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Previewing the 2016 Iowa Hawkeyes

NCAA Football: Iowa at Rutgers Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a Jekyll-and-Hyde season for the 7-4 Iowa Hawkeyes. They’ve lost to 1-AA North Dakota State at home as well as Northwestern and Wisconsin. In September, Iowa needed a fourth quarter touchdown to beat Rutgers 14-7. Three weeks ago, the Hawkeyes were demolished by Penn State, losing 41-14.

But then the next week, they upset second-ranked Michigan 14-13 at home. Go figure...or as Kirk Ferentz likes to say: "That’s football."

Quarterback C.J. Beathard isn’t having quite the same season in 2016 that he had in 2015; his completion percentage is down from 62% to 58% and interceptions are up to 7 from 5 (despite throwing 99 fewer passes thus far). He’s also not a threat to run the ball this season, as he’s lost 25 net yards on 74 rushes. Some of that is because only one of Iowa’s top five receivers in 2015 returned this fall, and that guy, Matt Vandeberg, broke his foot in September, sidelining him for the season. (And much to Kirk Ferentz’s surprise, he actually qualifies for a medical redshirt.) Senior Riley McCarron leads Iowa’s receiver corps with 36 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns; McCarron also returned a punt for a touchdown last week against Illinois, earning him Big Ten special teams player of the week. Sophomore Jerminic Smith is second with 23 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns; he’s caught a pass in eleven straight games. Tight end George Kittle has 19 catches for 298 yards and two touchdowns.

Since it’s Iowa, you know the Hawkeyes are going to run the ball, and in 2016, it’s a "thunder and lightning" combination. LeShun Daniels is the thunder, rushing for 855 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Akrum Wadley is the lightning, rushing for 861 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Against Michigan, Wadley was the MVP, rushing for 167 yards, but last week against Illinois, it was Daniels earning Big Ten co-offensive player of the week honors, rushing for 159 yards and two touchdowns.

The Hawkeyes rank in the middle of the Big Ten in most defensive categories except one: scoring defense, where Iowa’s 18.6 point average ranks fourth. The Hawkeyes rank eighth in both rush defense (159 yards per game) and pass defense (206 yards per game). The Hawkeyes do rank 12th in the Big Ten in interceptions with seven on the season, in case you are thinking that Nebraska may need to throw the ball more this week.

Up front, Nebraska’s offensive line will have to find a way to keep defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson out of the way, which is easier said than done. He leads the Hawkeyes with 7.5 tackles and 10 tackles for loss; his 51 tackles ranks fifth on the team. Defensive end Matt Nelson is second with 5 sacks on the season. The linebacking corps are led by middle linebacker Josey Jewell (105 tackles) and weakside linebacker Bo Bower (79 tackles). Cornerback Desmond King’s seven pass breakups leads Iowa, and his two interceptions ties safety Brandon Snyder for the team lead. Snyder leads the secondary with 73 tackles on the season.

Which Iowa team will Nebraska find on Black Friday? The one that struggled to beat Rutgers or the one that upset Michigan? That’s impossible to know now, and probably secondary to the questions surrounding Nebraska’s quarterback situation this week. Below, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Imagine that during last season, Nebraska found a way to win games instead of lose them at the last moment. Instead of giving up the game winning field goal at the end, the Huskers kicked a 57 yarder to win the game. Or with a one score lead in the closing minutes of a game, the Huskers punched the ball into the end zone instead of throwing incompletions that gave the opponent a chance to come back and win the game. Instead of the opponent making an incredible play for the game-winning touchdown, the opponent's quarterback gets tripped up by his own offensive lineman and fumbles at the one yard line.

That was Iowa in 2015. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a 17 point win over division 1-AA Illinois State, lead Iowa State by three points with three minutes to go, and needed a 57 yard field goal to beat Pitt. Wisconsin had the ball at the Iowa one-yard line, but Joel Stave was tripped up by his offensive lineman and fumbled the handoff; threat averted, and Iowa won.

Iowa went 12-0 and entered December in College Football Playoff consideration. But advanced stats, such as Bill Connelly's S&P+ weren't so kind in ranking the Hawkeyes. Iowa ended the season ranked 47th.

Nebraska was 48th. What's the difference? Iowa maximized Ferentz-ball all season longand avoided shooting themselves in the foot. On the other hand, Husker fans watched the Huskers leave the field seven times, shaking their heads and thinking "we could have won that game."

In the wake of the Gator Bowl debacle, Kirk Ferentz named C.J. Beathard the starter, which led Jake Rudock to use the graduate transfer option to move to Michigan. It was a move that benefited both programs; Rudock led the Weasels to a 10-3 season while Beathard captained the Hawkeyes on their Magical Mystery Tour to Pasadena. Beathard completed nearly 62% of his passes for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also added 237 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. More importantly, he protected the ball, as he only threw five interceptions all season long. If Beathard goes down, sophomore Tyler Wiegers (6'4" 225 lbs.) likely gets the call; he completed three of four passes last season.

The days of AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) may be history, though senior LeShun Daniels (6'0" 225 lbs.) seems to spend more time banged up than healthy. He's the Hawkeye's leading returning rusher after rushing for 646 yards and eight touchdowns last season with a modest 4.5 yards per carry average. Junior Akrum Wadley (5'11" 190 lbs.) rushed for 496 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Fumble problems have been Wadley's biggest issue in his first two seasons in Iowa City.

Beathard's favorite receiver, senior Matt Vandeberg (6'1" 190 lbs.) returns after catching 65 passes last year for 703 yards and four touchdowns. That's good news for Iowa. The bad news is that the next leading returning receiver is sophomore Jerminic Smith (6'1" 185 lbs.), who only caught six passes for 141 yards last season. Senior tight end George Kittle (6'4" 246 lbs.) caught 20 passes for 290 yards and six touchdowns. Needless to say, things look a little thin here. Sophomore Jay Scheel (6'1" 195 lbs.) has only been healthy enough to play in two games in his first two seasons as a Hawkeye, but he's expected to be a key part of the Iowa passing game this season.

One thing Iowa has done consistently during Kirk Ferentz's time in Iowa City is develop solid offensive linemen, but this year, they'll miss departing all-American center Austin Blythe and all-Big Ten right guard Jordan Walsh. Junior Sean Welsh (6'3" 288 lbs.) slides over from tackle, where he started all 14 games last season to replace Blythe. Senior Cole Croston (6'5" 307 lbs.) started 10 games last year and is slated to play left tackle this season, while junior left guard Boone Myers (6'5" 305 lbs.) started ten games last season. Needless to say, Iowa will be a little less experienced on the line, but shouldn't drop off too far.

Iowa returns eight starters on a defense that ranked in the upper half of the Big Ten last season. That should set the stage for an even stronger defense in 2016. Sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse (6'3" 250 lbs.) made the most of his opportunity to replace Drew Ott last season and contributed 44 tackles in replacing Ott in the second half of the season. Inside, junior Nathan Bazata (6'2" 285 lbs.) and senior Jaleel Johnson (6'4" 310 lbs.) started the entire season and put up decent numbers (42 and 45 tackles respectively).

At linebacker, junior Josey Jewell (6'2" 235 lbs.) returns at middle linebacker after a second team all-Big Ten season in 2015. Jewell led the Hawkeyes with 126 tackles, was second on the team with 7.5 tackles for a loss, second on the team with four interceptions and tied for third with six pass breakups. Junior Bo Bower (6'1" 235 lbs.) started every game as a freshman, but then found himself as a backup last season. He reclaimed his starting position this summer at the weakside linebacker spot. Junior outside linebacker Ben Niemann (6'3" 230 lbs.) started all 14 games last season with 45 tackles. This front seven should provide the Hawkeyes with a solid defense against any rushing attack that doesn't include Christian McCaffrey. (/stanfordScoredAgain)

Iowa led the Big Ten with 19 interceptions last season, and with three starters back in the secondary, the Hawkeyes could be even better in 2016. Senior cornerback Desmond King(5'11" 203 lbs.) was an all-American last season, intercepting eight passes and breaking up 13 more. Senior Greg Mabin (6'2" 200 lbs.) is a two year starter at the other cornerback spot who broke up eight passes and intercepted two. Iowa didn't substitute much last season, so the Hawkeyes will be turning to sophomore walk-on Brandon Snyder (6'1" 210 lbs.), who had 11 tackles last year, to replace third-team all-Big Ten safety Jordan Lomax.

Last year's Iowa team took a favorable schedule and then took advantage of getting nearly every bounce going their way in the regular season to run away with the Big Ten's west division last season. Arguably, the Hawkeyes played their best game of the season in Indianapolis, losing to Michigan State when the Spartans drove the field in the final seconds. Reality may have set in Pasadena on New Year's Day as Stanford boatraced the Hawkeyes in the first half, but that doesn't change the fact that Iowa fans had a blast during 2015 with their team.