Commentary: Fourth-down play-call comes up short


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The Hawkeyes needed 3 yards on Nov. 10 to keep their drive, game, and realistic bowl hopes alive. Three yards. It even said it on the scoreboard.

They completed a pass for 1 yard.

Quarterback James Vandenberg took a quick drop and fired an out-route pass to Zach Derby. The backup tight end caught the ball and was tackled immediately by a defender who had been covering him from the second the ball was snapped. Purdue scored the winning points less than 20 seconds later.

And somehow, this was all supposed to make sense.

“Most plays have a couple reads. Most plays that we run have at least three guys involved, and coverage dictates where the ball goes,” head coach Kirk Ferentz lectured. “That’s usually how the passing game works.”

You wonder why Iowa’s defense doesn’t use coverage to dictate its opponents into 1-yard passes.

It was difficult to determine what, exactly, forced that crucial throw toward Iowa’s No. 2 tight end in the flats. Derby said the play was designed to get the ball to receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley or tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz on hitch routes. He said he was instructed to run a 1-yard route on the play.

Vandenberg, meanwhile, said the play was drawn up to allow Derby to beat his man to the sideline. The senior quarterback’s explanation is like Iowa’s offense as a whole: It feels a lot harder than it needs to be.

“We knew they were going to press, blitz, and play everybody in man coverage,” Vandenberg said. “When they do that, they give us leverage with our tight end. We’re just trying to beat them for 3 yards. That’s how I interpreted the call, and that’s how we’ve been running it.”

That’s fine. Ferentz and Vandenberg both know their Xs and Os and their play calls better than we do. But it doesn’t feel like a satisfying explanation for failing to run a route past the first-down marker on the most important play of the game.

Not that it was a totally surprising development. Throwing the ball short of the marker is something Iowa has been doing all season. The Hawkeyes are one of the worst third-down teams in the Big Ten. Twenty-four times this year, Vandenberg has completed a pass on either third or fourth down that has not moved the chains.

For comparison’s sake, that has happened nine times this year to Purdue quarterback Robert Marve.
“It has nothing to do with [being] short of the marker,” Vandenberg said. “If we throw it short, we think we’re going to have a catch-and-run situation. They blitzed us, so there’s not a lot of time to sit and let guys run 12-yard routes. You want to get it to your guys like Damon [Bullock] and Kevonte and C.J., and see if our guy can make a play on their guy.”

Again, that makes some sense. But if you’re looking to understand why Iowa doesn’t just throw the ball far enough to guarantee a first down if it’s caught, Vandenberg’s explanation — maybe fittingly — comes up a little short of the marker.

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