24 hours till the Heroes Game, where the Iowa Hawkeyes will be in town to take on your Nebraska Cornhuskers, my friends.
As we do every week, we find out some things that will help us find out more about the opponent. This week, we talk to RossWB, one of the Editors at the Iowa Hawkeye SBNation community, Black Heart, Gold Pants.
I went on the BHGP Podcast with Patrick and Adam, and this is what Ross sent us back for our Q and A. We thank him for his time and effort, and appreciate everything Patrick Vint, Ross and Adam at BHGP gave us this week.
1. So, this year the Hawkeyes are 7-4, with all those losses to some pretty good teams (Northern Illinois, Ohio St, MSU and Wisconsin). With a win on Friday, it would flip the W/L record from last year. Was this a expected turnaround for this squad? Or has this season caught you off guard too?
ROSS: I don't think too many people expected Iowa to be 8-4 this year, no. That's a fairly big turnaround for a team that looked pretty dire in the second half of the 2012 season. There were a lot of question marks for Iowa entering the 2013 season: they were breaking in a new QB and a host of new WRs, there were still questions about the fit and effectiveness of Greg Davis as Iowa's OC, and whether the Iowa defense could be effective, to name a few. 11 weeks later, those questions have mostly been answered in the affirmative. Jake Rudock has endured some growing pains and mistakes as Iowa's starting QB, but he's also given Iowa a higher level of play than they received from the QB position a year ago. The WRs have been inconsistent, but they've made more plays then they did a year ago and Iowa has mitigated their issues by utilizing more tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Year two of the Greg Davis has led to a lot more offensive yards and more offensive points (although not as many as we'd hoped for). And the defense has been a very pleasant surprise for the most part, especially the defensive line. I entered the season thinking that 6-6 or 7-5 was feasible if there were good answers for most of those questions and Iowa got a big of injury luck this year; so far Iowa's already managed to equal that hope, which is exciting.
2. Jake Rudock has been pretty consistent for Greg Davis’ offense this season, usually averaging a 60-65% completion rate in every game this season. What has he brought to the table that someone like James Vandenberg didn’t last season?
ROSS: Rudock's best attribute might be his composure; he doesn't get rattled or let bad decisions linger or affect his performance for several plays. He's also arguably been at his best on the road, in hostile environments like Ames, Minneapolis, and Columbus he's produced some of his best games of the season. From a physical standpoint, Rudock also has a bit more touch on his passes -- not every pass that leaves his hands is a bullet. And he's also a better scrambler than Vandenberg -- he's certainly not Johnny Manziel (or Taylor Martinez), but he's more than capable of making plays with his feet.
3. Mark Weisman has been your RB in Iowa City this year, but it seems that ever since the Minnesota game, he hasn’t gotten on track very well except for last Saturday against Michigan. What has caused his numbers to go down? Or is it something where Damon Bullock is getting more of a look?
ROSS: Weisman's struggles were twofold, I think. One, he suffered a serious of injuries around the time of the Michigan State game (ankle sprain, bruised wrist, etc.). They weren't serious injuries like torn ligaments or broken bones, but they were enough to slow him down and make him noticeably less effective. Two, teams started figuring out how to defend him -- especially good defensive lines like Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, which Pat discussed at length here. Weisman has gotten healthier the last few weeks (against Michigan, he was probably the healthiest he's been since September) and the emergence of Jordan Canzeri has given Iowa's running game an added dimension (Canzeri CAN cut back) and taken some of the pressure off Weisman to carry all of the load for the Iowa running game. I would expect a solid mix of Canzeri and Weisman from Iowa on Friday.
4. At far as pass catching goes, Kevonte Martin-Manley seems to be the guy that Rudock has gone to a lot, but there’s a lot of guys that seem to get touches. What stands out about this group?
ROSS: Martin-Manley is probably Iowa's most consistent receiver; he was the most experienced receiver as the season began, with the greatest understanding of the offense, and that's translated into getting the most targets (and receptions) among Iowa receivers this year. Martin-Manley is probably at his best as a possession receiver working out of the slot; he's great at keeping drives moving, but he's not a huge big play threat. Iowa has struggled to find consistent receiving weapons aside from Martin-Manley, with several receivers flashing in one game before receding into obscurity in the next game. Tevaun Smith is fresh off a strong game against Michigan (almost 100 yards receiving, 1 TD), while Damond Powell is Iowa's biggest deep threat (he's also still learning the ins and outs of the offense because he arrived at Iowa right before training camp in August). Hopefully one of those guys will be able to make a few plays for Iowa on Friday.
But Iowa's also compensated for the lack of consistent play from the WRs by utilizing the tight ends more. Iowa has used three tight ends sets on a number of occasions (most notably in the Ohio State game) and they've been pretty effective. C.J. Fiedorowicz is Iowa's main threat at tight end: he's a large (6-7, 265) target with good hands and better-than-expected speed for a guy his size. He's finally done what Iowa fans have been waiting to see for years, too: develop into a legitimate red zone threat, with five touchdown catches this year. Jake Duzey, Ray Hamilton, and George Kittle are Iowa's other main weapons among the tight ends and each has had a fairly big game or two this season.
5. Defensively, the Hawkeyes are not giving up too many points, as they are 13th in FBS in scoring defense. What’s been the secret to Phil Parker’s group this season?
ROSS: They're not quite the traditional "bend but don't break" Iowa defense that was so successful under former defensive coordinator Norm Parker. There has been some breaking this year -- in the first half of the season, they seemed to give up a big play or two for a touchdown almost every game. That's kind of the result of a defensive line that struggles to get pressure on the QB by themselves and a secondary that's somewhat vulnerable at the safety positions. Iowa's solved that problem by blitzing far more than they ever did under Norm Parker and they've been much better at conceding long, field-churning drives (with the primary exception of Ohio State, who they could not get off the field). They've also been good in the red zone: they've allowed just 22 trips insider their own 20-yard line all season (T-3 in the nation) and they've conceded touchdowns just 11 times on those trips.
6. Obviously, Ferentz has caught hell from a lot of folks about his contract, his record, and so on. Has this season eased up those yowling about his deal in Iowa City? How safe has Kirk’s job become? Could he survive another season like last year?
ROSS: Yes, going 7-4 with wins over Iowa State, Minnesota, and Michigan has quieted the yowling and got the torches and pitchforks crowd to settle down. It doesn't hurt that Iowa was also competitive in their losses -- and that their losses have come to teams that are a combined 42-3 this season. There's not exactly a bad loss in the bunch there. Aside from all the losing last season (which was certainly bad in its own right), there was the fact that Iowa was often either losing to middling or bad teams (Central Michigan, Indiana, Purdue) or getting blown off the field (Penn State, Michigan) -- that made the losing even harder to take. The losses this year still rankle, but they're a little easier to take given the teams Iowa played in those games and the general way they played in them.
But the most important thing is the wins: he's won 7 games already, could win 8 with a win over Nebraska this week, and has Iowa back in a bowl game (and, potentially, a pretty good bowl game, depending on how things shake out over the next few weeks). That's a big step forward for the program. Could he survive going 4-8 next year? My gut says yes. That would be incredibly disappointing, given the improvement the team has made this season, the fact that several key players from this year's team are slated to return next year, and the fact that the schedule looks a bit more forgiving than it did this year, but he's probably rebuilt enough credit with Iowa fans that one bad year isn't likely to get him immediately canned. (There's also the matter of that huge buyout in his contract; it would be a bit less huge next season, but it still be a pretty onerous burden.) My guess is that another 4-8 season, his second in three years, would ramp the pressure up to incredible lengths for 2015 -- but that he would probably get one last chance to turn things around that year, too. Iowa's had two football coaches in the last 30 years -- they don't make changes at that position easily.
7. Tell us about anyone on either side of the ball that you didn’t mention above, that we should be watching for Friday morning.
ROSS: The heart and soul of Iowa's defense is the three senior linebackers: Anthony Hitchens, James Morris, and Christian Kirksey. We entered the season thinking that they were good -- and they've managed to get even better this season. Finally healthy for an entire season, Morris has emerged as a strong middle linebacker, making plays as a pass rusher (4 sacks), in coverage (3 INT), and all over the field (88 tackles, 10.5 TFL), as well as making the defensive calls to get everyone else in the correct positions. Kirksey has quieter numbers (86 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 fumble return), but he's also been one of Iowa's best defenders in pass coverage. Hitchens was the third man in the trio entering the season, a talented but inconsistent player who was even benched a few times last season. He's put together an excellent senior season, though: 95 tackles, 13 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles. He also came up with the play of the game a week ago: forcing (and recovering) a fumble that allowed Iowa to ice the game against Michigan. The strong play of Iowa's defense this year has, in large part, flowed from the excellent play they've gotten out of their linebackers.
8. Prediction time. Tell us about how you see this game playing out, and who you think will be taking the Heroes Game trophy home?
ROSS: I think it's time. It's time for Iowa to beat Nebraska for the first time in over 30 years, time for Iowa to win in Lincoln for the first time since World War II, time for Iowa to add the Heroes Game trophy to their collection -- and time for Iowa-Nebraska to really become a rivalry. I get that it's not quite there yet -- it's hard for Nebraska to get too worked up about a team that hasn't beat them since Ronald Reagan was early in his first term as President. For this to become a big rivalry -- the rivalry that Iowa fans, I think, want it to become -- we need to beat Nebraska. I think that happens this year behind a balanced offensive attack from Rudock and Weisman/Canzeri and a defense that is able to force some turnovers from Nebraska's QBs. Iowa holds off a late Nebraska surge and wins 24-17.