As you watch the University of Iowa's football team take the field Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City against the Eastern Illinois Panthers, you need to gauge the Hawkeye's success by looking at the following factors:
(1) The State of Mind of Quarterback Ricky Stanzi
Last year in their opener against Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes trailed 10-3 at halftime. The coaching staff sweated bullets. These Northern Iowa Panthers were not patsies.
In the third quarter Northern Iowa extended their lead 13-3. Stanzi’s back was against the proverbial wall when he marched the offense 70 yards in six plays to score, reducing Northern Iowa’s lead to three.
The reinvigorated offense under Stanzi's leadership took charge in the fourth quarter. Tony Moeaki caught a six yard pass to change the score in favor of Iowa for the first time 17-13. With 13 minutes left on the clock, all Iowa had to do was hang on for a win.
But Iowa never did things the easy way––at least not in 2009.
Northern Iowa put up another three points, kicking a field goal. Hanging onto a one-point lead, the Iowa defense could not contain the Panthers. Northern Iowa lined up twice in the closing seconds to kick one more field goal for a winner––with Iowa blocking both kicks in a miracle finish.
During the game Stanzi completed 22 of 34 passes for 242 yards, with one touchdown. He was sacked four times.
In all honesty, Stanzi appeared shaky behind an inexperienced offensive line, working with inexperienced running backs. But the harried QB dug down deep and delivered a win, just as he did the rest of the season when not injured.
How he handles this opener against Eastern Illinois will show whether Stanzi will stand tall consistently for Iowa in 2010 even starting with an untested offensive line.
That the Iowa team weathered Stanzi putting up 17 touchdowns while throwing 15 interceptions last season is a testament to the Hawkeyes winning mentality and indomitable spirit.
That is not, however, the way Iowa wants to win this year.
As a senior and as Iowa’s leader, there is no one more capable of leading this team for Iowa than its senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi. That will become obvious as the season wears on. It all starts in game 1 against Eastern Illinois.
(2) Iowa running backs ability to move the ball
In 2009 when Iowa took the field, there were no experienced running backs starting against Northern Iowa. Iowa turned loose two freshmen, Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson.
Robinson went on to set a freshman record, scampering for 834 yards while Wegher notched a record setting 8 touchdowns behind 641 yards rushing.
Hawkeye Jewel Hampton, who was expected to start and lead the running attack, was sidelined by injury for the season before the Iowa Hawkeyes took the field for the first game.
The Freshmen, however, grew into their responsibilities over the course of the season and by the end played like the veterans they were.
As the Hawkeyes take the field against Eastern Illinois this coming Saturday, however, the Hawkeyes will be without Wegher, who has left the team. Will the running combination of Robinson and Hampton be a winning one? The offense will need major yardage again this year.
(3) Iowa’s receiving corps prowess catching the ball and moving the offense forward
Both senior Derrell-Johnson Koulianos and junior Marvin McNutt were invaluable to Iowa’s offense in 2009 and both players return to help bolster Iowa’s potent passing game.
McNutt was new to the position in 2009 but was applauded by the coaching staff for his consistency as the season wore on. Expect his role to increase in 2010.
Both receivers will help lead the Iowa aerial attack building on their experience. The passing game will continue to be a vital piece of the Iowa offense––to be tested in the opener against Eastern Illinois.
(4) Iowa’s offensive line’s ability to protect the QB and open up holes for the RBs:
Iowa’s offensive line lost four vital starters from last year’s team. They return two starters, OT Riley Reiff and OG Julian Vandervelde, both of whom have some valuable experience. Vandervelde and Reiff will be expected to lead the Iowa attack starting in game one.
Essentially for the Hawks, all the really big questions center on rebuilding the offensive line. But, this is Coach Ferentz’s area of specialty. Plus, there is time to develop and adjust.
Iowa seems to be all about linemen––especially offensive linemen who practice each week against one of the best defensive lines in the country. Linemen who open up holes for running backs to scamper through. It all, hopefully, starts to jell in week 1.
Special Teams: Iowa’s special team members saved the day in the Hawkeye’s opener in 2009 against Northern Iowa, blocking two last second field goals. Their intensity allowed the Hawkeyes to escape the Panthers with a one-point victory.
(5) Improvement in Iowa’s Kicking Game
Senior punter Ryan Donahue dampened many opponents offensive fire with 12 punts exceeding 50 yards while suffering only 131 return yards for the year.
Field goal kicker Daniel Murray had his ups and his downs in 2009 with the coaching staff urging him to increase his completion percentage and lessen the misses––consistency is needed. He will be tested for his position by Trent Mossbrucker. Ferentz calls them dead even. The opener should help decide who comes out on top in this contest, although having both is not a handicap.
(6) Consistency in Iowa’s Return Game
Johnson-Koulianos finished second in the league with an average of 31.5 yards per kick return while Colin Sandeman finished second in punt returns averaging 9 yards per return.
There appears to be depth in the return game as long as no key players suffer injuries and deplete the reserves. This is an area of the game that so far has received little attention by Iowa's coaches.
(7) The Potent Power of the Hawkeye Defense Front Four
All you hear are superlatives when it comes to the Iowa defense––starting with the experienced front four including defensive ends Adrian Clayborn (6-4, 285), a senior, and Broderick Binns (6-2, 261), a junior.
Add to these two senior tackles Karl Klug (6-4, 270) and Christian Ballard (6-5, 297). These defensive stalwarts combined to log 52 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, 16 pass breakups while forcing seven fumbles in 2009. Can they get better? Norm Parker says “Yes.” They receive their first test against Eastern Illinois.
(8) Effectiveness of Iowa’s Linebackers
Senior Jeremiha Hunter, weak side linebacker, was second on the team with 89 tackles last year. He is the lone starter returning to the second tier of the defense. Special teams veterans Jeff Tarpinian, a senior, and Tyler Nielsen, a junior, will probably get the call in the middle and on the outside, respectively. They have some big shoes to fill. We will see how well they fit in week 1.
(9) Iowa’s Defensive Backfield stalwarts, again
Cornerback Amari Spievey left for the NFL, so sophomore Micah Hyde will no doubt replace him. However, the Hawkeyes are hardly at a loss in experience in the other three positions as junior Tyler Sash (six interceptions) returns for his third season at strong safety, senior free safety Brett Greenwood is a fourth-year starter and junior Shaun Prater is in his second season at the other corner. This unit should provide another brick in the wall of the Hawkeye defense.
(10) The impact of Iowa’s new recruits playing for the first time
It will be important to gauge the impact of new players and how they will fit into Iowa offensive and defensive units starting in game 1 against Eastern Illinois––when hopefully, they will see some action in a real game. There are holes to fill everywhere and unless the new players step up and find their groove, Iowa cannot succeed.
There are not many who will predict an Iowa loss in this opening contest. But for coaches and fans, as well as the players, playing Eastern Illinois is the first step of the season and it is important to complete all the proper assignments and win the game without suffering injuries.
Eastern Illinois is just the beginning...