What do we do with Iowa football?
In 2009 the Hawkeyes went 11-2, finished three points shy of a Big Ten title, and finished seventh in both polls. Head coach Kirk Ferentz received a massive raise and contract extension, essentially bonding him to Iowa City for life (or at least until 2020, which I’m sure feels like a lifetime for some Iowa fans). Two years out from 7-5, 6-7, and 6-6 seasons. What could go wrong?
Well, Ferentz could go 24-28 against Power Five opponents, for one. Ferentz’s onetime bread-and-butter of stout defense and physical running could forget how to run. A bunch of your more highly-rated players could decide to jump ship.
The 2014 Iowa Hawkeyes went pretty much the same way the last few did. The Hawkeyes began with listless performances against Northern Iowa and Ball State, before woeful timeout luck allowed the Cyclones to boot a game-winning field goal in a huge upset. Iowa rebounded to beat Pitt on the road and began a stretch of games when the Hawkeyes actually played pretty darn well, sans a rough trip to Maryland.
And then the meat of the schedule hit. The Hawkeyes were blasted by Minnesota and outlasted by Wisconsin and Nebraska, and barely put up a fight against Tennessee until the game was long decided.
First four games: Iowa 22.3, Opponents 19 (3-1)
Next four games: Iowa 37, Opponents 21 (3-1)
Last five games: Opponents 34.6, Iowa 26 (1-4)
Minus Illinois game: Opponents 39.8, Iowa 25 (0-4)
The late-season collapse prompted another round of fans and pundits wondering exactly how prohibitive that buyout really was. (And comedian Lewis Black got in on the act, too.) But here we are, in August of 2015 and the Ferentz Epoch continues. Iowa has a pair of solid running backs, a pretty good secondary, and an agreeable schedule. Could this be the year the Hawkeyes finally break out of neutral?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THIS OFFENSE?
I talked earlier about the old-ish days of Iowa football, when offense meant three yards and a cloud of dust. But unlike most football writers who throw around that term, I don’t mean it derogatorily. For so long Iowa used a dominant offensive line and bruising would-be-fullbacks-at-other-schools running backs to wear on defenses, limit mistakes, shorten games, and force opponents to beat them at their own game.
Well, after too many offensive series of Mark Weisman sweep left, Mark Weisman sweep right ending in punts, offensive coordinator Greg Davis opened things up a bit more in 2014. With Jake Rudock taking snaps the Hawkeyes threw way more on early downs than previously . . . but the passing game was never really dialed in, and Davis’ situational playcalling often left much to be desired. (I’m thinking specifically of the second half of the Nebraska game when Iowa had a 24-7 lead and kept having Rudock fling passes ten yards over the heads of open receivers. This may come as a shock but Iowa lost that game.)
Rudock exercised his graduate transfer option and is gone to Michigan, so the show now belongs to junior C.J. Beathard. Beathard played like a true underclassman in 2014, coming in at Pitt and completing seven-of-eight passes at 12.3 yards per attempt to spur the Hawkeyes’ comeback win, and then going 17-for-37 the next week against a deplorable Purdue secondary. Beathard only saw sporadic action after that before taking over in the bowl game, where he accounted for 227 yards rushing and passing. Rudock was a more consistent passer but it’s Beathard’s mobility that had Iowa fans clamoring for more of him in 2014. Now we’ll get to see what he can do with no competition for the spot (behind him are only freshmen and redshirt freshmen). Beathard plays a little quicker, a little looser, a little more aggressive . . . basically the antithesis of what we’re used to seeing from a Ferentz-coached team at quarterback.
He’ll have a decent array of receivers to target. Iowa returns a trio of experienced pass-catchers in receivers Matt VandeBerg and Tevaun Smith (probably the receiver with the most upside) and tight end Jake Duzey, whose name practically requires frequent targets. VandeBerg saw only occasional action but made the most of it when he could and is probably Iowa’s most explosive threat on a unit pretty solid in possession work but not so great when it came to big plays. With Rudock gone Beathard won’t have to worry about splitting reps and should come in to 2015 more in sync with his receivers than he was last fall.
At running back, Iowa has named junior LeShun Daniels Jr. as its 2015 starter. I’m a bit surprised by the decision, with the more experienced Jordan Canzeri on the roster, especially given that the bulk of Daniels’ action has been in paycheck games against Directional State schools. But far be it from me to turn my nose up at a 6’0″, 225-pound running back (he’s probably better built for between-the-tackles running than Canzeri).
Speaking of tackles, Iowa has to replace both of its, one of whom was Brandon Scherff, only one of the nation’s best. Iowa didn’t have a great line in 2014 even with the Outland Trophy winner on it, and now there isn’t another tackle on the roster with a start. The Hawkeyes will be fine at center and guard with Austin Blythe leading it, but there will be a breaking-in period on the edges.
Iowa will also have to find a way to . . .
REPLACE TWO GREAT TACKLES . . .
. . . on the other side of the ball. A pair of killer defensive tackles (Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis are gone, leaving a pair of experienced ends to pick up where they left off. Seniors Drew Ott and Nate Meier will lead the line after recording 18 tackles for loss in 2014. Ott also sacked opposing quarterbacks 7.5 times and picked off a pass (and also recorded the season’s least-likely punt return touchdown). But defensive line play is funny in that having one really dominant guy makes the other guys look better as offensive lines double-team that one guy . . . Iowa hopes Ott can continue his destructive ways now that he’ll be the one getting double-teamed.
At linebacker . . . well, youth matures. The 2013 unit was one of the nation’s best, so the 2014 unit had big shoes to fill, but the 2014 corps never got sharp, and now they have to replace their leading tackler. Bo Bower was able to snatch a pair of passes but he and Josey Jewell will have to step up, and without the big defensive tackles in front of them to help the margin for error.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to like in the secondary, and there wasn’t really any one dominant guy propping the others up in a solid 2014 unit. Corner Desmond King intercepted three passes and broke up five more, and safety Jordan Lomax also broke up six. A possible area of concern might be at strong safety where rumored big hitter Miles Taylor will have to step up after little action thus far in his career, but the rest of the unit should be strong enough to help ease him in.
FAMILIAR SPECIAL TEAMS FACES
If you liked your special teams in 2014, Iowa, the good news is everyone’s back. The bad news: this unit didn’t really excel at anything. Experience will surely help placekicker Marshall Koehn with his inside-the-40 accuracy (he also experimented with punting in the spring). Punter Dillon Kidd had some vinegar issues, pinning opponents inside the 20 decently often but only averaging 38.5 yards per boot. (Insert joke about Ferentz punting from inside his opponents’ 40 here.)
2015 IOWA: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It’ll depend on the offense, and while the offense has guys who might be reliable in 2016, 2015 looks like a tough year as the offensive line resets, a new running back finds his wheels, and a new quarterback solidifies his hold on the position. The defense will do what Iowa defenses always do. But how many games can a stout defense win for a young offense?
Iowa doesn’t exactly face a murderers’ row in the nonconference, but given Iowa’s tendency of late to start seasons off with a whimper rather than a bang, hosting the second-ranked FCS team in week one has to raise some concerns. Illinois State brings in a mobile quarterback well-accustomed to Big Ten defenses. Iowa also hosts a Pitt team who will attack this rebuilding defensive line. Not to mention that Iowa has struggled with Iowa State even at their worst. This team might start 4-0 or 1-3.
The conference schedule sets up nicely, like last year. After visiting Wisconsin to open B1G play, Iowa dodges Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan from the East, instead drawing Maryland and a visit to Indiana. Those are winnable games, along with hosting Illinois, Maryland, and Purdue. The games I’d put a question mark next two are visits to Northwestern and Nebraska (the road team has won the last three games in this series), along with a home game against the Minnesota team that embarrassed the Hawkeyes a year ago. If it weren’t for a revenge factor I’d probably count Iowa out of this game entirely.
So . . . there are a lot of questions. If the offense gels quickly and the defensive line picks up where it left off with its new tackles, this team could win nine games. If Beathard struggles (or heaven forbid, gets hurt) and the Big Ten’s run-happy teams are able to pick on the line, this team’s prospects suddenly get a lot murkier. Ferentz’s buyout gets a little smaller each year and I’m not sure he has the goodwill built up to weather a season without a bowl appearance.