During our optimistic moments in the offseason we Iowa Hawkeyes fans gloried in the opportunities for growth for the returning offensive players at the skill positions.
We looked forward to break-through defensive seasons for Jeff Tarpinian, Tyler Nielson, and Micah Hyde, while our D-line dominated everyone they faced, and our secondary set interception records. Our new O-line would quickly reach excellence by practicing against Adrian, Christian, Karl, and Broderick. We dreamed about a national championship.
During our pessimistic moments we wondered how Iowa could lose more talent to the NFL than any other Big Ten team without a serious drop-off in victories. We feared that the new offensive line would be no better than the 2005 version, and Ricky Stanzi would throw more interceptions while running for his life, and our young running backs would search futilely for holes to run through. We feared not qualifying for a bowl game.
Would 2009 turn out to have been the high point?
What we haven’t had is a chance to make a realistic assessment against a good opponent. In Saturday night’s 34-27 loss to the Arizona Wildcats, we got our first real chance to evaluate the 2010 edition of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Now we have a better idea where we are at this early point in the season.
Stanzi is definitely taking better care with his passes. He had his first interception against Arizona (only after the ball went through a receiver’s hands), although the Wildcat safety dropped one in the end zone.
DJK is looking better than last year. If he stays healthy, the receiving records are going down. Marvin McNutt is still capable of making some brilliant catches. Colin Sandeman has been impressive in the slot.
The offensive line has done its job against lesser defensive lines. Riley Reiff is turning into an effective pass blocker on the edge.
Allen Reisner has been an important receiving option. Brad Herman has emerged as a capable second tight end.
Our running backs are capable of gaining yardage and scoring touchdowns, if the holes are there.
The defensive line has been excellent in stopping the run (with help from the linebackers) and pressuring the passer (without help from the linebackers). Adrian Clayborn is drawing a lot of double-teams, allowing the rest of the linemen to make plays. They have.
The linebackers are doing their jobs, and are usually in position and making tackles.
Micah Hyde is a good cornerback. He’s no Amari Spievey, at least not yet, but he and Shawn Prater do a pretty good job on the outside. Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood continue to be as solid as last year.
Ryan Donahue has continued to boom his punts, while giving the coverage team opportunities to down punts deep in enemy territory.
Freshman Michael Meyer has improved the distance on Iowa’s kickoffs.
Our running backs need some holes to run through. They can’t quite make their own, or use brilliant quickness to bounce outside, on a consistent basis.
The new lack of depth at tailback is glaring. Who will back up Adam Robinson until O'Meara returns? Will a true freshman redshirt get burned, or will Brad Rogers move from fullback?
The offensive line is not yet able to hold its own against good defensive line and linebacker combinations. The Hawk’s pass-blocking schemes can sometimes be defeated. Be certain that other teams will study the attacking methods Arizona used to sack Stanzi three times on the final Iowa possession.
Stanzi is still capable of missing receivers and trying to force the ball into tight coverage.
McNutt may have made some beautiful catches Saturday, but he also blew several catches. Johnson-Koulianos also failed to make a catch, albeit a difficult one, on a fourth-quarter bomb inside the Wildcat five.
Our pass defense is susceptible to a patient short passing game, run by a decisive quarterback with good touch and accuracy. Hopefully Nick Foles will turn out to be the best that we face in 2010.
The secondary has given up several long passes. Most weren’t wide open, and required excellent throws, but the Hawkeyes will face a number of QBs capable of making those passes this season.
We had way too many penalties Saturday. Fortunately, the U of A had more, but this is a problem that has to be fixed. We can’t blame the road game, the noise, or the referees. We have to be more focused.
Kickoff coverage. Something isn’t working, and I haven’t figured out what it is yet. I’m sure the coaching staff is looking at the successful KO returns to see if each is attacking the same spot. Is it possible we’d be better off with shorter kickoffs? I doubt it. We’ve been vulnerable on a couple of them, as well as some longer ones. The touchdown return Saturday night swung the momentum right back to the Wildcats following Iowa’s beautiful 93-yard drive. If we don’t fix this soon, it could soon cost us more games.
Arizona’s fast start was hardly an unavoidable situation. The Wildcats came out fired up and dominant, at least in team spirit. They took early gambles—going for the block on Iowa’s first punt; throwing the long ball—and Iowa didn’t seem to anticipate them. Are we seeing effects of Norm Parker’s absence, or does the staff’s preference for playing a reactive style sometimes backfire? It’s too early to tell, but we may see other teams try to duplicate it—especially Michigan.
When the game-deciding plays were being played at the end of the fourth quarter, it was the home team making them. Last year we fans got accustomed to them going Iowa’s way, at least as long as Ricky was healthy. But sometimes that was possible because our opponents either weren’t as good as us, or got too desperate. We can’t count on that every game. When push came to shove Saturday night, the Wildcats were already confident they were the best team on the field. It turned out they were right that night.
The second-half comeback Saturday showed the Hawkeyes haven’t lost that cool confidence from last season. It wasn’t simply an offensive or defensive comeback, it was a whole team, no reason-to-panic attitude that showed Iowa is still a contender.
Iowa is capable of long, clock-eating, sustained drives, even against an excellent defense (which the Wildcats have), and finishing them. We still have not had to settle for a field goal in the red zone.
Iowa will not play for the national championship in January.
The Hawkeyes, like every other year, need to improve every week, every practice. We have a lot of holes to patch, even if they’re little holes.
We have limitations, even if they are less glaring than recent years. Big, strong, athletic defensive lines may be able to shut down our running game. And injuries may require the staff to burn a redshirt.
We are better when rested. The increased depth on offense and defense has really paid off. In places where we lack depth, noticeably the offensive line. We may see real issues with fatigue in tight games, especially against big D-lines.
A loss is a loss is a loss. How the players respond to this setback will be the main determinant as to how the season goes from here. We can’t afford to take Bowling Green lightly, but we don’t need to be afraid of Penn State. We are capable of winning or losing either contest.
The preseason assessment of how great Iowa’s schedule was can now be thrown away. The schedule has gotten harder with the emergence of Michigan as an offensive powerhouse. The team that scored the most points on the Hawks last season will be capable of putting up 35-50 in the Big House next month, if our defense doesn’t have a truly excellent game, such as it had in the Orange Bowl.
We can’t think road games against Indiana, Northwestern, or Minnesota will be automatic wins, and we need to improve to win those tough Big Ten home games on the schedule.
The fans need to show as much cool as their team. We do not need to panic. If our team improves gradually, getting a little better every week, we should be able to climb back into the top-15 rankings. It will take more improvement to return to the top 10, but neither is out of reach.
I still think the Hawkeyes are one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and capable of beating anyone on their schedule. But they will still have to do it with hard work and discipline. There won’t be any “gimmes.”