have used this exact action via tight end Deandre Goolsby. They often fake the run to Jordan Scarlett to get Goolsby into the flat.
Iowa does not come out of the 4-3 alignment, even on third-and-long situations. It splits linebacker Ben Niemann (44) out wide in coverage. This means that if the Gators decide to go with four wide receivers, there is the potential to have a slot receiver like Brandon Powell matched up against a linebacker.
The Gators could even work Tyrie Cleveland or Antonio Callaway out of the slot, forcing Iowa to either bring in an extra defensive back or risk a huge play with a linebacker in man-to-man coverage. If Iowa instead decides to sit in a zone, a throw right down the seam should be wide open.
The Gators have struggled in the red zone. But the 4-3 alignment again gives them something to exploit.
The New England Patriots do this really well. Part of that is because they have Rob Gronkowski, but the principles work the same way. You can see how the Patriots have three different ways of exploiting linebackers and 1-on-1 coverage against the Steelers in 2015 here.
The Patriots have their jumbo package in (to ensure three linebackers are in the game). They first run one tight end into the flat, leaving Gronk against a safety over the middle for a touchdown. Next, they split out the fullback to the right and both of their tight ends to the left. Both tight ends now have single coverage against linebackers and Gronkowski rubs off Chandler’s man, leaving Chandler open for a touchdown. Finally, they split out in the exact same way and this time throw a fade to Gronk for a TD.
Obviously Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis are not Gronk. But this alignment will get someone open and doesn’t require much protection from the offensive line. And if Iowa decides to go into a nickel coverage, that should open up the power run game with Jordan Scarlett.
Beyond that, the three-linebacker alignment limits Iowa’s ability to chase down edge plays. In the Hawkeyes’ 41-14 loss to Penn State, the Nittany Lions realized they could get the edge and generated huge chunks of yardage.
Note the Iowa linebackers =can’t catch up to Penn State running back Saquon Barkley on this TD run.
The Gators should be able to exploit the 4-3 alignment. Their ability to do so will determine whether the offense looks anemic or not.
Iowa Hawkeyes offense vs. Florida Gators defense
The Hawkeyes also have tendencies on offense that Florida can exploit.
Iowa’s offense typically features two receivers out wide. It uses either two tight ends or a tight end and fullback in an attempt to jump-start its running game.
Iowa’s offensive line beat out Alabama for the Joe Moore Award, given to the best offensive line in the country. It’s not a surprise that the Hawkeyes want to run the ball. That means that first down is almost always a running play. Second-and-long: same thing.
The two wide receiver alignment plays into one of Florida’s strengths in the passing game. The Gators are happy to play corners Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor 1-on-1 on the outside. Those two have shut down better receivers than Iowa features.
The real decision is whether to allow linebacker Jarrad Davis to cover the tight end or involve nickelback Duke Dawson.
As for the running game, in addition to the strong offensive line, Iowa boasts two running backs who boast nearly 2,000 yards between them: LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley.
Florida struggles against backs like Wadley. In the play above, he makes a move that none of Florida’s running backs can make. And it is the sort of move that players like Dalvin Cook and Josh Dobbs can make, both of whom Florida has had trouble bringing down.
This is important because Iowa does not have much of a long passing game. Most of QB C.J. Beathard’s throws are within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Thus, wrapping up becomes critical as one missed tackle will extend the Iowa drive.
This is apparent on the play above against Wisconsin where a third-and-7 nearly becomes a first down after a missed tackle.
Iowa does sometimes go to three-wide receiver looks. If the defense moves a guy out of the box into coverage on early downs against this look, Iowa runs up the middle. If the defense gives them 1-on-1 coverage, Iowa throws deep outside.
Interestingly, in the film I watched, the only time Iowa went to a four-wide receiver look was to throw a screen.
Again, this bodes well for Florida as Tabor and Wilson have shown a willingness to jump short routes – even receiver screens – and turn them into interceptions.
Defensively, the Gators must stop the inside run. That is Iowa’s strength and it is how the Hawkeyes move the ball. Take that away and the Iowa passing game becomes limited to short passes that the Gators are well-equipped to defend.
Florida’s offense must exploit the Iowa linebackers with their tight ends or putting wide receivers in the slot. C’yontai Lewis and Deandre Goolsby must play a major role.
Overall though, Iowa is a much better matchup for the Gators than Florida State, Alabama, or even Michigan in the bowl game last year. Iowa’s offense sputters just like Florida’s. This game is unlikely to result in an embarrassing loss.
Win this one and Florida finishes the year 9-4, exactly where they were a year ago but with another year in Jim McElwain’s system. Lose to Iowa, though, and the calls for staff changes are only going to grow louder.