The Iowa football team site at 7-4 on the season with a chance to make this campaign head turner if it can win its final game at Nebraska. 8-4 is a world better than 7-5 and both outcomes are probably better than what the majority of the fanbase expected out of this season.
While it’s too early to definitely say ‘the ship has been righted’, there is a major sign indicating that is taking place this season, which is why a seven or eight win regular season, though not the type of year that would generally bring high praise, is noteworthy this season. What is it?
The Defensive Line: In my opinion, this unit has been the calling card of the Ferentz Era of Iowa football. Some will point towards the offensive line and it’s 1a, but for me the defensive line and its ability to control the line of scrimmage so consistently and make the opponent play one handed has given Iowa a chance to win games because it sure hasn’t been because the offense has been a juggernaut.
Iowa is 20th in the nation against the run in a league that still likes to run the football. Thus far Iowa’s schedule has included teams ranked 4th, 6th, 8th, 27th, 45th and 62nd in running the football. This Hawkeye defense is not an elite run stopping unit, but they are becoming disruptive on the interior, which has been a hallmark for Iowa’s best defenses under Kirk Ferentz. Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat are getting interior penetration which will gum up the works in the running game.
That bodes well for the Nebraska game but more importantly for the program going forward. It took Iowa a few years to dig out of the transfer malaise on the defensive line which one of the big reasons Iowa struggled last year…that and an all time bad offense in 2012. But the defensive line has been rebuilt and will return nearly everyone from this year’s group, next year, save the oft injured Dom Alvis. That’s big medicine for the program and Reese Morgan deserves a great deal of credit.
When Iowa has been good under Kirk Ferentz, it’s been because it’s had a great defensive line. There have been only two or three Ferentz era teams where the offense was capable of going out there and winning the game if the defense had a bad day; 2001 (33.8/ppg), 2002 and 2005.
Iowa’s last ‘explosive’ offense would have been the 2005 group (and a case could be made for 2010). That offense averaged 426.3 yards per game and 5.9 yards per play but still just 28.6 points per game. The 2001 offense averaged 5.8 yards per play and the 2002 offense averaged a Ferentz-era best of 6.4 yards per play. 2008? Iowa averaged just 363 yards per game, but 5.7 per play. 2009? Not hardly, as that group averaged 336.9 yards per game and just 5.2 yards per play. 2010? That group averaged 380.5 yards per game but an impressive 6.1 yards per play.
This year’s offense is nothing special, ranking 72nd in the nation. Iowa is averaging 398.7 yards per game this year but they are also averaging 72.6 plays per game, well up from their 67.5 one year ago. Iowa’s pace started out fast in plays per game, but they rank in the 70’s nationally in that category, too. Iowa is averaging 5.4 yards per play, a full yard per play better than last year’s 4.4 yards per play. Iowa also averaged 4.4 yards per play in 2004, a year where it went 7-1 in a much better Big Ten, but it had a defensive line and a horseshoe up its keister that season…and oh what a glorious season that was.
The 2013 offense is putting up better raw yardage numbers than any Iowa offense since 2005 and very average yards per play numbers, but it’s still very challenged where it matters a great deal and that is on the scored board.
Iowa is 76th in the nation at 26.2 points per game, bur recall that defense and special teams combined to scored 28 points against Western Michigan and that game’s 59 points account for 20.3% of Iowa’s scoring for the season. Take away that game and Iowa is averaging just 23.1 points per game and the Hawkeyes are averaging just 21.3 points per game in Big Ten play. I don’t know what it is about offense and Kirk Ferentz, but he’s allergic to too much of it, or so it would seem by judging him by his 15 year body of evidence. But that’s a story for a different story.
It’s that Iowa defensive line that has been the thing, the harbinger really, of a good season to come. There were still a lot of questions surrounding this year’s defensive line at the beginning of the year and few folks expected Iowa to be able to do what it has done there. Scott Dochterman of The Gazette is the only media member I recall picking Iowa to finish better than 6-6 (he went with 7-5, including a win over Michigan). I went 6-6 as did most media members, with some of them going 5-7 (Pat Harty comes to mind, with a 2-6 B1G record). I don’t fault Pat as I was very close to going 5-7, too.
That’s because last season’s offensive atrocity nearly shook my confidence in Ferentz. While the 2012 defense wasn’t vintage Ferentz (far from it), the offense was an affront to the sport, lacking any sort of downfield attack. The Greg Davis-Kirk Ferentz marriage was on the rocks from the get go and I am still not entirely sold on the notion that Davis is the guy, given they type of athlete Iowa recruits and the skill set they bring to the field.
It still seems to me, at times, that Davis is calling plays for ghosts of Texas past; Iowa doesn’t have the speed on the outside for the lateral game. It’s also OK to attack the middle of the field, so mix in a few more (as in more than zero) crossers on third downs as well as posts like the one Tevaun Smith caught and housed last week against Michigan. Call the outside zone when Canzeri is in the game and if you want to go outside with Weisman, call the toss sweep.
Don’t, for instance, call the outside zone with Weisman or a wide receiver screen when Matt Vandeberg is in the game. Bad ideas, those. Things still need to get sorted out on offense and I guess Davis has been at Iowa for just two years, but it’s not like he’s still getting to know his players or struggling to remember where he parked; he’s a football coach.
Thank goodness for the Iowa defense…again. We’ve said that so much through the years and are now able to do so again although this defense is different. They take more chances as Phil Parker is more aggressive than Norm Parker and Kirk Ferentz is allowing him to be. Part of the reason for that is because Iowa hasn’t developed a consistent pass rush with just the front four and another part of it is because Anthony Hitchens and James Morris are really good blitzers.
The defensive line should be better next year, perhaps quite a bit better. The Bullies of the Big Ten might be back in 2014.
So as long as Iowa represents itself well tomorrow in Lincoln, I think one can say this season has been a success for the program, even though nobody is going to hang a banner for 8-4 or 7-5. Given where this program wants to get back to, it had to learn to walk again before it could run. Mission accomplished.