The Good and the Bad in Iowa Hawkeyes' Win over Northern Iowa
Following Iowa's anemic offensive showing against Iowa State, Hawkeye fans were on the ledge.
But following their win against UNI, Hawk fans can step back.
Heading into the week, even ESPN columnist Adam Rittenberg predicted the upset, but the Hawks prevailed with a 27-point offensive showing and the victory.
The 27 points more than quadruples Iowa's output the previous week against Iowa State. Meanwhile, the three touchdowns triple Iowa's previous end-zone trips on the season.
Make no mistake, there is still plenty of work to do, but there is also some reason for celebration.
Kirk Ferentz Is Still Kirk Ferentz
People tend to forget questionable decisions when things end up favorably, while they scrutinize those decisions when things end up negatively.
This will certainly be the case for Iowa fans following the UNI win.
However, Kirk Ferentz still made some trademark questionable decisions that could be called anywhere from conservative to pathologically risk-aversive to simply unaware.
At the end of the first half, Iowa got the ball back at its own 11-yard-line with all of its timeouts, 1:23 to go and a 17-13 lead.
At its own 11, nobody could blame Ferentz for trying to safely move the ball before attempting anything risky. However, after fullback Mark Weisman got the ball out to the 23, the head man decided to try for something.
Weisman then fumbled on a poorly called play that went and was going nowhere. He recovered the fumble, but that was enough to scare Ferentz, who put the kibosh on the drive.
He did try one more screen pass, but this highlights Ferentz's occasionally strange tendency to put his toe in aggressive waters but refuse to fully commit. A screen pass is a risky and slow-developing play. If Ferentz wanted to run the clock, why wouldn't he just run the ball? And if he wanted to try for a score, why wouldn't he pass it downfield?
In the second half, Iowa got the ball at its own 42 when safety Tom Donatell intercepted a UNI pass.
The Hawks did nothing with the opportunity and Iowa found itself with 4th-and-2 from its own 49. This was almost the same situation as backup punter John Wienke's "designed" pooch punt (per KCRG) against Northern Illinois.
Yet, instead of bringing in the senior to pin UNI in its own territory, Ferentz called out true freshman Connor Kornbrath, who shanked the ball (via Cork Gaines of Business Insider) for a net gain of nine yards.
After all the talk about the "designed" NIU play, what happened to Wienke against UNI?
Finally, with the Hawks up 24-16 early in the fourth quarter, Iowa found itself with a 4th-and-goal at the UNI one. Ferentz opted to kick the field goal.
One can understand Ferentz's decision to kick, given that the Iowa defense had done a good job of shutting UNI down from halftime forward. Nevertheless, it does further emphasize the reality that Ferentz is still Ferentz.
This Is Ferentz's Offense
It also emphasizes the reality that this is Ferentz's offense.
For years, Iowa fans blamed offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe for the underwhelming performance of the offense.
Then, O'Keefe left for sunnier climes and former Texas coordinator Greg Davis took over.
The big question entering the season was how much would the offense look like the Iowa offense we've always known under Ferentz/O'Keefe, and thus, how much is this Ferentz's offense?
Yesterday, we got our answer.
As Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse so aptly put it, yesterday's offensive performance "was Kirk Ferentz-and-Ken O’Keefe–coast offense to the core."
Certainly, there are some Greg Davis-esque wrinkles, and there are sure to be more as the offense matures.
Nevertheless, don't bother casting dispersions at the OC anymore.
This is, as it has always been, Kirk Ferentz's offense.
AIRBHG Strikes (Twice) Again
The Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God (AIRBHG) struck again on Saturday.
Twice, in fact.
Starting tailback Damon Bullock went down in the second quarter with what appeared to be a concussion. This was after rolling up 77 yards on 13 carries.
Backup tailback Greg Garmon went out shortly thereafter with what looked like a dislocated shoulder.
Early returns are positive—both stayed on the sidelines, though neither reentered the game—but it is doubtful their conditions will be released until Tuesday at Kirk Ferentz's weekly press conference.
Weisman for Heisman
The injuries opened the door for fullback Mark Weisman, as the sophomore took over tailback duties.
Weisman is an Air Force transfer, who sat out last year due to transfer rules.
He previously picked up two carries and one catch—as well as one key dropped ball against Iowa State—but this was his first notable action, and he didn't disappoint.
He picked up 113 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. He also had three receptions for 33 yards.
Nobody is going to mistake Weisman for Barry Sanders, but in the big picture, he could be a solid change-of-pace option and a dangerous weapon in short-yardage situations.
Strong Performance by the Offensive Line
Much of the reason for the success of Iowa's rushing game—201 yards, six yards per carry, to go along with no sacks allowed—was due to the dominance of the offensive line.
The line moved the pile against Northern Illinois but had issues protecting its quarterback, letting up six sacks.
It then did a good job of keeping James Vandenberg clean against Iowa State but had trouble establishing the run.
UNI was the line's first complete game of the year.
It is true that by the end of the game, the Hawkeyes exploited their size, conditioning and scholarship advantage over the undermanned FCS program. However, the line opened sizable holes against a fresh D at the beginning of the game as well.
Vandenberg's Best Game of the Year so Far
He finished the game with a 64.3 completion percentage for 228 yards to go with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also took zero sacks.
It's not saying much, given how dismally he played his first two games, but he showed marked improvement.
Part of the improvement was due to the previously mentioned play-calling that was more reminiscent of former offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe's offense, which, it appears, is more suited toward JVB's strengths.
Vandenberg still had issues with ball placement, and the UNI defense is not one of the better D's Iowa will face this year.
Still, baby steps.
Pass-Catchers Were Also Much Improved, But...
...there was one key drop in the end zone and one other drop on what would have been a huge gain.
I don't know the last Iowa quarterback to go the first three games without throwing at least one touchdown pass, but it was probably before the Ferentz era.
Part of the reason for that is because there has been one drop in the end zone in all three of Iowa's games this season.
Still Looking for More of the Hat
Last week, I mentioned that despite a great deal of preseason hype, junior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has been underutilized.
That continued this week, as the Polish Hat had a mere three receptions for 27 yards and zero touchdowns. Moreover, those three catches represented the only targets that I counted.
I don't know if there is something he is not doing or if, for some reason, JVB lacks confidence in him, but he is a weapon. Yet, he is a weapon who seems to be collecting dust.
Heading into the fourth week of college football, Iowa's pass defense is 32nd in the country and fourth in the Big Ten (opponent's passer efficiency).
Given Iowa's limited pass rush—tied for 95th in the country in sacks—that is no small feat, but the Iowa secondary has gotten lucky a number of times.
A good, experienced, precise quarterback would have smoked the Hawks against ISU and UNI. The secondary let a lot of receivers get behind them, and the Cyclones and Panthers left a lot of plays on the field.
The good news is there aren't any good, experienced, precise passing quarterbacks on Iowa's schedule this year—unless, of course, one believes that Nebraska's Taylor Martinez has turned the corner or that the young Northwestern quarterbacks will reach that level by the time the Hawks visit Evanston on Oct. 27.
On the other hand, even the worst quarterback can be precise when given time in the pocket.
Also, as Hawkeyegamefilm tweeted, regarding the Iowa secondary in the second half:
@marcmorehouse Better in coverage, but tackling has been spotty. Lot of guys stopping their feet and diving.— Hawkeye Gamefilm (@hawkeyegamefilm) September 15, 2012
Defensive Line and Rush Defense
The defensive line only registered one late sack and got pushed around for much of the game but don't read too much into it.
The Panther offensive line is one of the five best O-lines Iowa will face this year. In fact, one could argue it is one of the three best.
Either way, the defensive line is performing substantially better than was expected, especially at the end positions.
With most of the top contributors returning, it is exciting to think about the potential of the front seven in 2013.
New defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been phenomenal after halftime.
In three games, the Iowa first-half defense has allowed a total of 32 points. The Iowa second-half defense has allowed only 10 points.
Further breaking it down, the first-half Iowa D has allowed 3.87 yards-per-carry (YPC) and 8.19 yards per pass (YPP).
Comparatively, the second-half Iowa defense has allowed 2.62 YPC and 4.52 YPP.
The Iowa defense has also forced two first-half turnovers to go with four second-half turnovers.
That is top-notch adjusting.
Of course, one has to account for the lackluster performance of the first-half defense, but it is good to see that Parker is adjusting to what is going on, on the field.
It's Northern Iowa
This was a breakthrough game for the offense, and what could have been an empty season before the conference slate even started was saved by a solid win over UNI.
Still, it's UNI.
The Panthers are an outstanding FCS program, and as good as many FBS programs—certainly at the non-AQ level—but they are still an FCS program.
They have 20 scholarships less than FBS programs, and the fact that Iowa fans were worried about their team losing to said FBS program, at home, even in a rebuilding year, is proof that the 2012 Hawkeye team, if not the overall program, currently has serious issues to work out.