After months of debating, posturing and postulating, the Big Ten conference season is finally upon us. All of the talk about challenging Ohio State for the conference crown will be put to the test on the field of battle.
Has the out-of-conference (OOC) schedule done enough to prepare Iowa for that test? Should the season thus far encourage Hawkeye fans about their chances of a conference titile, or should they be discouraged?
Up first on the conference docket is Penn State. The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions have a budding rivalry in the works, thanks largely to Iowa's upset of the Lions in 2008 that ended Penn State's run at the National Title.
It goes back much farther than that, though. Dating back to 1996, Iowa has won 9 of the last 11 (courtesy the Gazette.com) meetings between these two programs. Iowa also won five straight between 2000 and 2004.
Let's look at how the Hawks have prepared for the latest installment of this contest:
The Run Game
Iowa's run game is hardly the most prolific in the Big Ten. In fact, they currently rank 7th in the conference, averaging 184.75 yards per game and 4.65 yards per carry.
This is a unit that's been tried by fire, though. Coming into the season, the Hawkeyes expected to have three talented and experienced backs. By the time the first kick was airborne, they were already down to two as sophomore Brandon Wegher left the team for "personal reasons".
Two weeks ago, sophomore Jewel Hampton injured a knee severely enough to take him out of the rest of the 2010 season, and knocking Iowa down to just one experienced tailback. Last week, fans were anxiously waiting to see who might step up to help sophomore Adam Robinson carry the ball, and how good they would be.
Freshmen Brad Rogers and Marcus Coker stepped into the game against Ball State, and both were impressive. Rogers has nine carries this year for 66 yards (7.33 ave.) and Coker has logged ten carries for 60 yards (6.0 ave.).
While Rogers and Coker have had scant experience against quality defenses (Coker has none at all), they won't be a letdown for the unit. Particularly important is that Rogers is a big, bruising back that can hammer out yards even when the offensive line fails to give him much room to run.
Softer run defenses like Michigan's (8th in the conference), Indiana (10th), and Minnesota's (11th) will find it difficult to stop Iowa's trio of backs. Even Penn State (7th) shouldn't have a particularly easy day stopping Iowa's backs in their tracks.
One of the most important things to come out of the OOC schedule is the knowledge that Iowa has depth at one of its most important positions. They may never lead the conference in rushing yards, but they won't be without a quality runner that can take pressure off of Ricky Stanzi and the pass game.
It's still worth noting that quality defensive lines like the one Iowa encountered in Arizona can severely hamper Iowa's ground attack.
The Air Attack
Thanks to Arizona taking a quick 14-0 lead a couple of weeks ago, the Hawks had to go almost exclusively to their pass game. That can be a little misleading, though.
In fact, Iowa only passed the ball seven more times in that game than they did against Eastern Illinois in their opener (which Iowa won 37-7), and only four more than they did in their most recent win over Ball State (45-0). The 34-27 loss had very little to do with Iowa's pass game.
The Hawkeyes are 4th in the conference in passing offense. Behind the play of senior Ricky Stanzi, Iowa is averaging 261 yards per game with ten touchdowns and only one interception.
That last bit is the biggest news to come out of the early season. Over the last two years, Stanzi has been alternately brilliant and idiotic. Last year, he had 17 touchdowns, but also tossed 15 interceptions. The year before that, the numbers were 14 and 9, respectively.
Stanzi engineered brilliant comebacks against teams like Indiana, and awe-inspiring finishes like the final seconds of the Michigan State game. On the other hand, it was most often Stanzi who put Iowa in those positions to begin with.
This year, he has been smart, effective, and protective of the football. Opposing defenses shouldn't come into their matches with Iowa thinking that they'll walk away with a pick or two.
Penn State will be the first to test that theory, bringing the conference's best pass defense into Kinnick Stadium. The Nittany Lions allow just 158.5 yards per game through the air and have five interceptions to counter the four touchdowns they've allowed.
Indiana also has had a potent pass defense. The Hoosiers have allowed an average of only 161.3 yards per game and have three interceptions to go along with five touchdowns allowed.
Other than those teams and Ohio State, there are few defenses in the conference that should give Stanzi and his coaches much pause. He'll need to remain as focused as he's been thus far, but if the first four games are any indication, Stanzi has finally grown into the kind of quarterback Iowa fans always knew he could be.
There's still work to be done, and the offensive line still needs some work to offer him the kind of protection he needs, but Iowa's pass attack is in good hands.
Coming into the year, this was the most celebrated unit on the Hawkeye squad. Adrian Clayborn was nominated a preseason All-American and he, along with his fellow linemen, have been talked about as one of the stiffest units in the country.
So far, they haven't disappointed.
The Hawkeyes are third in the conference against the pass, allowing 162 yards per game and picking up five interceptions to only four touchdowns allowed. Despite losing Amari Spevey to the pros, Iowa hasn't lost much on that front.
If the pass defense has been good to this point however, the run defense has been phenomenal. The Hawkeyes lead the Big Ten in run defense, allowing only 65.5 yards per game, and have yet to give up a touchdown on the ground.
Senior Jeff Tarpinian has lead the way in tackles, picking up 12 solo and 32 total. Mike Daniels leads the way in sacks with three, but four more Hawkeyes are on the board with one each. Daniels has also been getting great penetration into the backfield, logging 7.5 tackles for loss.
Again, the score of the Arizona game (the most points allowed by Iowa this year) is a little misleading. Seven points came as a result of a pick-six and seven more came on a kick return. Only 20 points were allowed by the defense, and even that doesn't really give a clear picture. Yet one more touchdown came after a blocked punt gave Arizona the ball firmly in the Red Zone.
Adrian Clayborn hasn't had the numbers many people expected, he's faced double and triple teams on virtually every play. The rest of the defense has at least done their part to ensure that the team production doesn't slump.
Iowa has the best statistical defense in the conference going into league play. Allowing only 227.5 yards per game, they lead the pack and give Hawkeye fans good reason to believe that their team will be in the thick of every game they play this year.
This may be the area of biggest concern for Iowa. As with most of their Big Ten counterparts, the Hawkeyes haven't exactly scheduled an OOC slate full of heavy hitters.
Eastern Illinois and Ball State are about as soft as you could ask for without digging deep into the FCS pool for warm bodies. Eastern Illinois is an FCS opponent, and not a championship hopeful, at that. Ball State may be FBS, but they lost to Liberty...Liberty.
Iowa State was likely a tougher opponent than they may appear right at the moment. Iowa slaughtered them 35-7, but they dropped a close one to Kansas State (27-20) and handily managed Northern Iowa (27-0) and Northern Illinois (27-10). They at least have a pulse and could still turn out to be a quality win that sparks interest outside of the state of Iowa.
Arizona was the one, true quality opponent and the Hawkeyes shot themselves in the foot. They dropped that game 34-27. The first half was marred by special teams miscues, offensive blunders, and unfortunate penalties.
However, Iowa did mount a 20-point turnaround in the second half and made a good game out of an ugly blowout.
Putting the Pieces Together
Consider these observations:
While Michigan boasts Denard Robinson and a high-octane offense, their defense is still suspect as evident by their 42-37 escape of Massachusetts and their 28-24 scrape by a Notre Dame team that's 1-3.
Penn State's offense isn't up to speed. They were thwarted by Alabama and looked less than impressive in wins over Kent State and Temple.
Wisconsin hasn't been perfect either. They're record says they are, but they needed a blocked extra point to get past Arizona State and didn't exactly blow out either UNLV or San Jose State. Okay, those aren't necessarily reasons to get super excited, but there have been flaws, and their schedule has been suspect.. This weekend will tell us more about the Badgers.
Michigan State needed last second heroics to get by Notre Dame and hasn't played anybody to get excited about otherwise.
Northwestern barely escaped arguably the worst team in the SEC and hasn't played anyone else to worry too much about.
Minnesota has been downright awful.
If the Hawkeyes take what they learned against Arizona (and subsequently used well against Ball State), there's no reason to believe that anything has really changed with their plans of winning the Big Ten title. There's no reason to believe they can't achieve that goal either.
Iowa has a solid run game, even if it isn't the best in the conference. Their pass attack has been solid and their defense has been exceptional.
It all starts with Penn State visiting Kinnick Stadium this weekend. The Chase for the Crown is on, and Iowa still has great reason to believe that they'll be in the thick of the hunt!