Iowa Football: 10 Things Watch for in the Hawkeyes' Opener vs. Tennessee Tech
On Sept. 3, Iowa will kick off the 2011 season against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles of the Ohio Valley Conference.
Something to know about Tennessee Tech: They are not good for an FCS team. They have had two winning seasons in the last 10 years. In 2009, they were 6-5, and in 2001 they were 7-3.
In short, they are not Northern Iowa nor Montana—two recent Iowa FCS foes and two consistently competitive FCS squads.
In effect, there should be no doubt about the conclusion of this game. If Iowa loses or has to keep the starters in beyond the third quarter, then there might be major problems with this Hawkeyes team.
Las Vegas currently has the Hawks giving away 40 points. Frankly, I would take that bet. Iowa rarely wins games by 40 points.
Still, it is safe to assume Iowa will win, and this will be a blowout.
There are still some things one can take from this game. In fact, with all of the new faces in Iowa's lineup, there are tons of things to look for.
The following slideshow will focus on 10 of them.
Tennessee Tech runs an up-tempo spread offense. They rotate in different running backs and spread the ball around to different receivers. Their returning quarterback, junior Tre Lamb, is a dual-threat signal-caller who combined 259 yards rushing with 974 yards passing in 2010.
But the Golden Eagles are not Northwestern, and Tre Lamb is not Dan Persa.
However, the motif of the Hawkeyes' 2010 seemed to be a defense that ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and fell victim to no-huddle offenses.
As previously mentioned, Iowa should not have any problems containing Tennessee Tech's offense. Still, this will be a good way to see how the defense reacts to this sort of O, as both Pitt and Indiana will run a base no-huddle.
Also, Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota will probably incorporate some elements of the no-huddle into their game plan.
The big question here will be, how does the mostly young defensive line hold up after facing six plays in under two minutes?
If they're sucking wind, it's a bad omen. If they're still attacking, that is a good sign—even against inferior competition.
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Here is a little-known fact:
In 418 career touches, erstwhile Iowa running back Adam Robinson had only two fumbles. He was concussed on one of those fumbles, so I think it could fairly be called forgivable.
On the other hand, probable starting tailback Marcus Coker has one fumble in 116 career touches. The only other touches by other current Hawkeye running backs are a single carry by junior Jason White, and 11 carries and two receptions by sophomore fullback Brad Rogers—and Rogers has one fumble.
It is impossible to say how the other backs—all freshmen—are regarding ball security.
Of course, it is safe to say none of them are more dependable than A-Rob was.
I am not in any way attempting give Hawkeye fans a fumble-scare before Iowa plays one game. I am just making the point that Adam Robinson's ability to secure the football was no small part of the success of 2009 and whatever success Iowa had in 2010.
In fact, limiting turnovers is always a key to the Hawkeyes' success, and it is something to watch for when the Hawks take on Tennessee Tech.
Which, if any, backs fumble the ball, and which, if any, backs leave the ball out for an enterprising linebacker to swat free? Because if Tennessee Tech's linebackers don't jump on such opportunities, you can be sure Penn State's linebackers will.
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Iowa has been spoiled by their safety play the last two years. During that time, Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood have roamed the defensive backfield and combined for 16 interceptions.
Following the 2009 Michigan game, teams stopped testing the Hawkeyes over the middle. In fact, I can only remember 2-3 instances since the middle of 2009 when anybody tested the Hawkeye safeties.
One was a perfectly-thrown bomb near the end of the 2010 Arizona game, and the rest were interceptions thrown by Iowa State.
That being as it were, Sash and Greenwood have moved on, and teams will be sure to try their luck again.
This season, Iowa will start junior converted cornerback Micah Hyde at free safety. The strong safety will probably be manned by either junior and former walk-on Collin Sleeper, or fifth-year senior Jordan Bernstine.
The former has never played one single down—even on special teams—in an Iowa uniform. The latter came to Iowa as a 4-star recruit, and has since battled injuries and disappointment.
Pay attention to how Tennessee Tech attacks Iowa over the middle, and more importantly, how Iowa's inexperienced safeties react. If they do get beat, do they bounce back? Do they get suckered in by the play action?
In a bend-don't-break defense, there may be no more important position than safeties who keep everything in front of them.
Brad Rogers may or may not play.
As of now, he is not on the depth chart, and the starting fullback is walk-on, redshirt freshman Matt Meyers. His backup is junior—and converted tight end—Jonathan Gimm.
There is little information out there on Meyers. Gimm is a decent blocker, but he wasn't going to make a huge mark at tight end because he is a lousy receiver.
Word coming out of camp is the Iowa offense is practicing with fewer fullback looks than normal. This is not so much a reflection of Meyers or Gimm as it is a matter of inexperience at the position.
Iowa planned for Rogers to be at fullback, and even if he can play this season, he is no shape to play right now.
Usually, Iowa brings a fullback in on as many as 50 percent of the offensive plays. Ferentz consistently preaches his philosophy of putting his best 11 men on the field, and without Rogers, the fullback is not amongst that group.
There has been a lot of good things said about redshirt freshman receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Furthermore, Iowa fans know how much Ferentz likes to employ tight ends.
Take note of how often the fullback is on the field, as well as how many two and three-tight sets play, and how often we see three-wide.
In this sort of game, where Iowa will go ultra-vanilla, there still might be a lot of fullback looks, but if the Hawks line up three-wide on any first downs, that is a sign that they are moving away from a fullback-heavy offense.
Okay. It's the middle of the third quarter and Iowa has just put up their fifth unanswered score in a row.
The Hawks are now up 38-6.
James Vandenberg takes off his helmet and is done for the day. Another quarterback starts warming up on the sideline.
Is it No. 14, junior John Wienke? Or is it No. 17, redshirt freshman A.J. Derby?
Or even No. 15, true freshman Jake Ruddock?
Whoever is warming up is unlikely to receive snaps at any point this season with the game on the line. If said quarterback does receive meaningful snaps, that means Vandenberg is injured, and I don't care to think about that possibility.
That said, whoever does come in to spell JVB will likely be the No. 2 and will receive all the No. 2 reps in practice.
If it's Wienke, then it means very little. If it's Derby, it means he will have the leg up in the 2013 quarterback battle.
If it's Ruddock, it means he beat out two players with a good deal more experience than him. It also means Derby will probably be changing positions.
Derby would be the first guy off the bench, according to Ferentz on Aug. 30. But that could change with one bad practice.
How's That Punter?
Four-year starting punter Ryan Donahue is gone. In more than 250 career punts, he averaged more than 40 YPP.
He saved his best season for last; as a senior, he had 44.59 YPP.
People tend to forget the punter. Unlike the place kicker, the punter doesn't put points on the board, and he doesn't come in with the game on the line. I don't think any punter in the history of football has ever left a game hoisted on his teammates' shoulders.
Yet, I would go so far as to say Donahue won the 2009 Penn State game for Iowa. And he has been instrumental in putting the Iowa defense in the best possible place to succeed.
In short, it's not coincidence that the 2008-2010 defenses—all top-10 scoring D's—corresponded with Donahue's time as a Hawkeye.
The starting punter this season will be senior Eric Guthrie. It was supposed to be scholarship athlete Jonny Mullings, but Mullings—who is a native Australian—has had trouble shortening his punting motion. In effect, he wasn't one of the 105 players invited to fall camp.
Due to this, the backup punter is also backup quarterback, John Wienke.
As for Guthrie, he has one career punt to his credit—an unremarkable 32-yarder against Iowa State in 2010.
Guthrie has said he doesn't, "expect to be Ryan [Donahue]."
However, Iowa will be working with a rebuilt defense and will need all the help they can get.
The punting game is sure to get some work in against Tennessee Tech. Look to see how Guthrie fares not only in terms of length, but in terms of hang-time and placement as well.
The punter might be the least glorious position on the team, but it will be key this season.
Are the Wide Receivers Getting Open?
My guess is that the Golden Eagles will come out like Arkansas State in 2009. They will put nine in the box on every play, blitz mercilessly, give up man-coverage and dare Iowa's young quarterback to beat them deep.
In that 2009 ASU game, Iowa inexplicably—well, it's explicable if you understand the way Kirk Ferentz rolls—got out to a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter, then shut the offense down, allowing the Red Wolves to catch back up and come within an onside kick and a short drive of winning.
Do I think it will come to that? No; even if Ferentz calls off the dogs prematurely, Iowa should still easily win the game.
But if the Golden Eagles do take this approach, it will be interesting to see how Iowa's offense reacts.
Does the offensive line pick up the blitz? Does JVB react and get the ball off? What audibles are called?
And most importantly, does the mostly young receiving corps read their hot routes, and do they get separation from obviously inferior defensive backs?
Is the Running Back Getting to the Second Level Untouched?
I recall being disappointed with the offensive line play following the 2008 opening game against Maine—a game Iowa won 46-3 and in which they logged 245 rushing yards for 5.57 YPC.
I was disappointed because Shonn Greene had to work too hard for his yards. Against an opponent like Maine, Greene should have been five yards past the line of scrimmage before a Black Bear laid a hand on him.
Instead, he had to struggle to get past the line of scrimmage, and fought for almost every one of his 109 yards and 4.95 YPC.
Of course, I thought Greene looked great.
The next week, Iowa's line looked 10 times better and gave Greene holes I could have gotten through, bad hip and all.
As it turned out, the 2008 line was one of the three best in the Kirk Ferentz era.
Looking toward this season, expectations are high for this line and its five players with significant starting experience.
In effect, as we watch the Hawkeyes play Tennessee Tech, take notice of how hard Marcus Coker has to work for his yards. Take notice of whether he's more successful running over the right side or the left. Take notice of whether James Ferentz is getting to the second level and giving Coker an extra blocker.
A poor performance might mean nothing when one keeps 2008 in mind.
On the other hand, Kirk Ferentz is notorious for tweaking his line up to and in to the Big Ten season.
How Are Iowa's Corners Doing Covering No. 3 Tim Benford?
Tennessee Tech receiver Tim Benford is legit. He is three-time All-Ohio Valley Conference, and if he stays healthy this season, he is likely to break multiple school receiving records.
He was recently named one of the top 10 FCS receivers for 2011, and according to a recent press release, "Much of the Golden Eagles' offense revolves around getting the ball to Benford."
As of last week, the rumor was that sophomore cornerback B.J. Lowery has a broken wrist. As he is not on the Tennessee Tech depth chart, it is safe to assume something is amiss.
In effect, the starter will be junior Greg Castillo.
My opinion on Castillo is he can be a solid cornerback, provided the defensive line is forcing the quarterback to make bad throws. By himself, Castillo is not going to shut down anybody, but on the other hand, he won't miss many tackles.
Basically, think of a junior-senior year Antwan Allen.
The Golden Eagles will look to get Benford matched up with every Iowa player not named Shaun Prater. That means Tennessee Tech will try to get Benford matched up against Castillo or get him in to the slot where he will match up against a linebacker.
How does the linebacker or, particularly, Castillo do? Is the defender getting owned, or is he at least containing Benford? If Castillo gets beat, does he come back on the next play, or does he let Benford get inside his head?
This is a particularly key aspect to Saturday's game, as Castillo is going to get thrown over the coals this season, and there are no two ways about it. If he keeps his head up and plays through rough patches, he could have a productive season.
How's That Kicker?
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Iowa is settled at place kicker with sophomore Mike Meyer back to handle kicking duties.
In the words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend."
During fall camp, Kirk Ferentz made it clear that the kicking position is wide open with three players in heavy competition.
First is Meyer, who made 82.4 percent of his field goals last season. That was the highest percentage of field goals made by an Iowa kicker since Nate Kaeding in 2003 (scary).
Next, is scholarship athlete and senior Trent Mossbrucker, who lost the starting kicking job twice in his career.
Finally, there is true freshman walk-on Marshall Koehn.
Last season, as a walk-on, Meyer surprised a lot of people by burning his redshirt the first game. This was despite the fact that Iowa already had two kickers on scholarship—Mossbrucker and Daniel Murray.
Meyer did not begin the season as the starting place kicker. Rather, he handled kickoff duties. However, Meyer took over place kicking after Mossbrucker botched an extra point in the Arizona game.
So, here we are. Could it be three different place kickers in three consecutive seasons, while none of the place kickers in question were or are seniors?
We'll see on Sept. 3, but for now, who's handling field goals? Who's handling extra points? Who's handling kickoffs?
Remember the good old days when Kaeding was Mr. Automatic?