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Iowa won't win with offensive linemen wondering what they did wrong, so cut block like no one is watching

Women's Rainboots Monet and Prints Hurricane Calf 14 Print Mid Solids Wellie NORTY Waterproof Glossy Matte Iowa Hawkeyes offensive linemen Keegan Render (69) and Ross Reynolds (59) block Northern Iowa Panthers defensive lineman Bryce Douglas (98) at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The poor offensive lineman has his back to the play. He has no idea where the running back is in relation to the tackle box.

The poor offensive lineman is just doing his job, trying to survive and thrive in the pit. Hey, there’s some legs. Throw a cut block. You know, like they’re coached to do. The way Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has coached offensive line play his entire adult life.

So, as it often happens in football, the interpretations become skewered in games and you have a sitting 20-year head coach all but say this “tackle box” rule is impossible to officiate. You have silent officiating crews and a silent Big Ten on the topic.

The tackle box is one element. Linemen with initial position completely inside the tackle box — inside the alignment of the offensive tackles — may legally block below the waist inside the tackle box until the ball leaves the tackle box.

All other offensive players are allowed to block below the waist only if the force of the initial contact is directed from the front. “Directed from the front” is defined as within the clock face region between “10 o’clock and 2 o’clock” forward of the area of concentration of the player being blocked.

This rule feels like it’s in to curb blind cut blocks and save some ACLs.

Last week, Iowa guard Levi Paulsen didn’t square up and was hit with a 15-yard penalty.

“The cut blocking rules are a very, very fine line,” he said. “Even during the game, I walked up to that ref and said, ‘Sir, what criteria did I miss on that cut block?’ His explanation was that I wasn’t 100 percent square with him when I went to initiate my cut block. He said his body was turned. It’s such a fine line.”

Ferentz has more than registered his disagreement with the rule, and it’s nothing personal. He just questions tracking the running back through the tackle box and then throwing a flag. On the other end of that, the “squaring up” thing has bitten Iowa in the past.


In his weekly news conference after the Northern Illinois game, when Iowa was hit with a couple of these penalties, Ferentz got specific with his complaints.

“To put it in simplistic terms, there’s a certain area within the center box where you play football, whether you’re an offensive guy or defensive guy, and defensive guys are supposed to know how to use their hands to play cut blocks,” Ferentz said. “They used to teach that back when defense was really important. But now the way they’ve got this rule structured, defensive guys can just turn and run, and it’s ridiculous, and my stance is there’s a certain area where they’ve got to play defense, and if they can’t, they should be penalized by getting blocked.

“The way the rule reads right now — I’m glad you asked. I’ll take this and run with it. The rule is stated, OK, the way I coached it for however many years I was a line coach, the rule is just the opposite. So if a linebacker turns and runs, OK, you can’t cut him. Well, I coached for a long time. If a guy runs, cut him because he can’t play a cut block, right? And when you’re in the middle you’re supposed to play defense.

“It’s a dumb rule, and the bottom line is this: The rule stinks, but the worst part of it is, OK, it really makes it a hard job for the guys that officiate. And I’m not mad at the center judge the other day. I understand what he was saying, and there’s another variable tied into it; is the ball in the box or out of the box when the cut — the ball was in the box, OK, for the record, but the problem is, we put so much on the officials, these guys are humans, and it’s just unreasonable.

“You have rules that are really tough to enforce, and then dumb things happen on the field. It’s just — it’s really frustrating. But it’s bureaucracy at its best, so I guess I’ll have to live with it, huh? We’re still going to coach it the same way. It’s ridiculous.”

In 2016 at Rutgers, the Hawkeyes squeaked out a 14-7 win. During that game, offensive tackle Ike Boettger was called for an illegal block below the waist. That wiped out a 75-yard TD run by running back LeShun Daniels and kept the game way too interesting for way too long.

That highlighted this portion of the rule “may not block an opponent below the waist in a direction toward the original position of the ball unless the ball carrier has clearly crossed the line of scrimmage.”

Now, it’s where is the running back? Was it a square-up block? Oh, and the reason why blocking below the waist is an emphasis this season.


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“Another significant change has to do with low blocks. You’ve seen us change the rules on the low blocks the last 10 years,” Big Ten director of officials Bill Carollo said. “Maybe eight out of the last 10 years we’ve tweaked the low-blocking rule and continue to add and change the rule that low blocking is illegal with certain exceptions.

“One exception rule this year if a player on offense is downfield at five yards or more, it is illegal to block low. So low blocks down field now are just like punts, kickoffs change of possessions; they cannot block low five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.”

You can see where that might be information overload for a coach and certainly for a player.

With 20 years as a head coach in the Big Ten, it’s pretty apparent what Kirk Ferentz’s approach to this is.

Block and let them sort it out.

“I think coach Ferentz is going to say, ‘Go cut block,’” Paulsen said. “On the backside of a lot of our plays, we’re cut blocking. So, I don’t think coach rears back on it at all. We’re the same offense we’ve been all season. If we take a cut block here and there, you saw it last week. We went back 15 yards and went and scored. I don’t think he’s going to hold back at all.”

Has it made Iowa’s linemen tentative?

“I wouldn’t say tentative, I’d say more aware,” Paulsen said. “In my first two years, it was throw a cut block no matter what. If you’re in front of the guy or behind him, you throw a cut block. Odds are you’re going to get there or get a piece of them. Now, it’s made us more aware of our fundamentals.”

Paulsen said Iowa didn’t practice cut blocking a lot when offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was offensive line coach (2012-16). Offensive line coach Tim Polasek brought big, orange bouncy balls into practice in 2017 and practiced cut blocks. Paulsen said it’s given them a keener eye on the principles of cut blocking and how it’s supposed to work.

This seems like a lot about what used to be simple, doesn’t it?

Coaches don’t want their players moving tentatively. It’s pretty hard to block and wonder if what you’re doing is wrong.

“We don’t want to shy away from it, obviously he made the call,” center Keegan Render said. “Just keep being aggressive and keep going out and doing what you’re doing.


“I might think it’s legal, but it’s not up to us. You have to play through it.”

When Paulsen jogged over to the sidelines last Saturday night, after having a 15-yard illegal block penalty hung on him, he didn’t get the requisite earful.

“He said, ‘Hey, we’re just going to keep playing our football,” Paulsen said. “Keep relying on our details, keep playing.”

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