IOWA CITY — The great chess match that is the read-option offense shows up in Kinnick Stadium this weekend. It’s nothing you haven’t seen. The read-option is and has been a factor in the college game for much of the 2000s.
The NFL seemingly discovered it last season with quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson spinning defenses into the turf.
“It’s not as new to us as it is the NFL people,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It was like red alert last year, last offseason for a lot of those guys.”
So, yes, the Hawkeyes have seen the read-option. They’ve even seen Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch run the scheme against them and actually did fairly well in containing the Chicago native. The Hawkeyes held Lynch to a season-low 173 yards of offense in a 18-17 victory last season.
Last year was last year.
The Hawkeyes caught Lynch making his first collegiate start. From there, Lynch launched. He led NIU to a 12-2 record, its second straight Mid-American Conference championship and the Orange Bowl. Lynch produced nearly 5,000 yards offense (3,138 passing and 1,815 rushing) and accounted for 44 touchdowns (Iowa scored 26 TDs in 2012).
That brings us to Saturday, when the Iowa defense will once again be charged with containing (they used that word a lot) a read-option quarterback. Other words Hawkeyes defenders used several times were “patience” and “assignment.”
“I think it just comes down to assignment football,” defensive end Dominic Alvis said. “Every play, you have to be mindful that you have an assignment, and you have to take care of it. Otherwise, a 70-yard touchdown run that happened last year, will happen.”
Lynch didn’t put up the big numbers against the Hawkeyes, but he was effective. Iowa needed a TD and a key defensive stop in the fourth quarter to hang on. Time and time again, Lynch read Iowa and put the Huskies in position to win a numbers game. Iowa in a nickel or dime defense? Run a QB draw or power. Defensive end attacks the quarterback instead of taking on a block? Take the quick slide step and watch the 220-pound QB/tailback elude the 265-pound DE.
Or slip the ball into the running back’s belly. Or fake that and throw it over the safety’s head because he has cheated in on the option action.
“They make run plays look like runs, yet they still have the option to throw the ball and vice versa,” free safety Tanner Miller said. “We have to recognize formations and decide what the offense is trying to do in a split second. That’s where the discipline comes in and being able to watch it over and over [to recognize]. That’s probably why, as a secondary, it’s one of the hardest things to defend.”
Most read-options offenses take cues from a defender it chooses to leave unblocked, usually a backside defensive end. The idea is to bait the defender into blowing his assignment and create a numbers advantage with the QB being the plus-1 in favor of the offense.
This is the “patience” part of things for the defense. Unblocked players have specific techniques and assignments.
“You have to be disciplined, can’t get excited and see the ball and attack,” sophomore defensive end Drew Ott said. “You have to do your role in order to help the defense. You can’t be greedy. In a sense, you have to do your job to make the whole defense work. You have to take care of your responsibility. There might be times when your responsibility doesn’t include tackling the quarterback, then you have to be patient and take on the block.”
And, of course, it’s never just one easy read. There are variations on the theme. One time, you’re fighting a pulling guard and the next another O-linemen is sealing you. “There are so many options,” linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “The responsibility changes. Sometimes, I have the quarterback. Sometimes, I have the dive. You have to be ready to play both.”
Conclusions? Lynch completed 237 passes last season with only six of those coming against the Hawkeyes. Iowa won that game because it eventually made the Huskies one dimensional.
Of course, last year was last year.
“At the end of the day, if you break down the play, it’s really 11 one-on-ones,” linebacker James Morris said. “You don’t know who you’re going to be matched up on before the snap. When you do find yourself in that one-on-one situation, whether it’s making a tackle or getting off your block, you’ve just got to make sure you do your best to make sure you can win.
“You hope the guys next to you are doing that. You really just worry about that when you play a team that spreads the field or presents as many options as Northern Illinois does. It’s winning your one-on-one.”
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