The first half of Iowa's 2012 campaign is in the books. It wasn't all pretty. Okay, most of it wasn't pretty.
However, in their last two games, they've turned much of their woes around and look capable of putting together a strong second half. They're still undefeated in conference play, have identified some strengths they can build around and have put at least one big hurdle (MSU) behind them.
There are reasons to be optimistic. There are also reasons to be very, very cautious. The meat of their Big Ten schedule looms before them and it starts this Saturday with a showdown in Kinnick Stadium against resurgent Penn State.
The passing game hasn't been as good as hoped. The running game has arguably been better than expected. The defense has been hot and cold, but is getting awfully hot and staying there.
Special teams have been a very pleasant surprise. The coaching has been...well...at times brilliant and at others maddening.
What will it take for the Hawkeyes to put together a strong conference showing through the second half of the season?
Iowa has some good running backs. Freshman Greg Garmon has strong potential, as does Jordan Canzeri. Damon Bullock has done "okay" in limited action.
With an offensive line like Iowa is fielding this year, just about anyone with enough confidence to drive through the gaping holes provided can put together a good rushing game.
However, none of those guys are doing it as well as Mark Weisman has.
The walk-on transfer from Air Force has been reminiscent of Shonn Greene, if only for the fact that he's a bruising rusher that doesn't shy away from contact. Weisman has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last four games (posting 217 in the loss to Central Michigan) and has amassed 631 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Imagine what those numbers might be if he'd carried the ball even once against Iowa State or more than twice against Northern Illinois!
He will likely see limited carries against Penn State as he nurses a sprained ankle and Hawkeye fans are a little nervous about the state of the running game without him. As good as Canzeri looked before tearing an ACL, he's fresh off that injury and has only had six months to rehab. That's not a lot of time to get back into playing shape after a near-catastrophic injury.
Garmon has a lot of upside, but his inexperience is tangible and it was never so obvious as during the overtimes against Michigan State when the run game stalled and the Hawkeyes had to settle quickly for field goals.
It's not fair to say that Mark Weisman is the bulk of Iowa's offense, but it's also relatively true. With him hammering the ball for nearly seven yards per carry, it draws the defense into the box and opens up better possibilities for the pass game.
Without that production, the offense has to rely more heavily on James Vandenberg and the pass game.
Vandenberg was supposed to be a highlight of the rebuilding season for Iowa. Last season, he threw for over 3000 yards and amassed 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
This year he was going to have to be a real leader of the offense, but so far he hasn't emerged.
Last year, "Vandy" completed 58.7 percent of his passes and averaged 232.5 yards per game. So far this season, he's completed 57.4 percent of his passes, averaged just 189.0 yards per game and has thrown only two touchdowns to three interceptions.
It hasn't been his best outing as a senior.
A lot of that has to do with the receivers. More to the point, it has been due to the lack of one specific receiver. Marvin McNutt was Vandenberg's undisputed favorite target. McNutt is off to the NFL and Vandenberg has struggled to find the same consistency with Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley.
Another part of it though, is that Vandenberg just doesn't look comfortable. He's missing open receivers, throwing into traffic and often looks hurried even when he's not. Perhaps it has something to do with the six sacks he endured in the opening game against Northern Illinois.
Perhaps he hasn't grasped his new offense quite as well as hoped.
Whatever the reasons, Vandenberg needs to get a grip on the offense and begin producing. Iowa can't afford to rely too heavily on Mark Weisman to carry the offense. They've gotten by against the likes of Minnesota, and managed to make it work in a defensive showdown at Michigan State, but there's still a lot of ball left to be played and the Hawkeyes could desperately use some balance on this offense.
The talent is there. There's no disputing that fact. Both Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley have shown flashes of absolute brilliance. Few doubt the potential of C.J. Fiedorowicz.
And in fairness, the pass game hasn't been all bad. In each of the last three games, Davis has caught six passes for 88, 50 and 65 yards respectively. Martin-Manley has caught five or more, in four of the six games, so far this season and amassed over 100 yards receiving against Northern Iowa.
Fiedorowicz caught four passes against Iowa State for 61 yards and had 50 yards on just two receptions against Minnesota.
The problem is, between those top three receivers for the Hawkeyes there is just one touchdown grab. Just one.
Against Iowa State, they all seemed to drop more passes than they caught. They've struggled to beat the coverage and the most open we've seen a receiver get yet this year was on a flea-flicker against Minnesota.
Apparently, it takes trickery to get a receiver more than a half-step behind the defense.
It's one thing to blame QB James Vandenberg. No, he hasn't looked great this year, but a big part of the reason he has struggled is that his receivers aren't giving him anything consistently that he can gain confidence in.
They're not getting open often enough and when they do, he can hardly trust them to hold on to the ball. This group needs to step up and start bringing the ball in every time it's within reach. They need to get better at making the catch first, then worry about what to do with it.
They need more of the Polish Hat!
Iowa can survive on the run game. They've proven that in the past and it has worked well enough for them this season. However, there are still some good defenses in front of them and a dangerous pass attack could carry this team to a very good bowl game.
It's exciting, how well the defense has grown over the course of the season already! I don't think anyone with any real football knowledge expected Iowa's D to stand up the way they have this year.
The line has gotten very stout, the linebackers are exceptional and the secondary is dangerous. Most importantly, they seem to rise to the occasion more often than not when needed most.
Now they have to continue what they've started.
Ahead of them are some teams that will test them. Penn State may not have the most explosive offense in college football, but Matt McGloin has become a pretty darned good quarterback completing 61.2 percent of his passes and tossing 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
Northwestern has a tricky offense that has always given Iowa troubles. Kain Colter and Venric Mark make a dangerous running duo while Colter and Trevor Siemian create a two-headed passing monster that could keep Iowa's defense on its heels.
Indiana has absolutely exploded offensively. Of course, their defense leaves an awful lot to be desired, but that's for the Hawkeye offense to deal with. They're averaging 35.5 points per game and over six yards per play.
The Hoosiers hung 49 points on Ohio State and that's saying something this year.
Purdue is deceptively dangerous and then there's that pesky little trip to Ann Arbor to take on Denard Robinson and the Wolverine offense that averages 33.8 points per game.
Finally, there's Nebraska with dual-threat QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead and breakout RB Ameer Abdullah. They'll throw everything at the Hawkeyes including the kitchen sink.
In short, every offense Iowa faces from here on out is dangerous at the very least and potentially devastating. If Iowa is going to come out of this stretch with a winning record, the defense is going to have to be on its toes.
There are two great things I've seen out of Iowa's coaching staff that give me great reason for hope this year.
The first was the flea-flicker against Minnesota. The second was the energy and excitement displayed by the players heading into overtime against Michigan State (see the video accompanying the next-to-last slide).
Back in the Hayden Fry era, it was nothing to see a trick play thrown into a game. In fact, it was almost rare not to see a trick play at least once a game or so. However, in the Kirk Ferentz era, it has been taboo.
Ferentz is a straight-forward kind of coach. He shows you what he's going to do, tells you what he's going to do and dares you to beat it. It's kind of intimidating when it works.
There's nothing fancy about it. It's just good ol', smash-mouth football.
There are times though, when a good trick play can be as demoralizing as a straight-up-the-middle blast from a bruising running back. It lets the opponent know that they have to be ready for anything. They may have to rethink their strategy a little.
It's a mind game.
It was good to see that play thrown in there, even though Iowa really didn't need it. It sent the message that future opponents need to be wary. Iowa does have a few tricks up its sleeve and Coach Ferentz isn't afraid to let Greg Davis pull them out every now and again.
What's more, it lets fans know that there could be some fun coming in the future. It's entertaining to watch an entire defense bite on a sure-fire run, only to have something completely unexpected transpire instead.
Perhaps more importantly though, is the energy this team is starting to embody. They're enjoying the game of football. They're breathing in deeply, the majesty of the battle, savoring in the heat of the moment and aren't too stuffy to show that they love this game.
We do too.
The coaching staff needs to continue embracing it. Players that enjoy the game, play it better. I believe that with every ounce of my being. When you're having fun, it shows.
There are some tough matchups ahead, but some really fun ones too. There are great chess matches between wild offenses and stout defenses. There are some potentially entertaining battles in historic venues.
Soak it up. Live it. Be in the moment. It all passes too quickly.
When you look at Iowa, you're looking at an enigma. We've seen the horrendous catastrophe this team can be. We've also seen the heroic warriors the players are.
As hard as it may be to believe, this Iowa team is capable of running the remaining table and winning the Big Ten. Even if they fail to make that lofty height, they can still win more than they lose in this second half of the season.
How far they go is all up to them.