Iowa Football: End-of-Season Report Card for the Hawkeyes
The 2011 season is officially over, and it's time to take one more look back on the Iowa campaign to grade how the Hawkeyes performed on the gridiron.
I've waited a little longer than maybe necessary to put this piece together. Emotions after losing 31-14 to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl might have clouded my judgment somewhat. So, I decided to allow a little time to gain some perspective on what truly transpired throughout 2011.
Way back in early August, I wrote about the enigma that is the Iowa Hawkeye team. In hindsight, I was more right than I knew. In fact, it might have been the best statement I've made all year, though my ultimate prediction fell somewhat short.
Iowa had the talent to go 9-3 on the year. The season Marvin McNutt put together, along with the performances of James Vandenberg and Marcus Coker, attest to that.
On the other hand, there were enough questions to suspect a 7-5 season was in the offering. Those questions apparently trumped the available talent, and Iowa squeaked out a thoroughly average season with a bowl thumping that highlighted the issues still surrounding this team.
Still, as mentioned, there were highlights that can't be ignored.
The Hawkeye Offense Performed Well
It seems in recent years that the offense has been the Achilles heel for the Hawkeyes. While the defense stubbornly shut down opponents, the offense whimpered its way to just enough production to secure wins.
This year, the roles were somewhat reversed.
QB James Vandenberg was as good as could be expected. He threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. While his overall completion percentage was below 60 percent, a fair measure of that rests on the shoulders of his receivers, who dropped far too many passes.
Vandenberg didn't make a habit out of making poor decisions, and when he got in a rhythm, I would argue that there were few better quarterbacks in the nation than JVB.
RB Marcus Coker turned out to be almost exactly what Iowa fans expected him to be, even if he wasn't necessarily as flashy as they'd predicted. Coker was solid and consistent, churning out 1384 yards and 15 touchdowns.
He was second in the Big Ten in total yards behind Wisconsin's Montee Ball and averaged just under five yards per carry. Most importantly, he was a real work horse that took on the job of carrying Iowa's run game practically solo.
WR Marvin McNutt, Jr. had a tremendous season and will go down as one of the best in Iowa history. He caught 82 passes for 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns and was, without question, Vandenberg's favorite target. He made bobbling, highlight-reel catches that excited fans and was a menace to most defenses he faced.
The offensive line struggled early in the year, but came together as the season progressed to become a solid, if not dominant, unit that provided sufficient protection for Vandenberg.
Perhaps most important to all of this was the fact that the Hawkeyes showed they had the ability to adapt. They shuffled back and forth between the standard, straightforward approach Iowa typically uses to an up-tempo air attack practically seamlessly and often to positive results.
The line did struggle mightily throughout the early part of the season. In particular, they failed miserably at picking up blitzes and didn't give Vandenberg much time to make solid decisions in the pocket. The Hawkeyes were eighth in the conference in sacks allowed, giving up 29.
As has become the norm, the Hawkeyes severely lacked depth at a number of positions. Running back was the most obvious of those positions.
Mika'il McCall looked like an early favorite to spell Coker and potentially even steal playing time away from the sophomore runner. A broken ankle sidelined him for the better part of the season, and there was no one else who could step in and provide the kind of production Iowa needed from the ground game.
All of that spelled out when Iowa went into the Insight Bowl minus both Coker and McCall. Jordan Canzeri performed admirably early in the game, but it quickly became obvious that he wasn't up to the task of consistently carrying Iowa's workload.
As already mentioned above, the receivers had some down moments as well. Dropped passes were a constant thorn in Iowa's side. Keenan Davis became a habitual offender, but Kevonte Martin-Manley and even McNutt were guilty on far too many occasions. It severely hindered Iowa's offense, as drives were killed thanks to bumbling hands and broken concentration.
Finally, the tight end squad was MIA for the better part of the year. C.J. Fiedorowicz eventually emerged as the kind of receiving tight end Iowa fans have been accustomed to seeing. However, it wasn't until the season was practically over before he emerged and gave the Hawkeye offense that extra depth that was lacking.
I was actually somewhat impressed with Iowa's offense this year. No, it still wasn't up to the standard the team should have set considering the talent available.
However, the pass game was as dangerous as any I can remember in years, and the ground game was effective. The quarterback play was efficient, and eventually, Iowa became an offense that could score on about anyone.
Unfortunately, it took too long to get the pieces put together. Plus, injuries and suspensions ultimately cost Iowa a shot at getting some form of redemption in their bowl game.
The Defense Disappointed
We knew coming into the 2011 season that there would be some questions that needed answered and the overall defensive unit would likely take a step back from what we had become accustomed to.
However, I didn't see it panning out quite like this.
The Hawkeye linebacker corps ended up being pretty darn good. Christian Kirksey emerged on the scene as a very dangerous playmaker who could traverse the field and get his nose in on any play. James Morris was a fierce hitter that punched his way into the line on big run stops, and Tyler Nielsen made a number of key plays for the Hawkeyes.
Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns ended up being sack machines, combining for 12.5 sacks. Daniels led the way with seven of them. The two also combined for 24.5 tackles for loss, with Daniels taking 13 of those on his shoulders.
Tanner Miller and Micah Hyde each had three interceptions on the year. Miller and CB Shaun Prater also both had pick-sixes to their stat sheets for the season, showcasing how dangerous Iowa's pass defense could be when things worked out.
As much as we would like to hang some sentimental meaning on those pick-sixes and interception stats, the truth is, Iowa's pass defense was horrendous. The Hawkeyes were next to last in the conference in yards allowed through the air and were 10th in the conference in passing touchdowns allowed.
The secondary never could seem to be on the same page with one another. Jordan Bernstein, Tanner Miller and Shaun Prater all struggled in coverage. Hyde wasn't quite the disruptive force we'd hoped he would be, and the linebackers didn't do well at picking up the underneath routes.
Also, for as good as those sack numbers may appear on paper, Iowa was tied for eighth in the conference in sacks. While that's not particularly damning (Iowa rarely leads the sack boards), they were also eighth in tackles-for-loss and seventh in overall run defense.
All of that combined shows that the Hawkeyes weren't getting any penetration at the line of scrimmage and were having to rely on their secondary to come up and make stops. That's never a good sign for any defense.
Iowa fans have put an awful lot of faith in Norm Parker to work miracles year in and year out. We've seen tremendous turnover before and have come to expect that Parker could just wave his magic wand, kick some butt on the practice field and produce a top-tier defense.
That wasn't the case this year. Whether it was a situation of Norm's health limiting his ability to coach up the players or a simple lack of talent, the old mastermind couldn't get his group up to par in 2011.
The run defense was mediocre at best, and the pass defense was even worse. While both had a tremendous showing against Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl, the Hawkeyes needed that kind of performance all year long and didn't get it.
The Special Teams Were...There
Compared to what we once knew as Iowa special teams, this unit is still a good step behind. Should we blame all of Iowa's woes on the failures of their ST play?
Obviously not. As already mentioned, both the offense and defense had their share of failures, and Iowa has overcome poor ST play in the past.
Punter Eric Guthrie was as good as Iowa could have hoped for. In fact, he was second in the conference in yards per punt with 41.7.
Mike Meyer is coming around as Iowa's place kicker. He made 70 percent of his kicks and was perfect in extra point conversions.
Despite fans' oft bemoaning of the Hawkeye coverage unit, they were in the top half of the conference in yards allowed on kickoffs, averaging 21.64 yards per return. Likewise, they led the Big Ten in opponent punt return yards, giving up just 4.57 yards per return.
While Meyer's 70 percent field goal average isn't horrendous, it's not good enough. That average places Iowa 10th in the conference, beating out only Penn State and Northwestern for the worst average in the Big Ten.
Also, while they were as good as anyone at covering punt returns, their own return unit was thoroughly mediocre. The Hawks finished mid-pack of the Big Ten in both punt returns and kick returns.
More, Iowa's kickoffs were well below the standard. The Hawkeyes averaged just 62.26 yards per kick (eighth in Big Ten) and had only four touchbacks on the entire season (last in Big Ten). That's a pathetic 5.88 percentage on touchbacks per kick.
While touchbacks aren't the begin-all, end-all for kickoff stats, it demonstrates that Iowa was woefully inept at getting the kick deep enough in enemy territory to make opponents think twice about returning the kick or not.
Also, considering that the kickoffs come from the 30-yard line, that means that Iowa opponents were receiving the ball on average at their own eight yard line. Factor in Iowa's 21.64/return yards allowed average, and you'd see that Iowa's opponents started most drives at or near their own 30.
It compounds situations when you have a defense that's struggling having to start nearly 10 yards closer to their own end zone than necessary.
Again, you can't pin all of Iowa's woes on special teams. Their other units played their part in the Hawkeye season.
Having said that, for every bonus stat you can find in favor of Iowa special teams, there are just as many stats that point to how mediocre the play was.
That's Iowa special teams 2011 for you. They were good in some areas, not good in others, and in the end, the unit was more of a setback than an asset.
This slide is a misnomer, and I admit it. Typically, when you talk about "intangibles," you're talking about things like emotion or philosophy that can't be quantified.
Yet, I'm going to throw in here a few things that can and will be quantified. I'll round it off, though, with some truly intangible qualities that I feel affected the 2011 season.
Iowa was once again one of the least penalized teams in the Big Ten. They averaged just 35.6 penalty yards per game, which was second to only Michigan in that aspect. They also averaged just 4.8 penalties per game, which placed them third in the Big Ten in that category.
For a truly "intangible" positive, Iowa was again a wild card in every aspect of the game. Opponents could look at as much film as they wanted and dissect the Hawkeyes from every angle.
Yet, when it came game time, Iowa could over-perform in just about any area.
The Insight Bowl was a classic example. Despite having an ineffective run defense, the Hawkeyes shut down Oklahoma's run game throughout most of the first three quarters of play. Despite having a thoroughly mediocre pass defense, Iowa held Oklahoma to sub-par passing numbers all game long.
When they truly showed up to play, they really showed up to play.
Looking at philosophy, I will continue to harp on Iowa's up-tempo attack this past season. While it didn't work every time it was employed, it showed a wrinkle in Iowa's attack that was fresh and new. When it worked, it worked very well, and Iowa's offense was exciting and dangerous.
We've been waiting for Ken O'Keefe to unveil something from his unit that fans could get excited about, and that up-tempo attack was the closest thing we've seen to an explosive offense in quite a while.
While Iowa may have been one of the better teams in the conference in terms of committing few major penalties, they certainly committed them at the worst possible times. The Hawkeyes allowed the fifth-most first downs gained on penalty.
They were the fourth worst in the conference in first downs allowed overall, averaging 21.4 allowed per game.
Back to the truly "intangible" aspects of the game, Iowa didn't really show their best very often. Again, the Insight Bowl was a prime example. While Iowa's defense played lights out, their offense struggled mightily against a mediocre Sooner defense.
For whatever reason, Iowa couldn't seem to put all of the pieces together into one package at all this year.
As for philosophy, Iowa still lacked a true killer attack. They blitzed more than usual, but that was out of necessity. They sped up the tempo of their offense, but again, that was out of necessity.
On top of all of that, the running back situation has taken yet another double-hit. Marcus Coker asked to be let out of his scholarship and has moved on. Likewise, Mika'il McCall has transferred out of the program.
Something is going on that we don't have the information on, but needs to be fixed quickly. In just the last two years, Iowa has lost Adam Robinson, Jewel Hampton, Brandon Wegher, Marcus Coker and Mika'il McCall.
That isn't a fluke.
The team looked flat practically all year long. When one unit stepped up, the other stepped back. They didn't seem to have a lot of fire, and when they did have it, they couldn't sustain it.
For the most part, Iowa played smart football. They didn't give up a ton of yards to mindless penalties, and they made their opponents beat them on talent alone.
The problem is, when they did give up penalties, they seemed to come at crucial times, showcasing a semi-lack of discipline and focus. What's more, while they may have made opponents beat them on talent alone, Iowa's opponents were perfectly happy and capable to do just that.
Where's the breakdown? The talent was available for more than we got. I can only surmise that it was a mental breakdown on Iowa's part that led to a barely successful season.
I use the term "successful" loosely there.
The runningback situation is beyond ridiculous at this point. Somewhere behind the scenes, there is an element making life unbearable for Iowa runners. They're leaving as quickly as they're suiting up, and that's put a tremendous strain on the system.
Whatever or whoever that element is, it needs to be identified quickly and removed from any contact with the program. This isn't just a matter of losing quality talent. It's a matter of sending young men out to other programs that may not have the best things to say about Iowa and/or the staff.
It could become increasingly difficult to recruit quality runners if youngsters take the time to witness the mass defections of late.
I'd thought about adding a slide grading the coaching. That probably would have been appropriate, but I feel as though that drum has beaten to the point of making it awfully redundant.
Kirk Ferentz is still one of the best in the business, and Iowa fans are lucky to have him as their head coach. There are very few in the nation that can take the kind of players Iowa attracts and build them into the players the Hawkeyes ultimately deploy on game days.
Having said that, he's not perfect.
His conservative style has gone to the realm of maddening at times. His clock management can be a joke, and I hold him responsible for any lack of emotion that the Hawkeyes displayed throughout the year.
What's more, I hold him responsible for any deficiencies in the coaching staff. He's the head man, and he is the one to make the call on who his assistants are.
Iowa's lack of offensive production speaks volumes toward what kind of change needs to happen there. Their shortcomings at special teams indicate the need for more change.
Yet, he's not making those changes. He's one of the highest-paid head coaches in the country, and Iowa fans deserve a better return on their investment than what they're getting.
Now, Norm Parker has retired, and Coach Ferentz has the awesome responsibility of selecting someone that can lead Iowa's defense into the future. If his choices at other positions are any indicator, Iowa could be in for some rough times.
Aside from all of that, Iowa was truly a mystery this season.
Their offense employed some exceptionally talented individuals. Yet, they were only 58th in the nation in scoring offense.
Their defense brought back some exciting veterans. Yet, they were 46th in the nation in scoring defense.
Now, throw on top of that what's happened off the field. Coker has left the program, as has his immediate replacement in McCall. The running game is more uncertain than ever, and the offense already showed an incredible lack of depth across the board.
The team lacked fire. They lacked the killer instinct.
Other than a great win over Michigan, there weren't any real signature wins. They lost games they shouldn't have lost, including their second consecutive drop to hapless Minnesota.
All-in-all, it was a completely forgettable season. I had said that I used the term "successful" loosely, and I'll explain that further now.
Compared to the seasons Iowa endured during the 1960's and 70's, a seven-win season is a resounding success. Compared to the multitude of programs that didn't get the opportunity to go bowling, it was a success.
By definition alone, any time a team wins more than they lose, it's successful.
However, Iowa has been at a place for a few years now where that kind of "success" isn't enough. They're at a place where they need to demand more to secure their spot as an upper-echelon program in a conference that's only getting stronger.
In that light, this season was a failure. They failed to put a quality defense on the field. They failed to find consistency on offense despite the talent available to them. They failed to even enter the Big Ten title race, getting knocked out of the discussion before it even really began.
Programs routinely take a step back as talent moves on to greener pastures, but there's no good excuse for what has transpired at Iowa the last two seasons.
They may have won seven games, but by the standard fans have a right to expect, it was another miserable failure, saved from such a grade only by the heroics of a few select players and a couple of performances that exceeded the norm.
Final Grade: D