Iowa Football: Key Matchups When the Hawkeyes Play the Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa's opening game—an 18-17 win over Northern Illinois—didn't go as planned.
It was a tougher opponent than the Hawks have been used to on opening weekend, and many good things came out of the performance.
Nevertheless, Iowa's passing game was anemic, and while more than the quarterback was to blame, the quarterback in question—James Vandenberg—is a fifth-year senior and a returning starter. More was expected of him.
They say teams improve most from Week 1 to Week 2, and that has been the case with Kirk Ferentz's team.
It will have to improve a great deal if it hopes to beat Iowa State this week, let alone have what would be termed a successful season.
The Lowdown on the Iowa State Cyclones
Head Coach: Paul Rhoads (fourth year as head coach)
Conference: Big 12
Last Game: 38-23 win vs. Tulsa
Last Game, in 20 Words or Less: Dangerous rushing offense, awful rushing defense. Quarterback Steele Jantz showed up against a team not named Iowa.
ISU Record, Last Five Years: 2011, 6-7; 2010, 5-7; 2009, 7-6; 2008, 2-10; 2007, 3-9
2011 Scoring Offense: 22.7 points-per-game
2011 Scoring Defense: 29.4 points-per-game
Returning Starters: seven on offense, five on defense and one specialist
Offensive Scheme: Spread option
Defensive Scheme: 4-3
All-time Record Against Hawkeyes: 20-39
Last Five Meetings vs. Iowa: 2011, 44-41; 2010, 7-35; 2009, 3-35; 2008, 25-17; 2007, 15-13
Key Injuries: None
Iowa Running Backs vs. Iowa State Linebackers
Iowa's running backs—specifically tailback Damon Bullock and fullback Mark Weisman—were arguably the only offensive players that had an unequivocally good game against Northern Illinois.
However, going forward, they will face better front sevens and much better linebackers.
That will begin this week against Iowa State.
ISU is breaking in three new defensive linemen, and Tulsa took advantage of that, racking up 4.71 yards-per-carry (YPC) on 34 rushes. This is not yet a good line.
However, behind that green line are two of the better linebackers the Hawks will face in 2012, in seniors Jake Knott and A.J. Klein.
The two have combined for just over 500 tackles in their impressive careers. Even more notable, Knott had notched seven forced fumbles heading into 2012. Last week, he tallied No. 8.
Don't forget that as solid as Bullock was last week, he is still a true sophomore. Also, don't forget that though he rushed for 150 yards, he also had two fumbles. Be sure that Knott and Klein haven't forgotten those things either.
Iowa Defensive Line vs. Steele Jantz
Last year, quarterback Steele Jantz embarrassed the Hawks.
The Hawks barely could tackle him, as Jantz converted 3rd-and-forever multiple times and was deadly accurate, completing 67.6 percent of his passes on the day, including four touchdowns to go with zero interceptions.
That was by far his finest performance on the year. The rest of his season was as awful as his performance against Iowa was great. This led to his benching after the 'Clones' sixth game.
Paul Rhoads named him the starter against Tulsa and he was solid, completing 71.1 percent of his passes for 281 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
This year, the Hawkeyes have to keep him in the pocket, force him to make mistakes and make him pay on rushing plays. They cannot allow him to look like John Elway.
Iowa Offensive Game Plan vs. Iowa State's Secondary
Last season, ISU's defense dropped everything it had into the box to squash the Iowa run. It dared the Hawks to attack through the air. Even more specifically, it dared the Hawks to attack its 5'7" and 5'8" cornerbacks with Iowa's 6'3" and 6'4" receivers.
Iowa didn't bite.
The end result was that erstwhile Hawkeye receiver Marvin McNutt had his weakest performance statistically on the year, outside of the games against Nebraska and Oklahoma—two Ds that were considerably better than ISU's.
With a new offensive coordinator and a new-look offense will come a new philosophy. Will the offense attack ISU's secondary, including 5'7" senior Jeremy Reeves and 6'1" junior and first-year starter Cliff Stokes?
If last week is any indication, it won't.
Against NIU, Iowa attempted one downfield pass all day—an unsuccessful early fourth-quarter post route to Keenan Davis that JVB threw a bit short.
This was despite Northern Illinois dropping at least one safety into the box on every play from the first through the third quarters.
The end result is despite throwing 33 passes—tied for 53rd most nationally—the Hawks are tied for the fifth worst yards-per-passing attempt in the country.
Iowa State is sure to do the same as NIU, and if Iowa doesn't want a repeat of last year—consistently running into eight and nine-man fronts and going nowhere—then the offense will have to throw the ball downfield.
Iowa's Offensive Line vs. Iowa State's Defensive Line
Iowa State's defensive line is much like Iowa's: young, raw and in certain areas, undersized.
Starting ends Roosevelt Maggitt and Willie Scott average 243 pounds. Starting nose tackle Jake McDonough—the one returning starter—is a space eater, but the starting defensive tackle, senior Cleyon Laing hasn't done much in his four years on campus and didn't do much against Tulsa.
As previously mentioned, the Golden Hurricane averaged 4.71 YPC against the 'Clones.
Iowa runs a decidedly different rushing scheme than Tulsa, but the rushing game was effective against NIU. After taking out the six sacks that the Hawks allowed, it game put up 196 yards and 4.56 YPC.
Though the Hawkeyes are short on an experienced offensive line, they are deep, talented and should be able to push around the ISU front.
Iowa State's Offensive Line vs. Iowa's Defensive Line
Iowa's defense, and specifically, the defensive line, has the same dynamic as Iowa State—experienced linebackers and a decent secondary behind a woefully green defensive line.
In the case of the Hawks, the line is not as green or undersized as the Cyclones', but ISU has better linebackers.
Regardless, the Cyclones also had a strong ground game in their first day out, tallying 197 yards and 4.80 YPC against Tulsa once the rushing total was adjusted for ISU's four sacks allowed.
In effect, Iowa will have to commit to stopping Iowa State's strong rushing attack and force them to win through the air.
Iowa State's Rushing Attack vs. Iowa's Linebackers
Juniors James White and Shontrelle Johnson will receive the Cyclones' carries. Last week, the two averaged 6.21 YPC on 28 carries.
This is a dangerous pair that Iowa's linebackers will have to wrap up and finish off as close to the line of scrimmage as possible.
That was an issue at times against NIU, who pushed Iowa's inexperienced defensive tackles five yards downfield. In effect, Iowa's linebackers—juniors James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens—were fighting off blockers while trying to make tackles.
Last year, Iowa's defense had trouble finishing tackles against ISU, which allowed the 'Clones to pile up 194 yards on the ground.
This season, Iowa's linebackers are more experienced. They will have to find a way to finish runs before those runs reach the secondary.
Iowa's Passing Game vs. Iowa's Passing Game
It's hard to put a finger on it.
Was it a poor game plan that insisted on a horizontal passing game to the point of obsession?
Was it an issue of getting used to the new offense that led to multiple miscommunications between James Vandenberg and his receivers?
Was it an issue with the receivers failing to gain separation and thus, failing to get open?
Was the offensive line solely to blame for the six sacks allowed—most in FBS in Week 1?
Was the NIU pass defense that good?
Was James Vandenberg that bad?
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of all of these questions.
The Hawks will have to shore things up against Iowa State and for the rest of the season, as there is no way this defense will be able to hold many opponents to fewer than 20 points per game.
Iowa's Defense vs. Third Down
Northern Illinois converted six-of-15 first downs—40 percent—which is not good, but not as awful as last year. In 2011, Iowa allowed opponents to convert 45.89 percent of its third downs, which was 99th in the country.
However, consider the six the Huskies converted: 3rd-and-4, 3rd-and-3, 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-6 and two 3rd-and-8s.
The long conversions were particularly upsetting given that they were all via designed rushing plays. It is even more daunting when one considers that NIU basically ran two plays with any success against the Hawks.
They were a prayer towards Micah Hyde's side of the field and a quarterback draw.
As the "prayer" only worked once, it seemed evident that Iowa could afford to sell out against the draw on third down.
Yet, the Huskies repeatedly converted it, once even converting it to the tune of a 73-yard scamper by Huskie quarterback Jordan Lynch, which went for a touchdown.
Iowa will face that same scenario all season—dangerous rushing quarterbacks that are ineffective when forced to pass. Anybody watching last week's Michigan-'Bama game saw that firsthand.
If Iowa doesn't figure out how to stop rushing quarterbacks, especially on third down, the defense is going to find itself on the field for longer stretches than it should be on the field.
That will lead to a tired and ineffective D.
Iowa State's Passing Game vs. Iowa's Secondary
With exceptions such as last week's game against Tulsa aside, the Iowa State quarterbacks have shown no ability to win games with their arms.
Last season, the two ISU signal-callers combined to form the 111th ranked passing offense in the country, completing just 51.4 percent of their passes.
It is true that Steele Jantz could have turned a corner this offseason, and thus, the Tulsa performance was not an anomaly. Nonetheless, he is a lackluster quarterback until he proves he has become a precision quarterback for more than one game.
Moreover, the receivers, while solid and experienced, are not huge difference makers.
In effect, there should be opportunities for interceptions if the Hawks can get pressure on the quarterback. The secondary will have to take advantage of those opportunities.
Iowa vs. the Road/Iowa State vs. Kinnick Stadium
Going into this week, Hawkeye fans are wondering how much the road affected the offense last week.
After all, James Vandenberg has had issues away from Kinnick throughout his career.
Meanwhile, Iowa State hasn't won at Kinnick since 2002. In fact, the Cyclones haven't scored a meaningful touchdown—non-garbage time—at Kinnick since 2006 and have averaged 9.75 points scored in their last four trips to Iowa City.
Keys to an Iowa Victory
1. Contain the ISU rushing game.
Force Iowa State into passing situations.
2. Pressure Steele Jantz.
Make him prove that the real Steele Jantz was the quarterback that completed 71 percent of his passes against Tulsa and torched the Hawks last year, rather than the guy that was benched midway through 2011.
3. Throw the ball downfield.
If ISU doesn't respect Iowa's vertical passing game, it will load up the box, take away the running game and it will be a long day of Hawkeye three-and-outs. Give the receivers opportunities to make plays.
4. Play to Vandenberg's strengths.
This could be a theme all year, but last week's game seemed to fulfill Hawkeye fans' worst fears—James Vandenberg is a limited quarterback. He panics easily, he can't throw on the run and he is uncomfortable turning his back to the defense. In effect, work out of the gun and make his job as effortless as possible.
5. Take advantage of Iowa State's aggressive play.
The 'Clones are going to come out blitzing. Every opponent is going to mercilessly blitz Iowa until the Hawks prove they will make their opponents pay. Iowa didn't make NIU pay once. The Hawks barely tried. That has to change against Iowa State.