Oh, Kirk Ferentz, where do I even begin?
After three years of steady regression the Hawkeyes bounced back to an 8-5 record in 2013 (and Hawkeye fans celebrated like they won the dang national title; apparently expectations are low in Iowa City), bouncing back from a 4-8 mark the year before.
More importantly, Iowa survived another year of Ferentzball, and that massive buyout got a little bit smaller for when the inevitable dropoff rolls around.
Because it’s not a matter of if, but of when. Thus far under Ferentz the Hawkeyes have seen three years of plenty followed by two or three years of famine on two separate occasions. If the pattern holds, 2014 and 2015 should be another year of improvement before another winter.
Things started slow for Iowa in 2013, losing the opener to Northern Illinois 30-27 and struggling against FCS Missouri State and Iowa State, but turned a corner quickly against Western Michigan and Minnesota. Michigan State did Michigan State things, but the Hawkeyes went to the Shoe and gave the Ohio State Buckeyes their toughest regular season test. From that point on, Iowa went 4-1 to close the regular season, losing only to Wisconsin and notching victories over Michigan and Nebraska.
Apparently 8-5 is reason to celebrate in Iowa City, and while I’ll do my best not to rain on the Hawkeye parade, I will point out that Iowa didn’t really beat anyone they weren’t supposed to in 2013, going 0-4 against teams that finished above them in the Sagarin rankings.
Average score, Sagarin 33rd or worse: Iowa 31.2, Opponents 15.2 (8-1)
Average score, Sagarin 31st or better: Opponents 27.3, Iowa 15.3 (0-4)
That said, the loss to Ohio State was a “good loss,” (insofar as such a thing can exist). Iowa nearly took down a far-superior LSU team in the Outback Bowl, and when it was all said and done, even the opening week loss to Northern Illinois didn’t look so bad after Jordan Lynch and Co. finished 12-2.
But there’s definitely room for the Hawkeyes to take a step forward. I feel like a broken record sometimes in these previews, but it rings true for many Big Ten teams: this was an effective offense but it won’t sustain unless they can find a big play threat.
Fortunately for Iowa, quarterback Jake Rudock is probably the most experienced field general in the Big Ten West . . . which isn’t saying much, really (the Big Ten West is simply devoid of stellar quarterback play right now). Rudock returns a pedestrian 6.5 yards per attempt and an 18-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio (not terrible, but you’d think with as little as they pass he could’ve done better than 13 picks).
His two favorite receivers, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith, return, but the pair combined for a dismal 56% catch rate and just 6.1 yards per target. Neither was capable of breaking a big play and either lack of speed or lack of arm strength on Rudock’s part (or both) meant that defenses had no need to fear the deep ball.
Who can the Hawkeyes turn to for some big play potential? Senior Damond Powell was the only Hawk receiver to average over ten yards per target? Maybe four-star true freshman Jay Scheel? Iowa also returns two experienced tight ends, junior Jake Duzey and senior Ray Hamilton, the former of whom is more of a Y/slot-type target. Perhaps Duzey could open up some play-action or bootleg potential.
On the plus side, the ground game was better. A trio of running backs, Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, and Jordan Canzeri (all two-star guys), grounded-and-pounded their way to 1,922 yards. While 4.6 yards per attempt and eleven touchdowns aren’t exactly inducing nightmares in opposing defensive coordinators (Wisconsin they ain’t), it was enough to grind out eight wins. Rudock added 271 yards (at a more impressive 5.1 yards per attempt) to help move the chains every now and then, and the finished product was a decidedly unsexy offense that was nonetheless effective at bulldozing its foes.
Despite some new blood on the offensive line (and barring any intervention by a certain angry deity), I don’t see any reason why Iowa can’t pick up right where it left off on the ground.
But I said it before: Iowa could really use a big play threat. Offenses the likes of which Maryland and Indiana will sport will be able to score quickly and Iowa needs a quick striking running back or a game-breaking receiver to keep pace.
Although rumor has it the Hawkeyes might be looking to pick up the pace a little bit. If they can establish some rhythm then more power to them, but they run the risk any up-tempo team runs: if you stink, you just stink faster, which can put your defense in brutal situations.
Unless the defense can play lights-out all the time. Which, maybe they can.
A vicious trio of linebackers led an elite-level Hawkeye defense in 2013. Consider these incredible numbers: 237.5 tackles, 35.5 for loss, 6 interceptions, and 6 forced fumbles . . . and all three linebackers are gone (two of them to the NFL). So the main story about the defense in 2014 is the reset at linebacker. The next three up (Quinton Alston, Travis Perry, and Reggie Spearman) combined for just 22 tackles in 2013 (zero for loss), so they’ve got a ways to go in order to make up for the production of their departed brethren.
And if you’re an Iowa fan, start whatever ritualistic anti-injury voodoo you did in 2013 that kept all your linebackers injury-free, because after those three, there’s no one with any game experience on the roster.
They’ll get a boost from the defensive line, which excelled at getting tackles for loss in 2013. While Drew Ott led the unit in tackles, it was Louis Trinca-Pasat who had nine tackles for loss and broke up two passes. All four guys who finished in the top ten of rushing defense return for another round.
But like the linebackers, there’s a bit of a reset in the back seven, where Iowa will surely miss Tanner Miller and B.J. Lowery (not to mention their six interceptions and seventeen pass breakups). Desmond King recorded 56 tackles and eight pass breakups as a freshman last year and senior John Lowdermilk (most #B1G name ever) led the secondary in tackles, but the next cornerback on the roster is Sean Draper, who only played in nine games last year. They’ll have some work to do initially.
IOWA SPECIAL TEAMS
Kevonte Martin-Manley was a stellar punt returner for Iowa in 2013, returning punts at an average of 15.7 yards per return and two touchdowns. If he can consistently set the Hawkeyes up with some free yards, it could really give the offense a boost.
This schedule, man. I can’t even begin to guess what Iowa’s record at the end of the season might resemble, but the Hawks should definitely be favored in every game. Ohio State? Nope. Penn State? Nah. Michigan? Not here. Michigan State? Nada. The three toughest conference foes, Northwestern Wisconsin, and Nebraska, come to Iowa City, and while the Hawkeyes will face an early road test against Pitt, the Panthers are far from scary.
There are two downsides to having such a cushy schedule. First, an early loss more or less eliminates Iowa from the national headlines. What with Michigan State and Ohio State in the East being the current Big Ten media darlings, if all three finish 11-1, which one do you think is getting left out of a contract bowl? The second is an intangible: in 2013, Rudock played way better football on the road than he did at Kinnick Stadium (150.7 QB rating on the road, 121.6 at home). If that trend continues, Iowa fans may weirdly rue the fact that they didn’t play the Badgers or Cornhuskers at their place.
Finally, who knows? I see a schedule full of winnable games and also a list of potential traps against Pitt, Indiana, Maryland, and Minnesota, plus the two big names in weeks 13 and 14. Heck, Ball State is no slouch either, and lord knows weird things happen
in Ames against Iowa State (this game is actually in Iowa City, my mistake). Anything less than an A game from the Hawkeyes could result in losses to any of those teams. But if Iowa can keep grinding opponents down like they did in 2013, ten or eleven wins are in their future.