Big 10 Football 2011: 10 Keys to Iowa Hawkeyes Winning a Conference Championship
There appears to be an element of luck in every championship season.
In football, the whole year may turn on one dropped pass, one interception or one kick that bounces off the upright denying a game-winning field goal.
The outcome of any contest can rise and fall on the failure to gain an inch on the ground.
Iowa, whose championship season in 2010 fell short of the mark, played seven ranked opponents during 2010, a record for any Kirk Ferentz coached team.
In each of Iowa's five losses the Hawkeyes were leading or tied for the lead in the fourth quarter.
Moreover, Iowa's five losses totaled 18 points––the four Big Ten losses were by 11 points.
Luck was not with them in 2010––or maybe the losses came because a combination of factors kept the Hawkeyes on their collective back foot, unable to close out the game.
After all, luck remains an intangible no one can count on.
For Iowa to contend for the Big Ten 2011 Championship, however, the Hawkeyes need the following key ingredients for success on the gridiron in the newly aligned Big Ten along with a pinch of good fortune:
Key No. 10: Stable Coaching Staff
With the split of the Big Ten into two divisions–the Legends and the Leaders–as well as the admission of Nebraska into the Conference, the entire mindset of the Big Ten shifted.
To date, nine different full-time football coaching assistants have taken exact or similar positions with different schools in the Big Ten. Even part-time or coaching interns are following suit.
It makes sense that head coaches are hoping to gain some advantage by hiring coaches who know their rivals best.
While there is much upheaval in all of the Big Ten coaching ranks with new head coaches at Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan and new assistant coaches everywhere––Iowa and Penn State have retained their coaching staffs intact.
Iowa’s coaching stability is one of the reasons the Hawkeyes do well year after year. Iowa recruits players and builds them from the ground up to fit into Iowa’s system, if necessary.
Iowa coaches can do more with less because they know exactly what they need and how to get from there to here.
Coaching stability remains a key to Iowa's success.
Key No. 9: Big Ten Schedule
Iowa is a member of the Legend’s Division.
In 2011, the Hawkeyes play three of their intra-divisional rivals–Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State in Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Iowa must face Legend rivals Minnesota and Nebraska on the road.
The Hawkeye's cross-over contests in the Big Ten find Iowa challenging Leaders Penn State in Happy Valley, Purdue in West Lafayette and Indiana at home in Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes, however, do not have to face Ohio State or Wisconsin in 2011 unless Iowa meets the Buckeyes or the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship game.
Co-Legend Nebraska was dealt a hellish schedule to start out their campaign in the Big Ten.
Michigan and Michigan State also received few scheduling breaks. Both must face Ohio State, Nebraska and each other. Additionally, Michigan State must face Wisconsin.
While no game will be easy, Iowa has an increased chance for doing very well because of a favorable football schedule.
This turn of events is another key to Iowa's chance for success in 2011.
Key No. 8: Norm Parker
It was not a stellar season for Iowa’s defense because of key personnel losses from the 2009 squad and because of injuries.
That extended to Iowa’s coaching staff as well as to those guys on the field and sitting on the bench.
Iowa’s legendary defensive coordinator Norm Parker finally succumbed to the diabetes that had plagued him for years. Less than two weeks into the season, Parker was hospitalized.
He had his right foot amputated and spent the majority of the season in bed or rehabilitating.
Parker was not there on the field to gauge his players, to make instantaneous adjustments and realign players and formations as injuries occurred.
Granted, a very capable staff carried out those jobs in Parker's absence.
A great part of the magic of Iowa’s defense, however, comes from Parker who has led Iowa for the past 12 years.
Parker will be back in 2011, completely healed and ready to go again.
This is a big positive for the Iowa program.
Key No. 7: 2011 Recruiting Class
According to Athlon Sports, Iowa finished third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Nebraska in terms of rating their recruiting efforts for the 2011 season.
The Athlon sporting giant gave kudos to running back Rodney Coe out of Illinois, as well as offensive linesmen Jordon Walsh and Austin Blythe hailing from Illinois and Iowa respectively.
Finally they applauded the recruitment of Ray Hamilton, tight end, out of Ohio.
Athlon goes on to suggest that this recruiting class might be Coach Kirk Ferentz’s best since 2005.
ESPN gave Coach Ferentz and staff a “B-” grade overall, tying them with five other Big Ten squads for third place.
Even so ESPN accorded Iowa the No. 6 spot on their Big Ten list.
The media giant pointed to Jordan Walsh as an inside guard as well to running back Rodney Coe as big pluses for the Hawkeyes.
ESPN suggested that Iowa football fans keep an eye on Jake Rudock, a quarterback prospect.
Overall they felt Iowa had a balanced blue-collar field of recruits for 2011.
The Sporting News tabbed Iowa’s recruits as second best in the Big Ten early on.
This newest recruiting class could well be a key to Iowa's success in 2011.
Key No. 6: The Kicking Game
Iowa suffered a big loss when punter Ryan Donahue graduated. He will undoubtedly be selected in the sixth or seventh round of the NFL Draft.
Filling his shoes will be a top priority for the Hawkeyes. So far it looks like Donahue’s replacement may be Eric Guthrie, who like QB James Vandenberg, has been waiting in the wings for a chance at the starting job.
It might also be time to take a look at sophomore Jonny Mullings.
Daniel Murray who looked forward to a stellar senior season along with Donahue instead found his season dead in the water before getting a chance to put one football through the upright.
During practice Murray injured his right hip flexor where it intersects with his quad muscle. The injury persisted through the entire season, rendering the frustrated Murray unable to compete.
At first red-shirted Trent Mossbrucker stepped in to handle PATs but when his fourteenth got blocked, Ferentz turned to freshman Mike Meyer to handle kicking duties for the Hawkeyes.
Scoring 31 PATs and putting through 14 field goals, Meyer returns as the Hawkeye’s experienced kicker for 2011.
No football team, however, can succeed without an adequate punting game so replacing Donahue will be a key in determining Iowa’s ability to climb to the top of the Big Ten.
Key No. 5: The Receiving Corps
True, wide receiver Derrell Johnson Koulianos left Iowa with his reputation in tatters–sad ending for such a successful career as Iowa’s leading pass receiver.
Still Marvin McNutt who had 53 receptions for 861 yards while scoring eight touchdowns remains for the 2011 season.
Senior tight end Brad Herman also returns as well as junior wide receiver Keenan Davis.
Iowa has always produced outstanding tight ends since the early days of Hayden Fry who stood his tight ends upright on the line.
The first successful product from that formation was Marv Cook who played at Iowa from 1985-1988. Cook played for New England where he enjoyed a stand out pro career.
Who can forget that Dallas Clark played that same position for Iowa from 2000-2002. He also went on to play in the pros.
Scott Chandler, Brandon Myers and Tony Moeaki followed in short order.
At the end of the 2010 season, Iowa lost Allen Reisner as their primary tight end. Will the next in line be Brad Herman who comes back for his senior season or C.J. Fiedorowicz or Zach Derby? Perhaps newcomer Ray Hamilton be the next big tight end for the Hawkeyes.
Outstanding play at tight end has been a key to Iowa's success since the Hayden Fry era.
The clutch receiving game will be a key again in 2011.
Key No. 4: The Offensive Line
Starting the 2010 season, Iowa’s offensive line was a huge question mark. The incoming unit was untested with little experience.
The offensive line's success was a critical factor for running backs and the quarterback in the pocket to do their job and carry out their assignments.
But the unit jelled under the watchful eye of Kirk Ferentz and became a real asset to quarterback Stanzi and running back Adam Robinson and later Marcus Coker.
The fact that this “O” line is now tested and proven will be a real asset for the Hawkeyes offense in 2011.
With returning starters James Ferentz, Adam Gettis, Riley Reiff and Marcus Zusevics recharged and confident, the running game will improve as well as pass protection for Vandenberg.
Also Iowa has some quality recruits waiting in the wings like Andrew Donnal and Nolan MacMillan hoping for their turn in the starting rotation.
There are also some high quality recruits coming into Iowa City in 2011.
The "O" line is a definite key to Iowa's success on the gridiron next season.
Key No. 3: The Running Backs
For Iowa football, a good offense relies heavily on a solid running game.
Iowa received a blow at running back at the start of the 2010 season when former freshman standout Brandon Wegher dropped from their ranks.
Wegher along with Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton were all scheduled to run the ball for the top-rated Iowa Hawkeyes during the 2010 campaign.
Wegher never participated throughout the 2010 season and eventually transferred. Hampton got hurt again and he, too, transferred. After an unfortunate series of events, powerful running back Adam Robinson was dismissed from the team.
All of this led to the entrance of Marcus Coker at the end of the season after Robinson got hurt serving as Iowa’s workhorse in the backfield for most of the season.
Coker had an immediate impact and emerged as the hope of the future––starring as Iowa’s premiere starting running back.
Coker is big, powerful and effective. The running back will steady his new starting quarterback, much as Shonn Greene did for Ricky Stanzi when the quarterback took over the Hawkeye helm in 2008.
Coker will be aided in the backfield by some first class recruits and some reserves who will be looking to make their mark during spring practice.
In order to succeed, Iowa will need the running game to be strong again in 2011.
Key No. 2: The Quarterback
Remember James Vandenberg?
Remember that when Ricky Stanzi got hurt during the first quarter of the Northwestern game in 2009, then freshman Vandenberg came in to finish that game for Iowa’s first loss of the season?
Remember that Vandenberg came back the next week and almost upset Ohio State in Columbus with Iowa losing to the Buckeyes in overtime?
Vandenberg saw very little action in 2010. In total, the QB had eight pass attempts in the whole season.
He managed to get into games against Eastern Illinois, Iowa State and Ball State.
This year, he will be given the reins to lead Iowa into the new “Legend” Division of the Big Ten.
After two full seasons of standing in behind Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi, junior Vandenberg finally gets his chance to lead the Hawkeyes.
How quickly he adapts to secure his place as the on-field leader will be a key to the success of the Iowa team in 2011.
On the sidelines behind Stanzi, Vandenberg had to learn a great deal about what it takes to be a winner.
Backing up Vandenberg will be other aspiring starters hoping for a chance to lead this team––quarterbacks like John Wienke and A.J. Derby and maybe even new recruit Jake Rudock.
They will keep Vandenberg on his toes, improving and pushing Iowa forward. The Keokuk native has proven he has the tools with a great arm, quick release and good decision-making.
Now the junior quarterback must apply these skills to advance Iowa’s place in the Big Ten standings week after week.
Key No. 1: The Defense
Regardless of how many times you may have heard it, it is true, nonetheless. Defense wins games and secures conference championships.
The best way to score more points than the opposition is to keep the opposition from scoring any.
That was the mantra of Norm Parker and the defensive juggernaut employed in 2009. That same blistering defense failed to materialize in 2010, missing just a couple of sparks at the linebacker spot and with Norm on the sidelines as well.
In 2011 there will be huge holes, no doubt about it. Gone will be DE All-American Adrian Clayborn, along with perennial starter and stalwart DE/DT Christian Ballard.
The backfield will be vacated with safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood departed for the NFL.
Those are some huge football cleats to fill. But in order for Iowa to compete for the division title and a conference championship, big “D” must lead the way.
Broderick Binns will be back. The big guy saved Iowa’s proverbial bacon by blocking a field goal against Northern Iowa in the opening game of 2009. Last year he managed to return an interception for a touchdown, forced a fumbled and knocked down a couple of low-flying opposition passes.
Tackle Mike Daniels will also return after gaining some valuable playing experience in 2010, garnering four sacks and 40 tackles in a reserve role.
Expect spring practice to build reserves Lebron Daniel and Steve Bigach, testing their strength and stamina to play on Iowa’s front lines.
Key No. 1: The Defense (Part 2)
The linebacker spot never quite lived up to the Pat Angerer level in 2010.
Expect Iowa, however, to be stronger in 2011—hopefully without the plague of injuries that kept the linebacker corps out of balance most of the year.
Even though Iowa lost Jeremiha Hunter and Jeff Tarpinian, James Morris will be back healthy again along with Tyler Nielsen to build the linebacker spot back to legendary status again.
Then too, Bruce Davis (ACL) and Tyler Nielsen (broken vertebrae) will return from injury. James Morris likely will keep the No. 1 spot at middle linebacker. Shane DiBona might factor in and Christian Kirksey also could play a role.
The safety spots will start out glaringly empty during spring practice without Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood.
But expect Iowa to be creative in filling those critical spots with top-rated athletes including, perhaps, some top recruits like Nico Law. Tanner Miller and maybe Anthony Hitchens might also be Iowa’s safeties in 2011. This last gap of the secondary will be the trickiest part of the puzzle to fit into Iowa’s defense.
Corner spots should be well taken care of with Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde, who combined for seven interceptions in 2010. Hyde was second on the team with 70 tackles.
You cannot underestimate the importance of Iowa’s defense—nor will Iowa. The defense will need to be steady as a rock once again in 2011 for Iowa to vie for the Conference top spot. It is the No. 1 key.