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Archive for November, 2013

A win worth screaming about

Saturday, November 30th, 2013
Before packing their gear and leaving Nebraska's Memorial Stadium following a 38-17 rout of the Cornhuskers, the Iowa football team took care of a little unfinished business. The Hawkeyes let out a little emotion, an ear-piercing scream that filled the Iowa locker room and spilled into the surrounding hallways and the makeshift media room. For more than 10 seconds, the Hawkeyes screamed at the top of their lungs. All 70 Hawkeyes. The racket combined the excitement and conclusion of an 8-4 season with a chance to let out one final primal scream to send last season's 4-8 record back to the stone ages and toss aside memories of the two-year streak of getting duped on fake punts which ended in the second half. Christian Kirksey, who put an end to Iowa's fake punt misery when he dropped Sam Foltz for an eight-yard loss, served up the idea to his teammates at the suggestion of linebackers coach Jim Reid. "Kirksey said just scream, let it out and we did,'' receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. Players held their helmets up. The Heroes Trophy was hoisted above the group. And then the Hawkeyes' howled. "It felt great,'' Kirksey said. "Just let it out.'' Martin-Manley said the scene was unreal. "Everybody has put a lot into turning this thing around and to just take 10 seconds, scream and enjoy it together, it was a great way to end a great day,'' he said. "We're all going to remember this one for a long, long time.'' And the sounds of that successful team scream will likely echo through the underbelly of Memorial Stadium for weeks.

Hawkeye report card: Nebraska

Saturday, November 30th, 2013
OFFENSE: B+ The Hawkeyes worked the clock and found success on the ground in today's win over the Cornhuskers, taking advantage of good field position throughout much of the afternoon. Nebraska actually out-gained Iowa 288-281, in part because of the short fields the Hawkeyes frequently found themselves with created by turnovers and the punting game. Iowa started seven of its drives inside Nebraska territory, using the strength of Mark Weisman and the quickness of Jordan Canzeri to pile up 155 rushing yards on 44 carries. Quarterback Jake Rudock had a decent day, completing 9-of-17 passes for 126 yards and two scores while shedding the interception problems he had a week earlier against Michigan. Iowa converted on 6-of-15 third-down opportunities. DEFENSE: A- For the second straight week, Iowa created plenty of pressure and in this case, it was enough to frazzle first-time starter Ron Kellogg and prevent Big Ten rushing leader Ameer Abdullah from reaching 100 yards for just the second time this season. The Cornhuskers averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and finished with 89 yards on the ground, 144 yards below their season average. Iowa linebackers Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens were dominant, starting with interceptions by Hitchens and Morris which ended Nebraska's first two drives of the day and continuing with eight-yard loss Kirksey delivered on a botched fake punt. It was a performance that opponents only rarely impose on Nebraska and that allowed the Hawkeyes to hoist the Heroes Trophy. SPECIAL TEAMS: B+ From Connor Kornbrath punts of 55 and 45 yards leaving Nebraska on its own 1- and 3-yard line in the second quarter to Mike Meyer's perfect day to a kick coverage unit which trimmed 12.5 yards off of Kenny Bell's Big Ten-best average of 29.5 yards per return, the Hawkeyes were solid. Jordan Cotton busted a 40-yard kick return as well as part of a well-above average which facilitated the Hawkeyes' first win over Nebraska since 1981. COACHING: B+ The game plan was solid. From the defensive pressure deployed by front seven on an injury-weary Nebraska offensive line and a first-time starting QB to an effective mix of the pass and run, the Hawkeyes completed an 8-4 regular season with a pair of impressive performances against Michigan and Nebraska. This has been a season of growth for an Iowa program which is now seemingly comfortable with the multitude of staff changes which have taken place over the past two seasons. The inconsistencies of last season, created in part by the first coordinator changes after 13 years of staff stability, seem to largely be in the rear view mirror.

Four-down territory: Nebraska

Thursday, November 28th, 2013
Four things the Iowa football team can do to put itself in a position to bring the Heroes Trophy to Iowa City for the first time: 1. Establish the run. Nebraska's front seven on defense is young, but has shown signs of growth in recent weeks. They will test what has been an effective Iowa rushing game. Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, benefitting from rest during the bye week prior to the Michigan game, and Jordan Canzeri are providing Iowa with an effective three-back rotation. Their blend of styles is well-suited for mixing and matching carries against opponents. 2. Stay creative. Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker assembled an effective combination of aggressive and creative package of blitzes and stunts last week to keep a wobbly Michigan offense off balance. With the inexperience Nebraska has at quarterback, a similar approach will likely lead to similar results. Iowa needs another stout defensive effort from start to finish. 3. Pass with poise. One of the best traits Jake Rudock has shown this season has been the ability to move beyond mistakes, both his own and those of the personnel around him. Nebraska's defense has given up its share of yards this season, but the Cornhuskers have also played a little defense. Among Big Ten teams, only Ohio State has recorded more than the 33 sacks Nebraska has delivered this season and only three Big Ten teams have more than the 13 interceptions the Cornhuskers have recorded. Rudock will need to avoid a repeat of his three-interception game against Michigan and continue to deliver at his season-long completion rate of 60.1 percent. 4. Be road warriors. There were reports that music was blaring over the PA system at Kinnick Stadium on Wednesday, preparing the Hawkeyes for the racket they will hear when they step into the third-largest city in Nebraska on Friday, Memorial Stadium. The Hawkeyes have played some of their best football away from home, winning at Iowa State and Minnesota and competing at Ohio State. They'll need the same steady-type of performance against Cornhuskers if they hope to become the first Iowa team to win four on the road since 2009. Four things Nebraska can do to reach the nine-win plateau for the sixth straight season in Friday's game against Iowa: 1. Establish the run. I-back Ameer Abdullah has topped 100 yards in 10 of the Cornhuskers' 11 games this season and he will need a similar effort against an Iowa defense which has thrived at denying opponents a ground attack. Only four Hawkeye opponents have topped 150 yards on the ground against Iowa this season and it will take a strong effort by Abdullah, who has collected 1,483 yards on 231 carries, and Imani Cross for Nebraska to win. While Abdullah leads the Big Ten in rushing, Cross has carried the ball into the end zone a team-leading 10 times for the Cornhuskers. 2. Get something from the passing game. With Taylor Martinez sidelined, Nebraska's air attack has been placed in the hands of of a pair of relatively inexperienced quarterbacks. Redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, who has started the seven games that Martinez hasn't, is listed as questionable because of an ankle injury. If he can't go, senior Ron Kellogg will make the first start of his career in his final home game in a Nebraska uniform. The Omaha native initially walked on to the Cornhuskers program. Kellogg throws a solid ball and did toss the game-winning touchdown pass in Nebraska's win over Northwestern earlier this month. Both quarterbacks are capable and Quincy Enunwa provides Nebraska with consistency at the receiver spot. 3. Stack the box. Nebraska's defense is young. Only one senior is expected to be among the Cornhuskers' starting front seven on Friday but the group has improved since surrendering 602 yards in its season-opening game with Wyoming. Line-up positions have been solidified and junior college transfer Randy Gregory has emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten. Gregory leads the conference with 8.5 sacks and is second in the league with 14.5 tackles for a loss this season. 4. Make special teams special. The Cornhuskers have the Big Ten's leading kick returner in Kenny Bell, who averages 29.5 yards on his 17 returns this season. He had a 99-yard return for a touchdown in the third quarter of last week's game at Penn State. The Cornhuskers' Sam Foltz is a freshman punter who averages 42.3 yards per punt and kicker Pat Smith was kicking a year ago for Western Illinois. A senior walk-on who prepped at Quincy Notre Dame, Smith has hit 10-of-11 field goal opportunities this season for Nebraska, including game-tying and game-winning kicks at Penn State last week which led him to Big Ten special teams player of the week honors.

Give it time

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
Iowa football players spent a lot of time today being asked if the two-year series between the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers had developed into a rivalry in the two seasons since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. Folks on both sides of the Missouri River will tell you that it takes two to tango and so far only one team has found how just how heavy the Heroes Game Trophy is. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sees that as a necessary step for this to become a true rivalry. He also understands that it won't be easy. Nebraska joins Alabama, Boise State and Oregon as the onlly teams in the nation to have won at least nine games in the past five seasons. The Cornhuskers will attempt to the Tide and Ducks in making that six straight when Iowa shows up at Memorial Stadium for Friday's Heroes Game. Ferentz doesn't mind that challenge, one reason he believes that this series - one of five games Iowa will play annually against teams from border states when realigned divisions begin next season - has a chance to be remembered by future generations much like games against Minnesota and Wisconsin are talked about by today's Hawkeye fans. "For us to have a chance to go line up against (Nebraska), it's a great challenge but it makes our conference stronger,'' Ferentz said. "It makes the competition stronger. That's probably not great for coaches and their job security, but that's the nature of sports, too. It's made our conference I think a stronger conference.'' And success against Iowa's newest border rival will strengthen the Hawkeye program as well. Give it time. This has a chance to become the same type of intense and somewhat unpredictable match-up that Iowa has had against Minnesota and what Nebraska enjoyed against Colorado in its 15 years as a Big 12 member.

No place like Nebraska

Monday, November 25th, 2013
The bar at Nebraska is set high. Bo Pelini appreciates that as much as anyone but as the Cornhuskers coach prepares an injury-riddled team for Friday's Heroes Game match-up, he found himself spending time today as his weekly news conference talking about his future. It's a situation Pelini found himself addressing even before Nebraska won in overtime last week at Penn State after being approached by players on his team questioning the validity of rumors that were circulating that their coach had submitted his resignation. Pelini dismissed those rumors as "crazy talk,'' and then watched his team improve to 8-3 withi the road win. That, though, is life in Lincoln. Pelini understood that when he took the job and while he has a 57-23 record in six seasons at Nebraska, he shares concerns of fans as the Cornhuskers have endured a three-loss season including a 41-21 setback to UCLA, a 34-23 loss at Minnesota and a 41-28 loss at home to Michigan State. "Am I happy with 8-3? No. I'd be lying if I told you anything else,'' Pelini said. "We have goals of championships and the standards will remain high as long as I am the coach here." Pelini has a new boss in athletic director in Shawn Eichorst, who replaced Tom Osborne a little over a year ago. Eichorst has said he won't discuss the status of Pelini or any of the coaches on his staff while their season is ongoing. That is not uncommon, but in this instance it has only added to the speculation about what may or may not transpire at the end of the season. As for Pelini, he's concentrating on the present, which this week means Iowa and putting together another patchwork lineup. The Cornhuskers' offensive line has been decimated with injuries this season and with Taylor Martinez out and Tommy Armstrong questionable, it is possible that senior walk-on Ron Kellogg could become the third quarterback to start for Nebraska this seaosn when it kicks off against Iowa at 11 a.m. Friday. Pelini will approach the game as he approached the 11 which came before it. "I'm not coaching to save my job. I do want to be here, but if they do not want me to be here, I'll move on and go on my way,'' Pelini said. "But until that day happens, I'll do everything I can to make this team as good as it can be. "I will say this, I know I can look myself in a mirror every night and feel good about what I see for the program.'' Pelini believes the Cornhuskers "are close'' to competing at the championship level that both he and the program's fans want. He believes the experience younger players have received this season because of injuries suffered by veterans will only help the program in future seasons. "These guys are giving me everything they've got,'' Pelini said. "That's all I can ask.''

To the victors go the spoils

Sunday, November 24th, 2013
Only a handful of teams -- six to be exact including the top three -- find themselves in the same spots on my AP college football ballot for this week. Late-season losses with plenty on the line by Baylor, Oregon and Texas A&M have reshaped my top 10 which still starts out with Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State in the top three spots. Clemson and Oklahoma State climb into my top five this week, with Auburn, Michigan State, Missouri, Stanford topping Baylor to round out my top 10. I bumped both the Bears and Ducks down six spots following losses on Saturday. Baylor's 49-17 loss at Oklahoma State was not all that surprising in my mind. The Cowboys opened the year as a top-10 team on my ballot and other than a slip up at West Virginia to open Big 12 play, they've been solid all season. The Oregon loss to Arizona and Rich Rodriguez by a 42-16 score was a bit more stunning, and does allow me to rank Stanford ahead of the Ducks which I'm more than comfortable with given their win over Oregon earlier this month. Among the teams' sitting in the 10th through 23rd spots on my ballot from a week ago, UCLA at 18 was the only loser and there is minimal movement in those slots. The Bruins moved down five spots following a five-point loss to Arizona State, which slips ahead of UCLA on this week's ballot. There are currently only four three-loss teams on my ballot, LSU at 17, USC at 19, UCLA at 23 and newcomer Nebraska at 25. Despite a pile of injuries, the Cornhuskers have won three of their last four games including road wins at Michigan and Penn State and have lost only to UCLA, Michigan State and Minnesota this season. Here is a look at my ballot fo the week: 1. Alabama, 2. Florida State, 3. Ohio State,4. Clemson, 5. Oklahoma State, 6. Auburn, 7. Michigan State, 8. Missouri, 9. Stanford, 10. Baylor, 11. Oregon, 12. South Carolina, 13. Wisconsin, 14. Fresno State, 15. Louisville, 16. Northern Illinois, 17. LSU, 18. Texas A&M, 19. USC, 20. UCF, 21. Oklahoma, 22. Arizona State, 23. UCLA, 24. Duke, 25. Nebraska

The great debate

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013
This is the year of the linebacker in the Big Ten. From Chris Borland at Wisconsin to Max Bullough at Michigan State and Ryan Shazier at Ohio State, rosters from team to team are dotted with quality linebackers. Selecting all-conference linebackers will be a task for coaches and media members. It's likely that Iowa senior tandem of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens will be part of the great debate. Each provides their own strength as the soul of a Hawkeye defense which has helped Iowa turn last season's 4-8 record into a memory. Each will likely get a look or two when all-Big Ten ballots are collected in a little over a week and those looks are deserved, in part because of the way they collectively go about their business. Business was good for all three today as Iowa handed Michigan another frustrating afternoon, helping the Hawkeyes rally from a 21-7 deficit created in part by turnovers which led the Wolverines to 14 first-half points. Hitchens added the exclamation point, forcing and recovering a fumble with just over 2 minutes remaining in the 24-21 Iowa win, recording his team-leading eighth tackle when he dropped Devin Gardner. Hitchens recorded three tackles for a loss and forced a pair of QB hurries as well, while Morris matched his tackle total, broke up a pass and was credited with 1.5 stops behind the line. Kirksey finished his final game with six stops. It all added up to an effort which held Michigan to 158 total yards. "There's a level of trust we have in each other that helps us fill our responsibilities and have faith in each other that they are doing the same,'' Kirksey said. "It's a collective thing from being out there together for so long. It's a team thing for us, and it always has been.'' And at the end of the day, isn't that way it is supposed to work?

Report card: Michigan

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013
Iowa report card from today's 24-21 win over Michigan: OFFENSE: B- Once Iowa stopped stopping itself, the Hawkeyes found room to run and throw against Michigan on Saturday. Mark Weisman, rested thanks to a bye week, ran with authority behind the solid performance of the offensive line. Jake Rudock threw three picks, including a pick six, and the two touchdowns Michigan scored following those miscues were the only reason this game was close. Two of the interceptions came in the first half and Rudock rebounded nicely, connecting on 10-of-12 passes in the second half to help Iowa rally. Ten receivers caught passes today and five Hawkeyes carried the ball. It all added up to 407 yards of offense and a decent day for the Hawkeyes. DEFENSE: A- It's hard to find much fault with the play of a defense which limited Michigan to a season-low 158 yards, including 45 in the second half to help facilitate Iowa's first come-from-behind victory of the season. Iowa got ample pressure Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner and dropped the Wolverines behind the line 11 times. It Anthony Hitchens' fumble force and recovery in the final minutes finished off a solid performance which limited Michigan to 2.8 yards per play, nearly half of the 5.5 that Iowa's offense was getting off of the Wolverines' D. SPECIAL TEAMS: C- Iowa's kick return units, a game-winning effort by Mike Meyer and a decent performance by punter Connor Kornbrath considering the elements helped this mark. Jordan Cotton helped Iowa average 27.5 yards on four kick returns, Meyer overcame an early miss and a fumbled hold on two earlier tries to knock through the game-winner in the fourth quarter and Kornbrath averaged 37.5 on four attempts while dealing with a wicked November wind. The mistakes, including an early punt return gone awry for Kevonte Martin-Manley, left this as a very average day for the special teams. COACHING: B It shouldn't be any surprise that Phil Parker, a Michigan State alum, would have his defense ready to go against a Michigan team and that certainly was the case. Iowa put just enough pressure on QB Devin Gardner through the use of blitzes and stunts to not let him get as comfortable as he did a year ago while throwing for 314 yards vs. the Hawkeyes. A welcomed sweep run by Damon Powell and effective use of backs and a variety of receivers allowed Iowa's offense to be effective. Greg Davis stuck with what had a chance to work, even when mistakes on pass plays led to turnovers and eventually execution and Iowa won out. It was a solid plan against a decent Michigan defense.

Four-down territory: Michigan

Friday, November 22nd, 2013
Four things the Iowa football team can do on a frosty Saturday to put itself in a position to win against Michigan in the Hawkeyes' home finale: 1. Establish the run. Important every week but even more so this week when the elements will come into play. Iowa's ability to sustain clock-chewing drives and play keep away from the Wolverines' offense will be big. Iowa enters the game with fresh legs. Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock spent the bye week letting weary bodies rest, while Jordan Canzeri takes the field for the first time since going for 165 at Purdue. The play of a front line anchored by Brett Van Sloten and Brandon Scherff at the tackle spots and Conor Boffeli at guard will again set a tone. 2. Deal with Devin. Iowa didn't do that a year ago in Ann Arbor and paid dearly as Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner found himself with enough time to bake a cake as he searched for receivers. Gardner completed 18-of-23 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns in the game. A threat with his feet as well, Gardner has rushed for 10 scores this season in addition to passing for 15. He has been sacked 31 times this season and Iowa's improved ability put pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be a factor. 3. Play the pass. Michigan has seven wins this season because it plays solid defense and has playmakers on offense. The Hawkeyes' secondary will be challenged by Jeremy Gallon, who has topped 1,000 receiving yards for the season and established a new school record with 369 receiving yards in a win over Indiana. Michigan also has the Big Ten's most productive pass-catching tight end in Devin Funchess, whose 684 receiving yards are the most ever by a Wolverines' tight end. 4. Cope. The elements will be far from perfect Saturday, with a high temperature of 23 now expected and a winds in the 20 miles-per-hour range gusting to 30 creating a wind chill of around zero. Those type of conditions can create havoc for specialists and the ability of senior kicker Mike Meyer and sophomore punter Connor Kornbrath to deal with what comes their way and avoid major problems will only help the Hawkeyes. Four things that Michigan must master if it wants even its Big Ten road record at 2-2 before thinking about next week's match-up against those people from Ohio. 1. Make a defensive stance. The Wolverines' defense has been stout against the run all season and it will need to be again this weekend against the unsually healthy and large collection of running backs Iowa will put on the field. Only two opposing backs, Big Ten rushing leader Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska and Jeremy Langford of Michigan State, have topped 100 yards this season against the Wolverines' defense. Michigan ranks 13th nationally in stopping the run, allowing 111.2 yards per game. 2. Take more steps forward. Michigan's rushing attack has been sporadic at best this season, in part because of moving parts on a young offensive line that is expected to start a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a former walk-on at the three interior spots. Michigan coaches believed they saw growth from the group which also includes all-American tackle Taylor Lewan in last week's 27-19 three-overtime victory at Northwestern. After two weeks of negative rushing yards as a team, Michigan totaled 139 against the Wildcats in part because of improved line play. Rushing leader Fitzgerald Toussaint missed that game with what coach Brady Hoke called a slight concussion, but he is expected back this week. Freshmen Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith will also factor into the run game, two physical backs who have bright futures ahead of them. 3. Find a rhythm early. Devin Gardner is on pace to be the most efficient passer in Michigan history. The junior has led Michigan to 42 touchdowns on 59 trips to the red zone during the 15 games that Gardner has played quarterback. Gardner hit 18-of-23 passes against Iowa a year ago and while he has not shown that same level of consistency this season, his arm and solid pool of receivers has the potential to create issues on a day when weather will likely dictate more available opportunities in the short passing game. 4. Make plays on special teams. Like Iowa, Michigan has had its moments on special teams. Its execution of a last-second field goal in regulation last weekend to force overtime at Northwestern illustrates how effective that unit can be. Senior Brendan Gibbons has converted on 15-of-20 field goal tries this season, including a long of 47. He leads the Big Ten in scoring at 8.6 points per game and has connected on 138 consecutive PAT attempts. Junior Matt Wile has averaged 41.5 yards per punt.

Standing his ground

Thursday, November 21st, 2013
Frank Lauterbur will never be remembered as one of the great football coaches in Hawkeye history. In his three seasons in Iowa City, a struggling program went from bad to worse under his watch and ultimately, his stay ended because of his own stubbornness. Lauterbur, who died yesterday at the age of 88, stood his ground following an 0-11 season and it cost him his job. The first of three Iowa football coaches hired by Bump Elliott during his tenure as the school's athletic director, Lauterbur arrived at Iowa in 1971 with great fanfare. "There are 10 great football coaching jobs in the country and all of them are in the Big Ten,'' the Ohio native said when he was hired to replace Ray Nagel as the head of a football program which had not experienced a winning season since a Jerry Burns-coached team went 5-4 in 1961. Lauterbur was to be the architect of a turnaround, much as he had been at Toledo. He spent eight years at the Mid-American Conference school, finishing on a 23-game win streak before heading to the Big Ten. Lauterbur compiled a 48-32-2 record there and Elliott was convinced he was right man for the job at the time of his hiring. Lauterbur was given a five-year contract at $25,000 per year, a $1,000 increase from his salary as coach and athletic director at Toledo. "Frank took a program that was down at Toledo and made it the best in the Mid-American Conference,'' Elliott said at the time of Lauterbur's hiring. "He demonstrated that he's a consistent winner and I expect him to bring success to Iowa.'' Instead, the 45-year old found himself dealing with three frustrating seasons in the midst of a string of 19 straight seasons where the Hawkeyes finished no better than .500. His first Iowa team went 1-10, winning only a 20-16 home game with Wisconsin. In 1972, Lauterbur guided the Hawkeyes to a 3-7-1 record, earning wins over Oregon State, Northwestern and Illinois in addition to playing Michigan State to a tie. But things fell apart in 1973, when Iowa opened the season with losses to Michigan 31-7, UCLA 55-18 and Penn State 27-8. The Hawkeyes finished 0-11, losing those games by an average of 23.7 points. Elliott wanted change. He approached Lauterbur on the Monday prior to Iowa's final game of the season and asked him to consider making changes to his coaching staff. Lauterbur refused and was fired. He announced the firing himself the following day at his weekly news conference and Lauterbur did stay on to coach his final game, a 15-6 loss to Michigan State. Elliott addressed the situaton later on that Tuesday in a statement. "I expressed concern for the future and urged him to make changes in his coaching staff and organization,'' Elliott said."These recommondations were unacceptable to him.'' Lauterbur explained his reasoning earlier in the day. "I felt I could not do that,'' he said, referring to the staff change request. "I have to be in command.''