Iowa passing game produces explosive plays in win over Colorado State

The Hawkeyes recorded five plays through the air that went for more than 20 yards.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta jogs into the end zone after a touchdown reception during a football game between Iowa and Colorado State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Iowa targeted LaPorta six times for four catches, 45 yards and a score. The Hawkeyes defeated the Rams 24-14.

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

Iowa tight end Sam LaPorta was only thinking one thing when he was uncovered over the middle of the field near the end zone and the ball was heading his direction.

“Don’t drop it,” LaPorta said with a grin postgame. “It’s one of those things that if you get a ball shot at you real quick and you’re blanketed, you don’t think about it, you just go out and snag it. But when you’re that wide open, you kind of second-guess yourself, like, ‘Oh my gosh, the ball’s taking forever to get to me.’”

The junior caught the spiraling pass for a 27-yard touchdown that put Iowa on top of the Rams by seven points in the third quarter of a game the Hawkeyes eventually won 24-14.

LaPorta’s touchdown was also the fourth of five passing plays the Hawkeyes had against the Rams that went for more than 20 yards — a season high. 

Coming into Saturday’s game, Clemson was the only ranked team averaging a lower rate of explosive plays per game than No. 5 Iowa.

Despite the Hawkeyes (4-0) trailing the Rams (1-3) 14-7 at halftime of a game coach Kirk Ferentz said was full of “up-and-down” moments, only compiling 278 yards of offense (54 rushing), and an ugly interception at the end of the first half courtesy of quarterback Spencer Petras — Iowa’s downfield passing game was the most dangerous it has been all season.

The Rams played more cover one than the Hawkeyes were anticipating, meaning Iowa’s receivers were often facing single coverage on the outside.

“One of our goals offensively is to have four of five explosive plays a game,” Petras said. “We had yet to reach that this year, but we reached it today, so that’s good. I think a lot of that is, if you’re going to play cover one, we have guys who can win matchups.”

Iowa’s first touchdown of the game came on a 43-yard pass to freshman receiver Keagan Johnson, who ran by a cornerback playing press down the right sideline in the second quarter.

Petras dropped back, spotted Johnson open down the field, and delivered a high pass that hit his receiver in stride for the touchdown.

“Anytime I get a guy one-on-one, it’s something I’m going to look at,” Petras said. “Keagan did a great job at beating his guy and outrunning him.”

Petras hit Johnson for a 49-yard gain later in the quarter against a similar cover one look.

Goodson recorded a catch-and-run for 22 yards on the first offensive play of the second half for Iowa’s third explosive passing play of the night. Then, about nine minutes of game time later, it was LaPorta’s turn.

And he took advantage of it.

On first down from Colorado State’s 32-yard line, Iowa faked a tunnel screen to the left while LaPorta snuck up the seam. Rams defenders crept up to the line of scrimmage to defend the apparent screen, leaving LaPorta without another player in a 10-yard radius of him.

Iowa ran two tunnel screens against Kent State last week, which set up Saturday’s score.

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“Yeah, we’ve had it in our playbook for a while,” Ferentz said. “We just thought based on some things we had seen, it might have a chance. You just never know. Ironically, the ball didn’t go quite where we thought it would go, but that’s why you play. You just never know how it’s going to shape up. Fortunately Sam knew what to do with it when it came his way.”

“It was one of those trickeration plays that we had dialed up earlier in the week,” LaPorta added.

Petras’ 34-yard throw to Nico Ragaini minutes later — that saw the junior adjust his body Willie Mays style to put himself in position to make the catch — was Iowa’s final explosive passing play of the day. Petras called it a “great catch.” Or at least that’s what he heard. He was on his back when Ragaini corralled the ball.

A handful of these plays came via in-game adjustments as the Hawkeyes adjusted to the Rams’ cover one press defense. But Petras said he has faith in his receivers to make a play if he throws the ball deep.

Iowa converted on five passing plays of over 20 yards, but Petras feels like if he hadn’t missed some throws, there could have been more.

Petras finished Saturday’s game 15-of-23 for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Iowa’s offense may have stalled at points in its 10-point win over Colorado State, but it delivered on the explosive passing plays it had been missing through the first three weeks of the season.

“Part of it’s the coverage you’re seeing and the way they were playing us, we just felt like maybe we could isolate some guys outside,” Ferentz said. “It was good to have some success there certainly.”

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