With the regular season over, Iowa Hawkeyes fans look at their 7-5 team and are still asking the same questions they had following the team's overtime loss to in-state rival Iowa State: Who is this team and how good can they be?
Is this the defense that held Michigan—the second-best scoring offense in the Big Ten—to its second-lowest point total of the season?
Is this the defense that allowed multiple mediocre quarterbacks to have their best games of the season?
Is this the offense that averaged 34.29 points per game through its first seven games?
Is this the offense that embarrassed itself against Nebraska, the eighth-ranked scoring defense in the Big Ten leading up to the game?
There are no answers to these questions. The only thing we know is that the Iowa Hawkeyes are 7-5, and will be going to the Insight Bowl or Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas (there is no way the Gator Bowl will pass up Ohio State given Urban Meyer's imminent hiring as the head coach of the Bucks).
In other words, regardless of what Iowa could have been, history will write this team down as mediocre, and there is nothing that will change that.
However, one can look at the various pieces and assess what went wrong, what went right and what needs to change in order for the Hawks to have a more successful future.
When James Vandenberg is hot, he is as good as any quarterback in the nation.
Just as importantly as the fireworks, when JVB isn't hot, he still manages to avoid turnovers. This is key to Iowa's offense.
JVB didn't get much better as the season progressed, and his worst game was his last game. He continued to have the same troubles with the same things, and better defenses didn't have problems confusing him.
Most notably, JVB panicked when his first read was covered—that first read was often Marvin McNutt. Part of the reason Vandenberg had such troubles with Nebraska was because the Huskers doubled up on McNutt all game.
What will JVB do next season when McNutt is plying his wares in the NFL?
Moreover, Vandy never got entirely comfortable under center or throwing on the run. These are necessities in Iowa's offense, and after 14 starts and four years in the system, he should be past these issues. If he cannot get past these issues, then Iowa has to consider switching to a shotgun offense (unlikely) or reassess who will be under center next season.
Quite simply, when Vandenberg isn't hot, he is stone cold. See the Nebraska game for evidence.
Once Coker got comfortable, he emerged as one of the best backs in the Big Ten. Looking toward next season, he will be one of the three best backs in the conference. He will be better when he can keep his legs fresh due to depth that Iowa was lacking this season.
The Hawks didn't establish depth. McCall was No. 2 coming out of camp, but he missed development time due to a broken ankle. Bowl practices will help.
It was also evident that Kirk Ferentz never had much trust in Jordan Canzeri, De'Andre Johnson or Damon Bullock. Otherwise, they would have had more than 35 combined carries this season.
The lack of depth and the effect the wear and tear had on Marcus Coker were palpable against Nebraska.
Injuries, injuries and more injuries.
Can the Hawks really get through this offseason without any injuries, transfers or any other issues with its running backs?
This position settled down once Brad Rogers returned to action. It was particularly impressive that he got back into shape so quickly—after all, he did miss nine months of training.
One of the best things about Rogers is how he embraces his role as a roving blocker. Keep in mind he came to Iowa with the intention of challenging for the tailback position.
Rogers is versatile enough that coaches can put the ball in his hands. I would love to see that happen, and it is a missed opportunity that he is strictly used as blocker.
The early season fullback play was not pretty. It wasn't Jonathan Gimm's or Matt Meyer's fault. They were inexperienced and new to the position—Gimm had been a tight end while Meyer came to the Hawks as a linebacker—and in Meyer's case, he was undersized.
That said, one can't overlook the timing of Marcus Coker's emergence and Brad Rogers' return to the starting lineup.
McNutt, McNutt and McNutt.
Even better than McNutt himself was offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe's finding ways to get the ball into his best playmaker's hands. It's easy to get the ball into the hands of a big-time running back, but a wide receiver is a different story. O'Keefe got him the ball, which was great to see.
Through the first four games, Iowa had three viable receiving options, all of which finished September amongst the leaders in most conference receiving categories.
During the conference slate, third receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley only had 14 catches for 121 yards, which was half of his reception totals and less than half of his yardage totals on the season. Meanwhile, No. 2 receiver Keenan Davis had 26 receptions for 351 yards. Davis dealt with injuries, but one would have liked to have seen the ball spread around a little more.
Drops, drops and more drops.
Even McNutt seemed to have at least 1-2 drops per game. A receiver has to catch every ball he can get his hands on. End of story.
This was the least-productive year for Iowa tight ends in the history of the Ferentz era. It's as simple as that.
Drops, drops and more drops.
Early in the year, senior Brad Herman and junior Zach Derby seemed about a 50/50 chance of catching balls thrown their way.
This group improved as the season went on, which is something we've come to expect from Ferentz-coached lines.
Particularly impressive was the improved play of juniors James Ferentz and Matt Tobin, and senior Markus Zusevics. They all played, by far, their best football at the end of the year; Zusevics probably played his way into the NFL draft.
The emergence of redshirt freshman Brandon Scherff also helps prepare Iowa for next season.
Early-season issues with the blitz were problematic. This is something Iowa regularly struggles with. It was not entirely on the line, but it certainly played a part.
Nolan MacMillan's injury. Will he ever get healthy?
I might be going out on a limb, but if he had been healthy the Hawks could have vied with Wisconsin for the best line in the conference.
Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels played like seniors.
Binns, in particular, erased any lingering doubts about why he lost the starting job last season. From the Michigan game forward, he played All-Conference football.
There is no dancing around the fact that this was the worst line since 2005. Injuries hurt,—Daniels was not 100 percent much of the season—but this group got pushed around more often than we've seen an Iowa D-line get pushed around in a long while.
Complicating the matter, it took the Iowa coaches too much time to wake up and accept the line's limitations.
They started dialing up blitzes later in season, but earlier, they consistently expected the front four to generate a pass-rush that they were physically unable to manage.
Subbing in defensive backs on obvious passing downs would have helped the pass-rush out tremendously as well.
Their play was lackluster, but they were young (the Hawks started two true sophomores). Remember, Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway didn't start until their third year on campus. Pat Angerer didn't start until his fourth year.
Health issues also have to be taken into consideration, particularly those of James Morris and Tyler Nielsen. Moreover, Morris' switch from the middle to the weak-side was a good move.
Overall, there was a substantial learning curve for this bunch, but the future is bright.
Excuses, excuses. Their play was still lackluster.
This year marked the worst play by Iowa linebackers since 2006—the year after Hodge and Greenway graduated. Sloppy tackling and poor outside containment were particularly evident.
They were asked to do things most linebackers are physically unable to do. In 3rd and 4th-and-long—obvious passing downs—there is no advantage to leaving the linebackers in to cover running backs or wide receivers. They will lose that matchup every time.
Sophomore B.J. Lowery played well in spot duty (with a cast on his arm), and he should be able to jump into a starting job next season.
I'm not going to candy-coat it: Shaun Prater had a terrible season for a senior and a three-year starter.
Meanwhile, junior Marcus Hyde was inconsistent. He had some great games (Northwestern) followed by head-scratchers (Michigan State). One would like to see more consistency from upperclassmen.
Part of the problem is the scheme. Norm Parker gives 7-10-foot cushions on 3rd-and-7 type downs. That makes it nearly impossible for defensive backs to make a play. This was complicated by a weak pass-rush.
At points in the Ferentz era, Iowa corners have needed that cushion because they were physically-limited players.
However, the current Iowa corners can play on an island if need be.
By the end of the season, these were not only the most consistent players on the defense—along with Broderick Binns—but on the entire team.
After four years of injuries and disappointments, Jordan Bernstine may have played himself into a late-round draft pick. At the very least, he'll sign with a team as a free agent, which is great to see for a guy who stuck with the program through thick and thin.
Meanwhile, the casual fan could see the improvement in Tanner Miller as the season progressed. Hawk fans have to be very excited about his prospects for the future.
Don't have much to say here. Overall, the safety play was solid from the Pitt game forward. It wasn't perfect, but any issues the safeties had were understandable given that they were both first-year starters.
Sometimes, I wonder what the Iowa coaches see.
Specifically, it was obvious Bernstine should have been starting from the second he stepped on the field in a relief role against Tennessee Tech. He would have started in the second game against Iowa State had it not been for strep throat.
The question is, why wasn't Bernstine starting from Day 1?
I was worried about Eric Guthrie stepping into erstwhile Hawk punter Ryan Donahue's shoes. However, Guthrie did a great job. He wasn't quite as good as Donahue, but he was close.
Field goal kicker Mike Meyer started off the season great. He went 11-for-13 on field goals through the first seven games.
Unfortunately, Meyer didn't finish the season very well. He went 2-of-6 on field goals through the final five games. His inability to kick the ball into the end zone on kickoffs was disturbing as well.
The kickoff return coverage was inconsistent, and Micah Hyde was not a good punt returner. It's hard to believe the Hawks had no other options.
As previously mentioned, O'Keefe got the ball into the hands of his best playmaker—receiver Marvin McNutt (outside of the Nebraska game). That is easier said than done in Iowa's system.
What happened to the hurry-up offense that Iowa was flirting with early in the season?
Also, on obvious passing downs, JVB should be in the shotgun—not only because he should be in the gun anyway but because he is more comfortable in the gun. This would also help with his blitz recognition and his skittishness.
The Iowa two-minute offense continues to embarrass itself.
Furthermore, when Vandenberg struggles to get into a rhythm, O'Keefe has to dial up some plays that will help him get comfortable. Unfortunately, O'Keefe has never been a quarterback-friendly offensive coordinator. (See the Nebraska or Penn State games for specific evidence of this.)
Iowa began to dial up blitzes to adjust to the pressure the D-line couldn't provide. The Hawks blitzed more than they ever have under Kirk Ferentz/Norm Parker.
It's not a good thing by itself, but it is a good thing because it showed a recognition and reaction to what was happening on the field, and an adjustment to the limitations and strengths of available personnel.
Most importantly, the defense improved as the year went on. Regardless what the scoreboard said, the D played its two best games at the end of the year against Purdue and Nebraska. The Michigan game also deserves recognition; those were three of the final four games of the year.
This is not the Big Ten of 2000, let alone 1980. Quarterbacks can complete 7-10-yard passes with regularity.
Quarterbacks are much more patient and accurate than they used to be. The bend-don't-break defense can work, but not the way it used to and not without the right personnel. Iowa has to make adjustments—not an overhaul—to its core defensive philosophy, particularly when it doesn't have the players it needs.
Linebackers in on obvious passing downs—this almost always turns out poorly. There is no reason for this. Iowa has able defensive backs. Use them.
There were some adjustments this season in comparison to last season where there were none.
As previously mentioned, the Hawks dialed up a lot of blitzes, went pass-first in order to open up the running game, were occasionally aggressive—going for it on fourth downs—and did some things that would have shocked Iowa fans three years ago.
Baby steps, right?
Repeatedly sitting on the ball with more than one minute to go before halftime is so riddled with issues that I'm not sure where to start.
However, let's start with these two: Ferentz is conceding a possession by sitting on the ball. Points are not scored due to time of possession, but by number of possessions. Ferentz gives a possession away on a semi-regular basis. Are the chances of a turnover that great that he can't at least try to run his regular offense—which includes passing?
Or is he conceding that Ken O'Keefe can't run a hurry-up offense, and this is a shortcoming of his offensive coordinator that he is willing to accept?
Secondly, early-season practice in a hurry-up offense might help the team out when it has to run the aforementioned embarrassing two-minute O.
The special teams' continued woes are inexcusable and fall directly at the feet of the coaches. Ferentz will never be able to field more than a mediocre team without becoming a more aggressive, offense-minded coach (unlikely) or fielding consistently top-notch special teams.
Ferentz has to identify the problem immediately (I have my own ideas) and fix it.
Lastly, the Hawkeyes' failure to show up for games—Minnesota, Nebraska—is entirely on the coach. A coach who is known for his stoicism shouldn't have as Jekyll-and-Hyde a team as Kirk Ferentz has.
As previously mentioned, the defense got better as the season progressed.
It was also good to see the development of Jordan Bernstine and Thomas Nardo. They are the type of players whom Ferentz's program was built on—upperclassmen who stay the course and make big contributions in their last year or two.
Speaking of contributions, one couldn't ask for more from Marcus Coker. I read and heard some fans comment about how he wasn't getting it done against Nebraska. They were failing to take into account how exhausted he was; Coker handled 71.8 percent of Iowa's carries on the season. No other Big Ten team came close to putting that large a burden on one running back.
Finally, watching Marvin McNutt go from a backup quarterback to an NFL-ready receiver has been a pleasure. He is the best receiver to ever wear the black and gold. He is also proof that Iowa can develop players at any position, though quarterback is still up for debate.
Part of the issue with the defensive line and with Marcus Coker's fatigue concerns attrition. Consider how many running backs have transferred over the past few years.
The number of non-running back transfers is less well-covered, but consider this name: Dezman Moses. He came to Iowa in 2007. He transferred in 2009. This season, he led Tulane with 9.5 sacks.
Think he wouldn't have helped out the pass-rush?
Marvin McNutt set multiple single-season receiving records this year. Coker had the fourth-most productive rushing season in Iowa history. James Vandenberg was inconsistent, but he will finish the year as the third-most efficient passer in the conference.
The defense was a work in progress, but it did improve and played well enough to compete in its final five games.
The 2011 Hawkeyes also played a soft schedule.
In short, Iowa had enough to win eight or more games.
Rob Howe, of Hawkeyeinsider.com, said, "The Hawkeyes have become...a team that plays so conservatively that it needs breaks," similar to 2009 in order to win. Without those breaks, Iowa is and has been a mediocre team and program.
I'm not going to sugar-coat it. Yes, Iowa is going to a bowl and yes, 7-5 is better than 5-7, and I am thankful for those things.
But 54-34 over the last seven years isn't good enough. Waiting around for pinball interceptions like 2009 isn't good enough. This program can do better.