After a distraction-filled bye week, the Iowa football team is anxious to move on. Preparing for an opponent is actually a return to normalcy for the Hawkeyes after a busy bye week off the field. First came the injury which will sideline back-up running back LeShun Daniels for the next six weeks. Then, starting linebacker Reggie Spearman was charged with OWI after Iowa City police pulled over the scooter he was driving because he didn't have a safety flag on the back of it. Follow that up with reserve receiver Derrick Willies' decision Monday to leave the program and suddenly, the prospects of practice, meetings and watching game tape of Northwestern sounds pretty good. "We have to move forward,'' running back Mark Weisman said. "You can't let anything bother you. Just put your head down and get ready for the next game. That's the way you have to approach things.'' Linebacker Quinton Alston agreed, saying a return to the practice field Tuesday provided the Hawkeyes with a chance to forge ahead as the team prepares for the most important month of the season. "It's not going to be all gloom and doom around here. I won't let that happen,'' linebacker Quinton Alston said. "We've got a lot to play for, a lot of good things that can happen. That's where we need to be focused.'' Alston believes Iowa grew during its bye week. He said that growth will need to carry over to games starting Saturday against Northwestern. "It's about making the most of what you have with who you have,'' Alston said. "We're not going to let a couple of speed bumps knock us off the road. We're going to keep battling each week and see where it takes us.''
Derrick Willies caught the attention of Iowa football fans with a couple of athletic catches and moves during public practices last spring. The redshirt freshman caught the eye of his coaches with the growth he showed during the Hawkeyes' 15 spring practices. It all helped Willies position himself for a spot on the depth chart this fall as a redshirt freshman, part of a collection of talented wide receivers who arrived at Iowa in the fall of 2013 and made an immediate impression with their skills. Those raw skills provide potential and that led Willies to opportunities that very few redshirt freshmen have - a chance to contribute to a Big Ten football program that is one win away from securing its 13th bowl berth in 14 years. Playing time at Iowa is earned, and reliable blocking and consistent route running are part of the equation. Willies saw the field, a measure of the faith his coaches had in him. He caught four passes in five games for Iowa, scored a touchdown which helped the Hawkeyes rally for a win over Ball State. That's three more passes than the player he backs up, Tevaun Smith, caught in his first five games for the Hawkeyes. He was also a participant in the multitude of passes the Hawkeyes dropped in a win at Purdue, a sign of his inexperience. Willies then dealt with an injury, missing the Indiana game with a muscle strain. He returned to the field a week later at Maryland but did not play. Ten days later, Willies was gone. He told coach Kirk Ferentz on Monday night that he wanted to leave the program, citing a desire to be closer with his father who is dealing with some health issues in Arizona. Ferentz said Willies expressed no concerns about playing time when he talked with coaches although when healthy he appeared on a path that would have led to an expanded role as he gained experience. Today's athletes want it all to happen today. In reality, it doesn't work that way. Never has. Never will. None of us, Willies included, will now know what kind of impact he could have had at Iowa over the course of his career. There certainly was potential. His combination of 6-foot-4 height, athletic ability which made him a state hurdles champion in Illinois as a prep junior and his skills on the football field made Willies an intriguing player. But as was the case when the California native left his mother behind in Nevada, spent time in high schools in Iowa and Illinois, and now has chosen to leave college in part to be closer to his father in Arizona, Willies remains as elusive off the field as he has proven to be on it. We can only wonder how it all would have played out, even yet this season with at least five games yet to be played. But now, as always, Derrick Willies has proven to be forever elusive.
There were some great games on college football fields across the country on Saturday, but unlike recent weeks things held pretty much true to form. Only three teams from my Associated Press top 25 ballot from a week ago lost on Saturday and just one, Mississippi, was in the top 18 on last week's ballot. Duke (6-1) and Colorado State (7-1) are making their first appearances on my ballot this week, replacing USC and Minnesota following their losses on Saturday. LSU's 10-7 win over Ole Miss had the feel of a Big Ten game from a defensive intensity standpoint. I slipped Mississippi down eight spots, a pretty typical drop for any team following a loss on my ballot, and in retrospect I did not give LSU enough of a bump this week. I'll revisit that next Sunday AM. I did hold Michigan State at five and Ohio State at nine following wins on Saturday. Both enjoyed solid wins and continue to play well. Nebraska, which held steady at 14, is my only other Big Ten team on this week's ballot. On the outside looking in this week, in no particular order, are Clemson, Louisville, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Central Florida. Here is my ballot for this week's AP poll: 1. Florida State 2. Mississippi State 3. Oregon 4. Alabama 5. Michigan State 6. Georgia 7. Notre Dame 8. Auburn 9. Ohio State 10. Baylor 11. Mississippi 12. TCU 13. Kansas State 14. Nebraska 15. Arizona 16. Arizona State 17. East Carolina 18. UCLA 19. Oklahoma 20. Marshall 21. LSU 22. Utah 23. West Virginia 24. Duke 25. Colorado State
Thursday marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the most emotion-filled days the Iowa football program has had in its 125-year history. From what played out on the field to the circumstances off of it, the Hawkeyes' 6-4 victory at Penn State on Oct. 23, 2004 was one memorable day for a number of reasons. The Hawkeyes were in the midst of a run to a share of their most recent Big Ten championship, part of a season which ended with Drew Tate's dramatic game-winning touchdown pass to Warren Holloway in the Capital One Bowl. Injuries at running back forced Iowa to dig deeply into its depth chart and six days before coach Kirk Ferentz was scheduled to make a trip to his home state his father John, died. Ferentz and his family, including son Brian, then a starter on the Hawkeye offensive line, flew to Pittsburgh following practice on Wednesday of game week and on Friday about two hours west of Beaver Stadium Kirk Ferentz delivered the eulogy at his father's funeral. Assistant coaches put the team through its final preparations for what proved to be one of the most dominant defensive performances of the season and the Hawkeyes' fifth straight win over Joe Paterno-coached Penn State. It was a defensive slugfest from the onset and when it was over, Iowa had held Penn State to six first downs and 147 yards of offense. Each of Iowa's four starters in the secondary - Sean Considine, Marcus Paschal, Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson - ended Nittany Lions' drives with interceptions. A fumble recovery and two missed field goals also positioned Iowa for the win on a day when Sam Brownlee made his first collegiate start at running back. Brownlee had started the season fifth on the depth chart, but found himself in a starting role when the players ahead of him all were sidelined by injuries. Tate, meanwhile, endured a 14-of-31 passing performance that covered 126 of the 168 yards Iowa managed in its first road win of the season. Two field goals by Kyle Schlicher, both from 27 yards, one in the first quarter and one in the second, were enough for the Hawkeyes to overcome the two safeties that provided Penn State with its only points. When it was over, drained from the emotions of the week and the game, Ferentz met the media in the cramped visitor's interview room tucked underneath one corner of Beaver Stadium. "There were some moments today when it was tough. The mind wanders a bit, but I know what dad would have expected from me,'' Ferentz said. "Sometimes in life you've got to do things you don't want to do personally. We made it through.'' The Iowa coach went on talk to talk about his father, and how the effort displayed by the Hawkeyes went a long way to helping his entire family deal with a difficult week. He called it "the best medicine for our entire family. The aches are still there, but this will help us heal.'' Defensive end Matt Roth said the team dedicated its effort to Ferentz. "It's been a tough week for him and his family and we wanted to come out today and put together a special game,'' Roth said. "It was our way of doing what we could to pick him up a bit, just like he would be there for us if we were in a tough spot.'' Chad Greenway, who recovered a fumble to end the Nittany Lions' final possession of the game, said the Hawkeyes performed that day the way they had practiced all week. "Coach has had a lot to deal with this week, but before he left he made sure that everything was together for the team. That's the way he is, and this win was for him.'' Ferentz had talked to the team about his father on Tuesday, sharing how his father had lived a full and rewarding life. "Everybody needs a role model, and I feel fortunate to have had him as mine,'' Ferentz said. "I know he's up there smiling today.'' Why wouldn't he be at the end of one memorable day, one of the most memorable days in Hawkeye history for a number of reasons.
My ballot for this week's Associated Press college football poll only includes a handful of changes and I did vary from my normal practice a bit as well in a couple of instances. Florida State continues to top my ballot after withstanding a challenge from Notre Dame. I like Mississippi State a lot as well, but right now I'm sticking with the Seminoles until I have a reason to move them out of the No. 1 slot. Mississippi does replace Baylor in the three hole following the Bears' loss to West Virginia. With Baylor and Notre Dame losing from top five last week, Oregon and Michigan State each move up two slots into fourth and fifth following solid wins over the weekend. I have Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Auburn rounding out my top 10. Typically, I'll drop a team that loses seven to eight slots. I did not do that with Notre Dame this week, moving them only from fifth to eighth based on their play vs. the Seminoles on the road Saturday night and their body of work this season. Baylor moves into 11th this week, heading a Big 12 trio of TCU and Kansas State. I bumped Oklahoma from 12th to 20th following its loss to Kansas State and West Virginia joins Utah as newcomers on my ballot this week. I gave serious consideration to Oklahoma State as well as Duke and Clemson for the final spots. The Cowboys face West Virginia this week so per usual, things will work themselves out on the field. I am currently ranking Nebraska 14th and Minnesota at 22nd. Both are in the same positions they were in a week ago. The Wildcats had a solid road win at Northwestern, while the Golden Gophers rallied for win over Purdue. I continue to feel like the West Division in the Big Ten is there for the taking but I suspect the reality of it will be that we will likely see teams knock each other off. That's great for competition, but not so hot for climbing in national polls. Here my ballot for this week, crafted this morning over a cinnamon roll and orange juice at the Detroit airport on my way back to the Quad-Cities from the Iowa-Maryland game: 1. Florida State 2. Mississipppi State 3. Mississippi 4. Oregon 5. Michigan State 6. Alabama 7. Georgia 8. Notre Dame 9. Ohio State 10. Auburn 11. Baylor 12. TCU 13. Kansas State 14. Nebraska 15. Arizona 16. UCLA 17. Arizona State 18. East Carolina 19. USC 20. Oklahoma 21. Marshall 22. Minnesota 23. LSU 24. Utah 25. West Virginia
OFFENSE: D The good news: The Hawkeyes did 433 yards of offense. The bad news; Everybody has been doing that against Maryland and the Terps have a 5-2 record to show for it. Maryland coaxed Iowa into a passing game the Hawkeyes couldn't win, not with a group of receivers who struggled to get open throughout much of the game's first three quarters. Jake Rudock, sacked four times and under duress throughout much of the game as the Terps won the battle up front, should never have to attempt 60 passes against a Big Ten opponents, but he did today. The lack of receiving yards did allow Mark Weisman to get a little something going on the ground, but he didn't carry the ball once in the fourth quarter against a defense that is prone to surrendering big yardage on the ground. Iowa did get off to a fast start, but a 7-of-21 conversion rate on third down isn't going to cut it DEFENSE: D- The good news: The Iowa defense forced Maryland to turn the ball over twice. The bad news: Everybody has been doing that against the Terps and they have a 5-2 record to show for it. For the second straight week, Iowa's defense has given up 200-plus rushing yards. Poor tackling and bad pursuit angles remain a problem. Elusive, mobile quarterbacks have always been a problem and C.J. Brown of Maryland reminded the Hawkeyes of that. The Terps only converted four times in 16 tries on third down. It only seemed like they were about 110 out of 100. Like Rudock, he was sacked four times, but his elusiveness allowed Maryland to mask any mistakes. The Hawkeyes struggled up front much of the day against the Terps. SPECIAL TEAMS: D The wind was wicked at Byrd Stadium today, but there is no excuse for the type of punting numbers Iowa put up in the first half. The Hawkeyes tried both Connor Kornbrath and Dillon Kidd and neither mustered more than 32 yard average in the first half to help Maryland seize control of the lead. A dropped punt catch by Desmond King that was recovered by the Terrapins only added to a not-so-special day by Iowa's special teams. A defensive holding call on a PAT attempt by Marshall Koehn allowed Iowa to escape adding insult to injury. He converted on a second chance on the Hawkeyes' last PAT try of the game, allowing the longest ongoing string of successful PAT attempts in college football to continue. COACHING: D Beyond the fast start, created in part by Drew Ott's interception, Iowa pretty much muddled its way through a game which could have left the Hawkeyes 3-0 in the Big Ten West heading into a bye week. From failing to put the ball in the hands of leading rusher Mark Weisman in the fourth quarter to an inability to have a wide receiver catch the football in the first three-and-a-half quarters, the Hawkeyes looked discombobulated throughout much of the afternoon. Iowa's defense again lacked the cohesion it is known for. While most of that fall on the players, some of the responsibility falls on those who prepare them each week.
Iowa's first-ever game against Maryland provided the Hawkeyes with a chance to head into a bye week with a 3-0 record in the Big Ten. It proved to be an introductory offer that was too good to be true for an Iowa team that looked like anything but an Iowa team in its 38-31 loss to the Terrapins. Coach Kirk Ferentz served up the "E'' word in his postgame news conference and he hit the ball out of the park. The results were embarrassing. The effort was there, but the execution certainly wasn't. Iowa struggled to sustain drives on offense and did little to prevent them on defense. Throw in an assortment of special teams mistakes and inconsistencies and it added up to the longest game of the season for Iowa both literally and figuratively. It took 3 hours, 50 minutes for the Hawkeyes to take their 38-31 loss from start to finish, a game filled with enough mistakes to keep Iowa busy on the practice field from now until it turns its attention to Northwestern one week from Sunday. "We can't let this one game beat us again,'' Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. There are more good running backs and solid defenses ahead on the Hawkeye schedule and failure to correct what ailed it today will likely lead to repeat storylines in future weeks. A win today would have vaulted Iowa into title talk in the Big Ten West and thoughts that the Hawkeyes belonged in the national rankings. But instead of being 6-1, Iowa sits at 5-2 and will spend upcoming days searching for answers that may provide a more competitive outcome in future games that may be closer than the one today which was not as close as its seven-point final score would indicate. We'll know in a couple of weeks if Iowa has found any solutions because the true grind of the Hawkeyes' Big Ten schedule is about to begin. Northwestern. At Minnesota. At Illinois. Wisconsin. Nebraska. That November schedule will determine what this Iowa team is all about.
Four things that Iowa and Maryland can do to put themselves in a position for success in Saturday's Big Ten game at Byrd Stadium: IOWA (5-1, 2-0) 1. Establish the run. Iowa has been able to accomplish that the past two games and that must continue against a Terrapins team which ranks 13th in the Big Ten in stopping the run, allowing 212 yards per game. The Hawkeyes topped 200 rushing yards for the first time in nine games last week against Indiana - the same number of games it has been since Iowa had a 100-yard rusher. The combination of Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Jonathan Parker have been effective for Iowa. 2. Be cohesive on defense. The strength of Iowa's defense lies in the cohesion which was missing at times a week ago against Indiana. Poor pursuit angles and missed tackles opened the door for Tevin Coleman to pile up 219 yards on the ground. Maryland doesn't have a Tevin Coleman, but the Terrapins do have some ability. The rushing threat of quarterback C.J. Brown, who leads the team in rushing, along with the abilities of Brandon Ross and Wes Brown provide the Terps with three rushers who average better than four yards per carry. Iowa will need to clean up its shortcomings from a week ago if the Hawkeyes hope to earn a fifth straight road win. 3. Start fast. The arm of Jake Rudock and good play calling combined to help Iowa start quickly last week against Indiana. A repeat of Rudock's 14-of-18 first half against the Hoosiers would be beneficial. The junior will get the start and is expected to take most of the snaps again this week. He's had good protection from Iowa's offensive line and is working with a group of receivers led by the consistency of Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith as well as tight end Jake Duzey. Iowa has completed passes to at least 10 receivers in four games this season. That trend needs to continue. 4. Play physical. The Terrapins struggled with the physicality presented by a tough Ohio State defense two weeks ago, a tone that Iowa is capable of setting as well. Drew Ott, Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat have the ability to dictate up front and if the Hawkeyes can make that happen, it will only benefit Iowa. On the flip side, Iowa must gain that type of an edge on the offensive front. There have been glimpses in recent games, but the consistency hasn't matched what is transpiring on defense. Jordan Walsh's availability will be important, although Tommy Gaul performed well in his absence last week. Walsh, who suffered an ankle sprain in the Indiana game, has been attempting a return in practice this week. If he cannot go, look for Austin Blythe to again slip into the guard spot and Gaul to take the field at center. MARYLAND (4-2, 1-1) 1. Be aggressive. Maryland runs a 3-4 defense for the most part. The Terrapins have allowed some yards, surrendering 451.2 yards per game to rank 13th in the Big Ten ahead of only Illinois, but Maryland makes up for it with an aggressive approach. The Terps lead the Big Ten in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score only 62.5 percent of the time. Maryland linebacker Yannick Ngakoue leads the Big Ten with 8.5 tackles for a loss, end Andre Monroe shares third in the league with 5 sacks this season and defensive back Will Likely leads the conference with two fumble recoveries this season. The Terps thrive on the big play defensively, and will need to create some havoc against an Iowa team which is tied for 19th nationally in turnover margin. 2. Put the dual in dual threat. Quarterback C.J. Brown leads Maryland in rushing with 263 yards on 64 carries this season. Iowa has had its share of issues with mobile quarterbacks in recent seasons. Brown is the first true dual-threat QB the Hawkeyes have seen this season. A 57.5-percent passer, a successful blend of the run and pass will help an offense which ranks among the Big Ten's most productive with its average of 34.7 points per game. 3. Be special on special teams. This hasn't been a problem for Maryland this season. The Terrapins will test Iowa's special teams in about every way imaginable. Likely leads the Big Ten in punt returns, averaging 22 yards per return, while talented receiver Stefon Diggs shares the league lead in kickoff returns with his average of 24.4 per runback. Likely's skill will test Iowa's punt coverage unit and the leg of Dillon Kidd. Recent opponents have attempted to simply kick away from him. The consistency of Marshall Koehn on kickoffs will be important as well. He ranks second nationally in touchbacks and Iowa will need the junior's leg to deny Diggs opportunities. Maryland kicker Brad Craddock is having an all-American type of season. He has hit 17 consecutive field goal tries, including all 11 of his attempts this season. Of those, he is 6-of-6 between 40-49 yards and hit his only attempt from beyond 50 with a 57-yard field goal against Ohio State. He also ranks third in the conference in touchbacks. 4. Have big-play receivers play big. Stefon Diggs merits the attention receives as one of the Big Ten's premier receivers. He has caught 36 passes for 450 yards and three scores this season but he is only one part of a strong receiving corps which will test Iowa. Senior Deon Long and juniors Marcus Leak and Brandon Ross are capable receivers as well. All three average better than 11 yards per catch and they have combined for 53 catches through Maryland's first six games. The Terps average 259.3 yards per game through the air, something which will test the Hawkeye secondary.
Jonathan Parker finished off what Jacob Hillyer and Jake Duzey started last Saturday for the Iowa football team. As sweet at Parker's 60-yard run to the end zone on a jet sweep was for the Hawkeyes in their win over Indiana, it wouldn't have happened if receiver Jacob Hillyer and tight end Jake Duzey hadn't done their part. They created the hole that Parker needed to slip through and Hillyer contributed a major block on the play that helped send Iowa to an early lead. For receivers at Iowa, that is part of the deal. If they want to play, they must block and the sooner they realize that, the sooner they see the field. "That's part of that little package,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The guys have done a good job with that in practice, too, so it was good to see.'' Good, solid blocks from receivers are traditionally a part of the effectiveness of the Iowa offense. As receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley puts it, "Playing under Ferentz, you better block.'' Technique is drilled repeatedly, yet the Iowa coach says a notion takes some receivers longer than others to grasp. Typically, blocking doesn't top the list of priorities for young receivers. "The further away you are from the ball, it seems like it's less of a priority at all levels,'' Ferentz said. "It's just one of those things that you've got to try to work at and we still can get better there yet.'' Ferentz praised the blocks that Hillyer and Duzey delivered that sprung Parker free. "It's something that has to happen if you want big plays to work,'' Martin-Manley said. For receivers, blocking frequently entails dealing with a moving target, often a linebacker or defensive back where contact begins downfield. "The ability to see your target, stay square and keep your feet alive,'' Martin-Manley said. "The more you grab and try to reach, the more of an advantage the defensive guy has. We're making progress, becoming better blockers and that's only going to help us as an offense to get it down.'' It's the type of trait that separates contenders from pretenders in the Big Ten race. "It doesn't get noticed too much, but it's an important part of the equation,'' Martin-Manley said. "And at Iowa, it's who we are.''
When Kirk Ferentz suggests that Iowa's special teams will truly need to be special in Saturday's game against Maryland, it's not just coach speak. The Terrapins will test the Hawkeyes with some elite specialists who have played a significant role in Maryland opening the season at 4-0. Kicker Brad Craddock is perfect in 11 field goal attempts this season, including successful six successful kicks between 40-49 yards in addition to hitting a 57-yard field goal against Ohio State in the Terps' most recent game. Dating back to last season, Craddock has hit his last 17 field goal attempts. On the flip side, Maryland has blocked two punts and a field goal this season. Only five teams at the FBS level have more blocks than the Terrapins. Maryland will test Iowa with strong return personnel as well. William Likely leads the Big Ten with an average of 22 yards on punt returns, returning one of the eight punts he has returned for a touchdown. The sophomore who also shares the Big Ten lead with three picks from his spot in the Terrapins' secondary is a product of Glades Central High School in Belle Glade, Fla., the same program which produced Iowa quarterback Brad Banks. For kick returns, Maryland's Stefon Diggs shares the Big Ten lead with Marcus Jones of Minnesota with his average of 24.4 yards per return. "This will be as tough of a challenge as we'll have,'' Ferentz said. In this case, Ferentz isn't overstating the test Iowa will face this week. The legs of Marshall Koehn and Dillon Kidd and the Hawkeyes' ability to cover Maryland's return men will play a role in Iowa's chances of extending its ongoing four-game winning streak on the road. This truly is a special situation.