Archive for August, 2014
The leading rusher was a receiver. The top returning receiver turned into a kick returner. One of the top punt returners in the Big Ten didn't get a sniff there, but he did catch eight passes. It was that kind of debut for the 2014 Iowa football team. Northern Iowa was its typically pesky self, an FCS team in name only that has the talent and coaching to succeed at a much higher level. That's not a bad thing. Iowa was tested in its season opener and for the most part, the Hawkeyes passed. Plenty of work remains but this Iowa team, currently one of the deepest clubs that coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff have had to work with in his 16 seasons, oozes potential. The lines were as stout as advertised, and on the 77 plays it ran, Iowa averaged 5.2 yards per snap. The flip side? Iowa's defense surrendered 6.5 yards per play despite limiting the Panthers to an average of 1 yard on its 25 rushing plays. In an era where teams fill the air with footballs, the Hawkeyes must grow and must grow quickly in defending the pass. Questions remain, and Ball State, a 10-win team from the MAC a year ago that is picked third in its division this season, provides the next opportunities for answers when it takes the turf at Kinnick Stadium next Saturday afternoon.
Today's game had an early-season look to it, full of the potholes that typically fill the start of the path that leads a team through a season. In almost every area, there is something to like, room to grow and progress to be made. That said, here is this week's Hawkeye report card: OFFENSE: B+ Iowa's depth and Jake Rudock's growth stand out. The junior quarterback orchestrated an offense which gained 401 yards and featured plenty of variety. Rudock threw to 13 receivers and seven Hawkeyes carried the football. He completed a career-high 31 passes and his 256 passing yards were six shy of his career high. Iowa lost its only turnover of the day, a fumble. DEFENSE: C- Iowa wasn't the only one piling up yards. UNI collected 405 of them, including 380 through the air as Sawyer Kollmorgen completed 17-of-37 passes. He tested an Iowa defense which started three new linebackers and two new players in the secondary. Their inexperience was evident at times as they dealt with the challenge presented by Panthers all-American back David Johnson and a group of solid receivers. Iowa was stout against the run, a byproduct in part of the Hawkeyes' experience up front and Iowa was particularly effective in the final quarter, displaying in-game growth that will be important as Iowa moves deeper into its schedule. The defense grabbed a pair of interceptions. SPECIAL TEAMS: C Mark Weisman returning kicks? Why not. He ran the game's opening kickoff back 50 yards. Matt VandeBerg returning punts? Why not. He showed some mobility in busting one loose for 23 yards. Iowa's kicking and punting units were fairly pedestrian. Marshall Koehn averaged 63.7 yards on kickoffs, but was 1-of-2 in field goal attempts. He hit from 40, but missed from 37 in the third quarter when Iowa needed to extend its lead against the pesky Panthers. Dillon Kidd averaged 36.2 yards on four punts, placing only one of his attempts inside the 20 with a long of 42 yards. There's room for improvement. COACHING: B+ Offensively, a good blend between the pass and run - 36 rushes and 41 passes - and the Hawkeyes put their depth on display against a solid opponent. Iowa won't be the only team to struggle to deal with David Johnson, and he was more than a young back seven on defense was ready to handle. When Iowa needed to score at the end of the first half, it did. When it needed to ground and pound and chew some clock in the fourth quarter, it did. A solid start, and the stated realization that a lot of work remains.
Four things that Northern Iowa can do to put itself in a position to win Saturday at Iowa: 1. Establish the run. Northern Iowa has a horse. it must ride it. Preseason all-American David Johnson, just the third player in UNI history to top 1,000 career rushing and passing yards, provides a versatile option on offense. He ran for 199 yards and scored four touchdowns in last year's season-opening win at Iowa State and will need to find similar success if Northern Iowa hopes to defeat its instate foe for the first time since 1898. The Panthers have experience up front, where West Branch's Jack Rummells leads the way. 2. Return to form. Sawyer Kollmorgen missed the final games of the 2013 season after suffering a concussion, but the junior who has started 20 games at quarterback for UNI over the past two seasons has an accurate arm. His 62.9-percent completion rate a year ago ranked second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. If he can return to form, he has capable targets in Chad Owens, Kevin Vereen and Johnson. The trio combined to catch 150 passes a year ago.. They'll be working against an Iowa secondary which includes new starters in two positions, with Jordan Lomax making the move from cornerback to free safety and Greg Mabin earning the start at cornerback. Mabin, a sophomore who did not see any game action last season, surged up the depth chart with solid play in spring drills and fall camp. 3. Be special on special teams. Like Iowa, Northern Iowa will send a first-time starting kicker into action Saturday. Michael Schmadeke successfully converted on two PAT tries in a 2012 game against Central State, but did not see action behind veteran Tyler Sievertsen a year ago. 4. Hang around. UNI's ability to work the clock, effectively taking advantage of the skills of Johnson and a deep group of running backs, can provide the Panthers with a chance to take this game into the fourth quarter. UNI has 18 returning starters this season, including four on the offensive line, and the Panthers can shorten the game with effective clock management and time-consuming drives, they can position themselves for a chance to making meaningful plays in the fourth quarter. Four ways Iowa can help itself win its season opener for the 13th time in 16 seasons under Kirk Ferentz, something the Hawkeyes did not do a year ago when Northern Illinois took a 30-27 win home from Kinnick Stadium: 1. Establish the run. As always, Iowa's success on offense will be predicated on the Hawkeyes' ability to move the ball on the ground. With three returning offensive linemen, a group anchored by preseason all-American Brandon Scherff at left tackle, and a group of veteran running backs led by seniors Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, Iowa has the potential for one of the strongest rushing attacks it has had in recent seasons. Northern Iowa's defensive front, led by three-year starting tackle Xavier Williams, and linebackers Jake Farley and Max Busher will provide an early test. 2. Iron vs. Iron. Northern Iowa will test the Hawkeyes' collection of three first-year starters at linebacker. The Panthers' David Johnson is a stout runner and quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen returns his top three targets from a year ago. Collectively, they will test a group led by Quinton Alston, a senior who replaces James Morris in the middle. Iowa's other two linebacker spots will see a rotation with Travis Perry and Bo Bower at the outside spot and Reggie Spearman and Josey Jewell competing at weakside. Iowa limited the Panthers to 04 rushing yards and a 2-of-10 conversion rate on third down when the teams last met in 2012. The Hawkeyes will need to put up similar numbers Saturday. 3. Click on special teams. Early in the season, special teams play frequently has a major impact on games and Iowa has no shortage of players stepping into new roles Saturday. Marshall Koehn replaces Mike Meyer as the team's kicker. The junior has one successful PAT try in a rout of Western Michigan last season on his resume. Juco transfer Dillon Kidd will start as Iowa's punter after edging returning starter Connor Kornbrath during competition for the starting spot in fall camp. Iowa has a new snapper as well, with Tyler Kluver taking over for steady Casey Kreiter. How well those units click will make a difference. 4. Remember 2009. Iowa finished the season with a win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl but long before the Hawkeyes ended 11-2, they avoided a season-opening no-show against UNI. It took a pair of blocked field goal attempts in the final seconds for Iowa to hold on for a 17-16 win in a game that certainly could have changed the tone for what followed if Moline's Billy Hallgren had converted on either of his tries. Iowa players have been reminded this week that UNI will show up ready to compete. Coach Kirk Ferentz will be looking for the same from his team in its 2014 season opener.
Compared to other years, there are not a significant number of rule changes that will come into play as the college football season begins but the changes in 2014 tend to reflect a desire for improved player safety. "There is a penalty for low hits on quarterbacks, a redefinition of targeting and a few changes in those areas that fans may notice,'' Big Ten coordinator of officials Bill Carollo said. "It was a relatively quiet year in terms of the number of rule changes, mostly just some tweaks here and there.'' Fans will notice an additional official on the field. The Big Ten is among conferences who will use eight officials, adding a center judge whose responsibilities will include spotting the ball. Carollo said the center judge will allow the referee to better manage the game and will help facilitate offenses which desire to play at a quicker tempo. He also said the center judge will be positioned where he should provide a closer eye on low hits of quarterbacks in addition to assisting with targeting and chop block issues that arise. The most significant change this season centers around the targeting penalty implemented a year ago which saw defenders automatically ejected for hitting players above the shoulders. Last season, if the call was overturned by video replay and the defender was not ejected, officials were still required to enforce a 15-yard penalty. This year, if the targeting call is overturns the 15-yard penalty is also negated. The second change has also been welcomed by coaches and officials and is one that has been in place in the NFL for some time. If a quarterback is scrambling and in a passing posture, it is now a penalty to make forcible contact at the knee or below the knee. The change is designed to eliminate knee injuries that occur when the defensive player forcibly drives a shoulder, forearm or helmet into the lower leg of the passer. The rule is not intended to prevent the defense from making wrap-up tackle which includes contact at or below the knee. The third rule change involves requiring teams to wear jerseys with numerals that contrast with the color of the jersey. Points of emphasis for officials include management of team personnel on the sidelines and sportsmanship. Carollo said officials will look to work with teams to keep coaches and players out of restricted areas when the ball is alive as well as during times until action ceases at the end of plays.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz called a couple of his players into his office the other day. By the time they left, they were on the receiving end of what just might be the best part of the job for Ferentz. Two redshirt freshmen walk-ons, linebacker Bo Bower and offensive lineman Boone Myers, were awarded scholarships last weekend for their work on the field. Iowa placed fullbacks Adam Cox and Macon Plewa on scholarship earlier this fall as well, rewarding players who arrived at Iowa looking for an opportunity. Ferentz said young players usually arrive at the head coach's door expecting the worst, but are quickly assured that they haven't just been summoned "to the principal's office.'' Both Bower, who shares the top spot on the depth chart at outside linebacker with Travis Perry, and Myers, who is listed to the back-up of fellow redshirt freshman Sean Welsh at left guard on the offensive line, earned their scholarships with the work they put in last fall, during the offseason, in spring ball and lately in fall camp. "We're impressed with both of those guys,'' Ferentz said. "It was a leap of faith when they came here, but they and their families trusted that we would treat them fairly and give them an opportunity.'' Then, the players made the most of the opportunity. "They asserted themselves in a strong way,'' Ferentz said. "They've both done a good job to get to this point.'' The pair are positioned to add their names to the long list of walk-ons who have gone on to have success at Iowa. Bower and Myers have handled the early stages of their college careers at a level which Ferentz and Iowa coaches chose to reward and as with any player, it is up to them to build on what they have achieved to this point.
What a difference a year makes. The anxiousness for the start of a new season remains, but Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock feels more comfortable, more confident at the controls of the Hawkeye offense as he prepares for his second season as a starter. "It's probably natural, just a byproduct from experience,'' Rudock said. He said he doesn't recall much of what was running through his mind in the days leading up to Iowa's season-opening game against Northern Illinois a year ago. Rudock attempted the first 37 passes of his college career in the 30-27 loss, completing 21 of them for 256 yards and one touchdown. He was intercepted twice as the Huskies outscored Iowa 13-3 in the second half to win at Iowa City. "I know I was fairly excited to be out there, and that hasn't changed,'' Rudock said. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sees growth from Rudock, one of the reasons he remains ahead of C.J. Beathard on the Iowa depth chart. The communication between coach and player initially last season was one way. Now, it's two way and with feedback from the field matching what coaches are seeing from the sidelines. "Both of those guys (Rudock and Beathard) give us good information now,'' Ferentz said. "... When players are more experienced, they're more capable of telling you here's what I feel good about and why, so I think that's certainly a good thing, and that's something you try to build with every player at every position, but it takes time.'' Rudock demonstrated growth throughout Iowa's 8-5 season a year ago, and progress from both Iowa's experienced quarterbacks is among the reasons Hawkeye fans like the possibilities they see this season. "Jake has got real good feel for what's going on. He sees things well, and he did last year for a first-year player,'' Ferentz said. "What he told Greg Davis coming off the sideline was usually matched up with the film, and that's a good sign. That's one of the reasons we felt good about him last year.'' It's among the reasons those feelings haven't changed as Iowa prepares for its 2014 opener.
There is more either or on the Iowa football depth chart for the Hawkeyes' season opener than usual. The reasons vary, but it is reflective of where things stand today, eight days before Iowa and Northern Iowa tee things up at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa coaches have yet to decide which direction to go at the kicker and punter positions, where the competition has been statistically tight throughout fall camp. At both spots, where Marshall Koehn and Mick Ellis are battling for the kicking role and Connor Kornbrath and Dillon Kidd are competing for the punting job, consistency is the objective. Despite an off day at last Saturday's open practice, coach Kirk Ferentz has said he feels better about Iowa's kicking situation now than he did in April. As for the punters, he said both have posted nearly identical numbers since the start of fall camp. It's possible things could separate themselves over the next week or that multiple players could see the field against UNI at those positions. Three of the starting either or positions are on defense, where healthy competition is taking place at linebacker and Nate Meier has elevated his level of play to challenge Mike Hardy for the starting nod at an end's position after being used primarily in third-down situations a year ago. Given the experience Iowa lost at the linebacker from a year ago -- Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris combined for 104 starts over the past four seasons -- there are a number of players angling for playing time. Quinton Alston has been a constant, filling the middle linebacker spot since the start of spring drills, but two redshirt freshmen from Iowa, walk-on Bo Bower of West Branch and Josey Jewell of Decorah, have positioned themselves to battle junior Travis Perry and sophomore Reggie Spearman at the outside and weakside positions, respectively. Both Bower and Jewell gave solid accounts of their abilities during Iowa's open practice last week, something coaches said was reflective of what they've seen on the practice field throughout fall camp. The biggest name missing from the defensive depth chart today is in a back-up role at tackle, where Darian Cooper is not listed. Cooper sat out last week's open practice with an injury as well, potentially a blow to Iowa's depth at the position. On offense, the either or at running back is more reflective of the depth Iowa has at the position than anything. Mark Weisman is the constant, but Damon Bullock now shares the top spot on the chart and Jordan Canzeri, who is listed as Iowa's kick returner, fills the back-up spot. There will likely be plenty of carries to go around for all three, as well as for LaShun Daniels, as either or gets settled by performance on the field.
Gene Taylor is as curious as anyone to know if Iowa's football season opener will truly be one of the final games the Hawkeyes play against an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision. Hired in June as a deputy athletic director at Iowa and in the midst of his first month on job in Iowa City, Taylor made the career move after spending the past 13 seasons as the director of athletics at North Dakota State. His job at Iowa includes handling football scheduling, and while he has not yet had the chance to talk scheduling philosophy with coach Kirk Ferentz, Taylor sees the landscape changing. Iowa currently has FCS teams on its schedule in each of the next three seasons, including this year's game with UNI and games the next two seasons with Illinois State and North Dakota State. With strength of schedule a component of how teams for the new College Football Playoff will be determined, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has made it known that his preference is for conference teams to help themselves by scheduling only teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision. "I see things from both sides,'' Taylor said prior to the Iowa football team's open practice last Saturday. "Right now, I'm spending a lot of time listening and reading about the (selection) committee and like everybody else, I'm interested to see how it all plays out.'' With the Big Ten expanding its conference schedule to nine games beginning in 2016 and a contract in place to continue its series with Iowa State through the 2021 season, Iowa has limited openings on its nonconference schedules. "I'm not going to rush into anything. I fielded a call the other day from someone inquiring about a possible game and I told them that we would talk later,'' Taylor said. "I want to see how this all plays out. I want to make sure we do what is in the best interest of Iowa.'' That includes an eventual conversation with Ferentz, something which won't likely take place until after the upcoming season ends. Taylor appreciates the desires and financial needs of programs at the FCS level to schedule games against FBS teams. The North Dakota State program he led opens its season this year at Iowa State and has the date at Iowa on its schedule in 2016. "Those games serve a financial purpose,'' Taylor said. "I'm not certain which direction things are headed, if it will be possible for those types of match-ups to continue.'' Hired in part because several members of Iowa's senior athletics staff are nearing retirement age, Taylor plans to take the next few months to learn the lay of the landscape at Iowa and proceed from there. "This is a time for me to learn. I'm sure I'll bring a few ideas of my own to the table over time, but right now it is important for me to get to know Iowa and the people here,'' Taylor said.
Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and Ohio State top my preseason ballot in this year's Associated Press college football poll. I'll preface my thoughts with my belief that preseason polls are good for "coffee talk'' and little else, to borrow a phrase frequently used by Hayden Fry. The preseason poll is merely a starting point, judgments made based on how teams look on paper and not the realities of competition. The first five I feel at this point are this year's initial elite, based on returning talent and what has been learned since the start of spring ball about each.. There are four Big Ten teams on my preseason ballot. In addition to the Buckeyes, I have Michigan State in seventh, Wisconsin in 14th and Iowa in the 25th slot. K'm far from married to any of my last five selections, who were among a group of 12 teams I considered for the final slots. There will be changes based on early-season performances. In alphabetical order, Central Florida, Kansas State, Louisville, Marshall, Michigan, Missouri and Nebraska were the other teams that were in that 21-33 area this time around. Again, it will be fluid as games are played and identities of teams are established. I'll post a few thoughts on each week's ballot along with the ballot each week. Here is my preseason ballot: 1. Florida State 2. Alabama 3. Oklahoma 4. Oregon 5. Ohio State 6. Auburn 7. Michigan State 8. UCLA 9. Georgia 10. Baylor 11. South Carolina 12. Stanford 13. LSU 14. Wisconsin 15. USC 16. Notre Dame 17. Clemson 18. Texas A&M 19. Mississippi 20. Arizona State 21. Florida 22. Texas 23. North Carolina 24. Washington 25. Iowa
If there is a benefit to be gained from the rash of minor injuries that the Iowa football team is dealing with, it does provide additional practice time for younger players in the Hawkeye program. Today's Kids Day open practice at Kinnick Stadium provided a glimpse of the future, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Linebackers Bo Bower and Josey Jewell, a couple of Iowa natives looking to wedge their way into some playing time as redshirt freshmen, performed well as did John Kenny and Nathan Bazata on the defensive side of the ball. Fans caught a glimpse of Andre Harris and Derrick Mitchell at receiver positions and true freshmen Mick Ellis, C.J. Hilliard, Ben Niemann and Tyler Wiegers had a chance to step onto the turf in front of a crowd at Kinnick for the first time. Bower was seemingly all over the place, illustrating why the walk-on from West Branch has caught the attention of Hawkeye coaches in crowded competition for playing time. His play at linebacker, if nothing else, could lead to special teams opportunities which traditionally have paved the way for participation on offense and defense at Iowa. There is potential in the young guns that took the field for the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Coach Kirk Ferentz said coaches have not yet discussed which true freshmen, if any, will be part of Iowa's initial plans for the 2014 season. Those discussions will take place in upcoming days and there will be some decisions to be made. "We have some things to talk about,'' Ferentz said. Ellis will likely be prepared to compete, although his battle with Marshall Koehn for the starting kicking assignment remains ongoing. Ellis displayed a strong leg and Ferentz indicated both kickers have performed well during fall camp. The Kids Day atmosphere, complete with music throughout much of the practice in addition to the fans in the stands, provides a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Hawkeyes. That is particularly important for the new Iowa players. "I can remember my first time out there. Nerves, jitters, it's all a part of it. It will be the same way for those guys in the opener, but this helps everybody get used to it,'' receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. Ferentz said he thought a bit on his drive to the stadium today that the open practice - initially started to provide fans a look at the team when renovation work prevented a spring game from being held - might have outlived his usefulness. For players like Bower, Jewell, Kenny, Bazata and more, the experience more than likely served a valuable purpose.