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Archive for December, 2013

Four-down territory: LSU

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
Four things Iowa can do to position itself for victory against Louisiana State in the Outback Bowl: 1. Establish the run. The Hawkeyes have been at their best chewing clock and methodically playing power football to wear down opponents. Mark Weisman needs 62 yards to reach 1,000 for the year, something last accomplished at Iowa by Marcus Coker two seasons ago. He'll have help in Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri, the latter who has averaged 83 yards in Iowa's last five games after averaging 16.4 in its first seven. They'll be challenged by an LSU defense anchored in the middle by Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson at the tackle spots. 2. Pressure the quarterback. Anthony Jennings makes his first career start against the Hawkeyes and the true freshman will likely see a blitz or two from Iowa, which followed that formula when Ron Kellogg made his first career start for Nebraska in the regular-season finale. Against both Kellogg and Michigan's Devin Gardner the week before, increased pressure from the Hawkeye defense has helped take quarterbacks off their game. 3. Make connections. Quarterback Jake Rudock insists he has recovered from a knee sprain suffered in the Nebraska game. Iowa will need his mobility and his arm today. Much like the quickness the Hawkeyes dealt with on defense against Ohio State, LSU presents some issues and Iowa's collection of tight ends might be part of the solution when tight ends accounted for 11 of the Hawkeyes' 19 receptions. 4. Rise to the occasion. Following a 4-8 record a year ago, this Hawkeye team has rode strong leadership and improved execution to an 8-4 record. Iowa elevated its play in its most recent outings against Michigan and Nebraska. Similar growth will be important again. Four things 15th-rated LSU can do to become the first team in its history to win 10 games in four straight seasons: 1. Establish the run. Like Iowa, the Tigers lean on zone blocking schemes to establish what has developed into an effective rushing attack, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Jeremy Hill has been the most productive at 1,185 yards this season and an average of 6.8 per attempt. He has collected 14 of his team's 34 rushing scores this seson. 2. Play to the strengths. Anthony Jennings' starting debut won't necessarily mean much change for an offense which has thrived with balance. The Tigers have rushed for 200.8 yards per game, but LSU will likely continue to attempt to play to its passing game strengths as well. The Tigers gain an average of 265.1 yards per game through the air. Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham are the best tandem of receivers Iowa has seen this season, combinging for 132 receptions and 2,289 yards as well as 18 of LSU's 23 scores through the air. 3. Avoid a shootout. LSU's defense is relatively young and at times, it has given up big plays and big points. The Tigers allow 22.7 points per game, something you can do when you score 37 per contest. LSU has allowed more than 25 points six times this season. 4. Play with a purpose. LSU handed Auburn its only loss of the season, but losses to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama on the road gave the Tigers a 5-3 SEC record which matches Iowa's Big Ten conference mark. LSU fans did not warm to this match-up and coach Les Miles has spent the past week trying to convince anyone who would listen than his team truly wants to be here. With as many as nine players contemplating early exits for the NFL, the Tigers' intensity will likely be on display early.

Familiar foes

Sunday, December 29th, 2013
Iowa and LSU have met just once on the football field - as Warren Holloway and Drew Tate remember oh so well - and while Nick Saban is hoisting trophies elsewhere now there is a level of familiarity between coaching staffs. LSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron was the head coach at Indiana during the first three seasons Kirk Ferentz coached at Iowa. Antwaan Randle El and the Hoosiers reintroduced Ferentz to the Big Ten, beating Iowa 38-31 and 45-33 in 1999 and 2000 before the Hawkeyes won a 42-28 game against Indiana on their way to the Alamo Bowl in 2001. On the side of the field, LSU's Les Miles knows how Iowa offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Greg Davis works. Davis was working in the same role at Texas during the four seasons that Miles was the head coach at Oklahoma State from 2001-04. Miles said he saw some familiar looks from the Hawkeyes as he watched tape. "Any offensive coordinator always does some things that speak to the talents he has to work with,'' Miles said. "You can see what they're doing. It's just a matter of the challenge of stopping it.'' Miles went 0-4 against Texas as the coach at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys lost to the Longhorns 45-17, 17-15, 55-16 and 56-35 during his four years in Stillwater. Miles said he appreciates the work Davis does. "I think he's a very talented coach that calls a game with experience and understanding. He's a very capable play caller,'' Miles said.

Landscape

Saturday, December 28th, 2013
There isn't much difference between the practice field landscape being enjoyed by the football teams from Iowa and LSU at the Outback Bowl. The Tigers are working out on a college campus at the University of Tampa, using the on-campus stadium where the NCAA Division II team plays for its workouts. The Hawkeyes call Jesuit High School in Tampa their home away from home, working out at an exceptional high school facility. The stadium there includes an artificial turf where Iowa has done most of its work. There is an adjacent grass practice field. The athletic facilities at Jesuit have been upgraded in recent years and in addition to ample weight facilities and locker rooms, the campus-like setting even had a spot today where a Tampa barbecue company set up tables to distribute food to Iowa players after their afternoon practice. The Hawkeyes worked out in 80-degree weather that was slightly humid under cloudy skies today. There is an 80 percent chance of rain and the potential for storms here Sunday but also the 100 percent likelihood that Iowa will hold another closed practice there as long as the worst of the weather stays away. The facility is about a 15-minute drive from the Hawkeyes' team hotel and police escorts help Iowa make certain it has an on-time arrival as it prepares for the Tigers.

Game plan

Friday, December 27th, 2013
While LSU practiced in the rain this morning on the field at the University of Tampa, Iowa players enjoyed a day off as they continued to work toward the Outback Bowl. It's not that unusual. Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes are creatures of habit, especially if something works and Iowa does not stray from its normal game-week preparations even if Monday turns into Friday as it did this week. The Hawkeyes normally get Mondays off and that was the case today, on Friday. It all makes sense to those involved. "We've had two good days of work since we've down here and now, like a Monday in the season, we're off,'' long snapper Casey Kreiter said. "We'll get a lot of work in the next two days and then start to taper down like we would on Thursdays and Fridays of most weeks leading up to the game. It's all pretty normal.'' And it's all pretty routine, a formula the Hawkeyes have followed in each of the 11 bowls Iowa has played in during the 15 seasons Ferentz has led the program. The heavy lifting on the practice field at Jesuit High School in Tampa - just a long fly ball away from Raymond James Stadium - will take place on Saturday and Sunday as Iowa works to install and polish its game plan for the Tigers. Several offensive players and coordinator Greg Davis will be available after Saturday's practice and defensive players and coordinator Phil Parker will get their turn on Sunday afternoon. That, too, is standard operating procedure for Iowa at a bowl. "We'll tweak some things from time to time, but the general routine has been fairly successful so we stick with it and it keeps a pretty normal routine for the players, too, which I think is important,'' Ferentz said.

Healing time

Monday, December 23rd, 2013
Jake Rudock welcomes his return to the practice field as the Iowa footbal team prepares for its Outback Bowl match-up with LSU. The Hawkeye quarterback took a needed break after suffering a knee sprain during the third quarter of Iowa's final regular season game at Nebraska. The sophomore watched tape and rested the knee as Iowa began preparing for the Tigers, taking a couple of weeks to recover from the wear and tear of the season. Just how healthy is Rudock? "I always hate the percentage questions, but I feel good,'' Rudock said. "I feel better than I have.'' Rudock sprained his other knee earlier in Iowa's season, minor setbacks that didn't impact the big picture but now have benefitted from having the time to rest. "We've been able to take it easier,'' Rudock said. "I didn't have to rush to get ready for a game. Having some time off definitely helps.'' Rudock said the sprain he suffered against the Cornhuskers proved be a bit more challenging to deal with compared to the one which knocked him out of the game against Wisconsin on Nov. 2. "It was one of the weird ones where it was hurting pretty bad,'' he said. "I'd try to get back (in the Nebraska game) if I could, but at the time it probably was the best thing not to do that. I'm feeling good now. I've had time to heal.'' Rudock said he is anxious to return to his home state. He grew up about four hours away in Weston, Fla., and has played high school postseason games in Tampa while competing for Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, but has never played at Raymond James Stadium. "It will be something new, so I'm excited about that,'' Rudock said.

Important time

Saturday, December 21st, 2013
Iowa is turning its attention on the practice field to the Outback Bowl and its opponent, LSU, beginning this weekend. With finals week concluded, the Hawkeyes will now shift practice focus to its opponent and what it will take to earn a ninth win this season. The practices held to do date have been an important time for the Hawkeyes, most than people might imagine. While veteran players have seen mostly conditioning work or have been given time to allow injuries and bodies to heal from the wear and tear of the season, the early December practices have provided younger players on the roster with a chance to compete and to develop skills which will position them to vye for playing time once spring drills arrive. Senior linebacker Anthony Hitchens understands that as much as anyone. He's been there, done that, and worked to use December practices as a chance to position himself for future opportunities. "The attention that younger guys get in bowl prep is pretty big,'' Hitchens said. "They may have spent the fall working on scout team or just being in the backgroud, but this is a chance for them to get some significant work.'' Hitchens said there is a lot of hands-on teaching that takes place during the early bowl work and a chance for players to demonstrate to coaches that they have been gaining from the work and words they have heard throughout the fall. "If guys attack it the right way, it can be a real beneficial time,'' Hitchens said. "It's like a second spring, but this sets the stage for that and guys can work their way into the thought process of coaches heading into the offseason with the way they work and perform this month. For a young guy, it's a chance to move forward and make the most of the situation.'' The Hawkeyes will continue to work in Iowa City through Monday and will travel to Tampa and the bowl site on Tuesday, where players will be given time early in their stay to explore the city. Iowa moves into a traditional game week mode beginning on Thursday as it works toward its New Year's Day match-up with LSU.

Eye appeal

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013
LSU began its Outback Bowl preparations for Iowa on Monday and coach Les Miles told reporters in Louisiana that the Hawkeyes have his team's full attention based on what he's seen on tape. "They've got a big back that runs hard, they've got an offensive line that is very disciplined and will block you,'' Miles told the Times-Picayune. "You're going to have to fight, they're a good football team. Honestly, it's exactly what we need, end the football season with a real challenge.'' Miles deflected the notion that the Tigers might find it difficult to get ready to face the Hawkeyes. "If they don't get fired up about playing a quality bowl game against an opponent like Iowa, there's something wrong with them,'' he said. Miles indicated he believes freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings will have ample time to prepare for his first collegiate start. Replacing injured Zach Mettenberger, Jennings has seen limited action in eight games this season but did lead LSU on a 99-yard game-winning touchdown drive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas. He finished it with a 49-yard touchdown pass with just over one minute remaining. Jennings has been the back-up for LSU all season and Miles believes those reps will prove beneficial now. "There's not going to be any pieces of what we do that he won't be able to do,'' Miles said.

‘A crazy week’

Friday, December 13th, 2013
Jet-setting James Morris welcomed the idea of returning to the practice field late this afternoon with the Iowa football team. There's a certain peace Morris finds working out with teammates and continuing preparations for the Hawkeyes' Outback Bowl game against LSU. The work comes at the end of what Morris describes as "a crazy week.'' The senior linebacker from Solon, Iowa, has jet-setted from one coast to the other in recent days, recognized for his work on the field and in the classroom. He flew from Iowa to Newport Beach, Calif., last Saturday to attend the Sunday evening banquet where the Lott IMPACT Trophy was presented, then left for an Orange County airport at 4 on Monday morning to fly to New York City where Morris was among those honored Tuesday at the National Football Foundation's Scholar-Athlete Banquet, one of 16 of the nation's brightest players on the field and in the classroom. By late Wednesday, he flew back to Iowa and returned to classes on Thursday. "I met a lot of people this week, and it has been an honor to be a part of the events I've been at,'' Morris said. "I don't take any of it for granted.'' Morris shared the experience with his parents. His mother, Lynn, accompanied him to both events and his father, Iowa football equipment manager Greg Morris, joined him in New York City for the black-tied festivities at the Waldorf-Astoria. "It was great for them to be there and have a chance to enjoy it all,'' Morris said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.'' In California, he had a chance to get to know one of the other three finalists, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, and in New York City, Steve Spurrier and Barry Alvarez were among current and former coaches Morris had an opportunity to meet. "It's been a special week, but I'm looking forward to getting back to football,'' Morris said.

To the point

Monday, December 9th, 2013
Brandon Scherff put an end to the speculation today. In a brief statement, the all-Big Ten offensive tackle announced that he will return to Iowa for his senior season and discard the notion of an early exit for the NFL draft. Scherff first told his hometown radio station in Denison, Iowa, that he would remain a Hawkeye, then offered words issued through the university that he believes he has more to accomplish at the collegiate level. "I am excited to say that I will staying at the University of Iowa for my senior season in 2014,'' Scherff said in a statement. "I am looking forward to the 2014 Outback Bowl and playing an outstanding opponent in LSU, and then working as hard as possible with my teammates to prepare for my senior year as a Hawkeye.'' With that, Scherff dismissed the lure of the pro game and an opportunity that will likely still be there in another year. He plans to take out an insurance policy to protect his decision, which came after conversations with coach Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa coach said Sunday that he had spoken to Scherff about the matter, but did not disclose the outcome. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it,'' Ferentz said. "It's no secret that he'll have a chance. He's a very good football player.'' Ferentz said there was "no urgency'' for Scherff to make a quick decision. "When it's time for him to comment on that, he will do so. He's done a great job,'' Ferentz said. "We just have a lot of good young people on this football team and he is one of them.'' That will continue when Scherff is part of an offense which will return eight starters as it works to build on its efforts during the current 8-4 season. Along with center Austin Blythe and right guard Jordan Walsh, Scherff will continue to anchor an offensive line which will be matched in experience by a defenseive front which returns all four starters. That gives the Hawkeyes a good starting point for 2014 even before the 2013 season concludes.

Shake-up Sunday

Sunday, December 8th, 2013
It was to be expected, given the number of conference title games between the nation's elite this weekend but this turned out to be the second straight shake-up Sunday on my Associated Press college football poll ballot. Florida State held onto the top spot after steamrolling an overmatched Duke team in the ACC final, but with three of the top five on last week's ballot losing on Saturday there are many other changes at the top this week. Because of Ohio State's loss and in spite of anything resembling a defense taking the field in the SEC title game, I bumped Auburn up to the No. 2 spot this week. Michigan State, which has been in my top 10 for a month now, moves from sixth to third following its win over Ohio State. The growth the Spartans have shown on offense since winning their Big Ten opener in Iowa City on Oct. 2 has been impressive. MSU's defense has been one of the nation's best throughout the season and was expected to be strong but Connor Cook's development at quarterback has helped create a memorable season for the couch-burning faithful in East Lansing. Idle Alabama and Pac-12 champ Stanford round out my top five this week. Big 12 champ Baylor, Ohio State, South Carolina, Oregon and Oklahoma fill the spots 6-10. Losses on Saturday move Oklahoma State and Missouri into the 12th and 13th spots this week. The only newcomer on my ballot this time around is Iowa, which I slotted in the 25th spot this week. The Hawkeyes are one of two four-loss teams on my ballot. When this season started, I did not antiicpate casting a vote for Iowa or Iowa State this year. I have done so in the past and I've always felt like seeing teams on regular basis, you see both the good and bad perhaps a little more than a casual observer would. Much like Michigan State, this has been a season filled with growth from the Hawkeyes. The progress made by Iowa's defensive line, its offensive front and the steady play of first-year starter Jake Rudock at quarterback have all factored into the team's success. Iowa was among the teams that I considered for one of the last couple of spots a week ago following consecutive wins against Michigan and Nebraska, but I opted to slot three-loss Miami and Texas onto my ballot last Sunday. I knew that Texas had a date at Baylor on Saturday and that they would either earn a likely chance to move up or play their way out, which they did. That led to me to today's decision, which essentially in the end came down to picking between four-loss Georgia and Iowa teams. The Bulldogs have lost to Clemson (10-2), Auburn (12-1), Missouri (11-2) and Vanderbilt (8-4) this season, while the Hawkeyes' setbacks have come against Ohio State (12-1), Michigan State (12-1), Wisconsin (9-3) and Northern Illinois (12-1). This week, I gave the nod to Iowa and slotted them at 25. Whether the Hawkeyes will make it onto my final ballot after the bowl season ends remains to be seen. They'll have to earn that on the field. Here is my ballot for this week's Associated Press poll: 1. Florida State 2. Auburn 3. Michigan State 4. Alabama 5. Stanford 6. Baylor 7. Ohio State 8. South Carolina 9. Oregon 10. Oklahoma 11. Clemson 12. Oklahoma State 13. Missouri 14. LSU 15. UCF 16. Louisville 17. UCLA 18. Arizona State 19. Wisconsin 20. Fresno State 21. Texas A&M 22. Northern Illinois 23. Miami (Fla.) 24. Duke 25. Iowa