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Archive for November, 2014

Filling the fourth

Sunday, November 30th, 2014
It wasn't pretty - for a multitude of reasons - but the top three teams on my ballot for this week's Associated Press college football poll remained the same. Florida State and Alabama hung onto the top two spots after hanging on to win against rivals. The Seminoles and Tide both found ways to rally and survive in instate tests and they'll stay where they have been for the past two weeks. Oregon still fills the third spot, despite showing up for the Civil War with Oregon State dressed like highlighter markers. They overcame their hideous attire with another stout effort on the field, taking care of business on the road against the Beavers 47-19. Mississippi State fell out of my top four for the first time in seven weeks after dropping the Egg Bowl battle with Mississippi 31-17. I replaced them with Baylor, which performed its own escape act against Texas Tech and will face a stiff test next weekend at home against Kansas State. Ohio State moves into the fifth spot following its win over Michigan. It will be interesting to see how the injury to quarterback J.T. Barrett is handled by the College Football Playoff committee in its rankings. The Buckeyes, per usual, have no shortage of talent, but Barrett was in the midst of a terrific season and his injury will no doubt impact Urban Meyer's team. I have TCU, which hosts Iowa State next weekend, Michigan State, Mississippi, Kansas State and Wisconsin rounding out my top 10. That gives me Big Ten teams in the fifth, seventh and 10th spots, in what is generally considered a down year for the conference. But those three teams have performed at a level above the rest of the league and have worked their way up the ladder. Six teams I had between the ninth and 19th positions a week ago all lost during the past week, leading to considerable changes. Air Force makes its first appearance on my ballot this week at 24 after its win over Colorado State. Among teams just outside the top 25 that I considered this week, in no particular order, were Duke, Northern Illinois, Marshall,. Memphis, USC, Colorado State, Utah, UCF and LSU. Here is my ballot for this week's Associated Press top 25: 1. Florida State 2. Alabama 3. Oregon 4. Baylor 5. Ohio State 6. TCU 7. Michigan State 8. Mississippi 9. Kansas State 10. Wisconsin 11. Mississippi State 12. Arizona 13. Georgia Tech 14. Missouri 15. Georgia 16. UCLA 17. Arizona State 18. Oklahoma 19. Louisville 20. Auburn 21. Clemson 22. Boise State 23. Nebraska 24. Air Force 25. Minnesota

It is what it is

Friday, November 28th, 2014
Iowa's football team completed a regular season filled with unmet expectations this afternoon. As frustrating as it has been for fans, the pain is more piercing for the players who stare a 7-5 reality in the face. "You play this game to win a Big Ten championship,'' Iowa safety John Lowdermilk said. "Before the season, we thought we could do that. We thought we had the talent to get that done. We let games get away from us. We didn't win winnable games.'' The losses added up. The effort was a constant. This Iowa team generally showed up with its game face on. Today, those faces were glum as the reality set in. Running back Mark Weisman said the Hawkeyes' regular-season record doesn't portray what Iowa is about. "We aspire to win Big Ten championships,'' he said. "That's who we are and what we are about. For 12 months a year, we commit to it and work for it. To not get it done, that hurts.'' Weisman saw the 37-34 overtime loss to the Cornhuskers as a game that mirrored many of Iowa's issues this season. That only added to the frustration. "To go 7-5 and to finish not playing your best football. That's tough,'' Weisman said. "It's our record and we have to live with it. It is what it is.'' Weisman struggled to pinpoint why Iowa's offense has endured its share of ups and downs this season. The Hawkeyes have enjoyed one of their most productive seasons from an offensive standpoint in a decade, but those points didn't translate into wins. The lapses on offense in the second half led coach Kirk Ferentz to simply dissect, "That's football. There's ebb and flow.'' Ferentz suggested that the same discussion probably took place in the Nebraska locker room after it mustered just seven points despite four turnovers by Iowa. "That's football,'' Ferentz said. "It goes back and forth and fortunately we were able to get it going again and get back there to get the score to 28.'' But it wasn't enough. And, the Iowa coach joins his players in believing that 7-5 isn't enough. "I've really felt like since 2001, in broad sweeping terms, we have felt we would have an opportunity to compete for the championship. That's our goal and we're not going to back down from that.'' Ferentz said he suspects not many people in August would have projected Minnesota as an eight-win team right now or listed Maryland as a seven-win team. Ferentz said he wasn't surprised by the play of the Gophers or Terrapins, in part because of their experience. "My point there is that there are a lot of teams competing in our conference on both sides,'' Ferentz said. "... You never know what is going to happen. You take it a week at a time. Circumstances change. Your team changes, injuries, all those things that can take place. That's what makes it interesting. That's sports.'' For now, it is what it is. And for Iowa, what it is is a 7-5 regular season filled with unmet expectations. "That's what hurts the most,'' Lowdermilk said. "We know we're better than the record shows, but there is nothing we can do about it now. We know we let the fans down, but even worse, we let ourselves down.''

Report card: Nebraska

Friday, November 28th, 2014
OFFENSE: D Three turnovers in one half of football is no way to win a football game. The Hawkeyes' offensive performance against Nebraska was sporadic. The run game averaged 2.8 yards per carry on 50 attempts. That helped Iowa own a 15-minute advantage in possession time and a nearly 2-to-1 edge in first downs, but that was overshadowed by the Hawkeyes' red-zone struggles. Three points on three first-half trips inside the Huskers' 20 positioned Iowa for the loss it eventually took. QB Jake Rudock completed 19-of-38 passes, and that 50-percent completion rate is actually above what Nebraska had allowed through its first 11 games. Iowa's inability to continue to attack the Huskers' aggressively on offense after opening a 24-7 lead eventually provided Nebraska with an opening it seized. Iowa did reach 30 points in regulation for the fifth time in eight conference games. Even in this era of football that favors the offense, that ought to lead to better than a 4-4 Big Ten finish. DEFENSE: D Iowa's biggest issues Saturday, and in many respects this season, have been a byproduct of defensive lapses more than anything. Tackling and positioning to make tackles continues to be an issue for the Hawkeyes. Iowa players repeatedly said during the postgame they were well aware of Tommy Armstrong's propensity to throw deep whenever he found himself in scramble mode and that they were well aware of the tendencies of Nebraska receivers in those situations. It didn't show. The ease with which the Huskers moved the ball downfield following both the Damond Powell fumble with 1:07 left in the first half and after Jordan Canzeri's touchdown put the Hawkeyes ahead with 1:49 left in the game illustrates the issues that came back to bite Iowa. SPECIAL TEAMS: D Beyond Drew Ott's 12-yard return of a punt that bounced off the tail end of Nebraska player for a touchdown and Marshall Koehn's 2-of-2 game in field goal attempts, there is a laundry list of issues here. The punt unit provided De'Mornay Pierson-El with ample opportunity to display why he is one of the nation's best. He slipped through tackle attempts on both his 41-yard return which set up a touchdown pass and the next time he touched the ball with an 80-yard return for a score. It was the first un-blocked punt returned against Iowa for a touchdown since 2003, making it a rarity, but also illustrating the season-long struggles Iowa has had in that segment. Pierson-El left Iowa City with 134 yards on three returns today, 13 more than Iowa has managed as a team in the 12 games it has played this season. Even that proved problematic, with Matt VandeBerg fumbling a return during the first half to contribute to Iowa's collection of four turnovers in the game. Nebraska kicker Drew Brown did miss a 49-yard field goal and have a 27-yard attempt blocked, but the Huskers' special teams continued to be a season-long strength long before Brown hit from 20 yards to tie the game with 8 seconds left in regulation. COACHING: D More than one player hinted that the Hawkeyes may have taken the foot off the pedal once it opened a 24-7 lead in the third quarter. Iowa mustered two first downs over its next four drives. A series which preceded Pierson-El's 80-yard punt return started with an incomplete pass, followed by a 13-yard Rudock run and three more incompletions. That brought out the boobirds at Kinnick. The return that followed didn't help matters, and while coach Kirk Ferentz said his team had a plan to keep the ball out of Pierson-El's hands, it failed to execute those plans when it mattered most. Ultimately, that left the Hawkeyes staring a 7-5 record in the face.

Four-down territory: Nebraska

Thursday, November 27th, 2014
Four things the football teams from Iowa and Nebraska can do to help their chances for success in their game Friday at Kinnick Stadium: IOWA (7-4, 4-3) 1. Establish the run. The Hawkeyes beat the average last week, gaining 101 yards against a Wisconsin defense that been allowing 96 and that helped open things up for one of the most productive passing days quarterback Jake Rudock and the Iowa offense has enjoyed this season. The Hawkeyes averaged 3.6 yards per carry against the Badgers. A similar or better number will not only help Iowa on Friday, but also continue to leave passing possibilities and lead to a balanced attack. 2. Win up front. Nebraska presents Iowa with a sizeable challenge, particularly with the defensive front the Cornhuskers present. Sophomores Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine at the tackle spots both weigh in at over 300 pounds from their tackle positions, while Greg McMullen and Randy Gregory create havoc from the ends. Gregory, whose availability for the Iowa game was listed as 50-50 by coach Bo Pelini following a Wednesday practice, ranks among the Big Ten sack leaders with 7 and leads Nebraska with 8.5 tackles for a loss. Collectively, they will test the Hawkeyes' front five. 3. Play the pistol. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong is the type of quarterback that has given the Hawkeyes some difficulty this season. He will frequently operate out of the pistol formation, a look that has been problematic for Iowa's defense this year. Maryland's C.J. Brown gave the Hawkeyes issues with it a month ago and it was the look that helped lead Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy on a 45-yard dash to the end zone in the second quarter last weekend. Armstrong is Nebraska's second-leading rusher and he has shown a capable arm as well, although receiver the Huskers' career receiving leader, Kenny Bell, is questionable for Friday's game because of a head injury suffered in last week's loss to Minnesota. Jordan Westerkamp and true freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El will provide Armstrong with additional options. 4. Seize the moment. This will be the final home game for 16 Hawkeye seniors, one last chance to create a memory on the turf at Kinnick Stadium. Of the 16, 13 of those seniors are on the depth chart for Iowa and the steady play of Kevonte Martin-Manley and Mark Weisman at the receiver and running back positions will be an important part of the equation for the Hawkeyes. Iowa will need to be on top of its game if it hopes to reach eight wins. NEBRASKA (8-3, 4-3) 1. Have a blackshirt bounceback. Nebraska's defense hasn't looked like Nebraska's defense in consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Cornhuskers have given up more than 1,000 yards in their last two games and have been vulnerable on the ground. The season-long big picture does show an effective defense. Nebraska has limited opponents to 47.3 percent passing, the lowest completion rate allowed by a Big Ten defense. From Randy Gregory and a pair of mammoth tackles up front to Nate Gerry on the back at a safety spot, this defense has been a strength at times. 2. Establish the run. A sprained MCL has slowed one of the Big Ten's most gifted running backs in recent weeks, but Ameer Abdullah has continued to compete. He hasn't topped 100 yards since suffering the injury in a Nov. 1 game against Purdue, but continues to be a threat with the ball in his hands. Coach Bo Pelini considers the play of the Huskers' offensive line to be inconsistent, but Nebraska does have the fourth-most productive rushing attack in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is a threat to carry the ball, averaging 57.5 yards per game on the ground, and Imani Cross and Terrell Newby have proven to be capable ball carriers from the I-back position. 3. Find a Black Friday special. Nebraska's special teams have been among the most consistent segments of the team, creating a need for Iowa's special teams groups to be on top of their games as well. The Cornhuskers' De'Mornay Pierson-El leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally with an average of 15.2 yards on punt returns. He's returned a pair for touchdowns this season and has piled up 455 yards on returns this year -- 381 yards more than Iowa has managed as a team. Punter Sam Foltz averages 41.9 yards per attempt and among his 51 punts, he has dropped 22 inside the 20-yard line and has had 15 punts carry 50 yards or more. Pierson-El has moved into a kick return role following Ameer Abdullah's injury and has averaged 14.2 yards, about 10 fewer per return than Abdullah averaged. 4. Embrace tradition. This is the 25th straight year Nebraska has taken the field on the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday weekend tradition that dates to lining up on Black Friday to face Oklahoma when both played in the Big Eight Conference. The Cornhuskers own an 18-6 record over the past 24 years on Black Friday, going 5-1 vs. Oklahoma, 11-4 vs. Colorado and now 2-1 against Iowa. The Hawkeyes used a strong defensive effort led by the play of linebackers Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris to earn a 38-17 win in Lincoln a year ago, the first time Iowa has won the Heroes Trophy. Nebraska's Black Friday game, which has aired to a national audience on ABC annually since 1990, will continue to be a tradition at least through 2019. Future Big Ten schedules include an Iowa-Nebraska game on the day after Thanksgiving for the next five years following today's game.

Home turf

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014
Friday's Black Friday game with Nebraska provides Iowa seniors with one last chance to protect home turf. Playing at Kinnick Stadium has been a winning proposition for this year's seniors - Iowa is 21-13 at home over the past five years and 16-11 there over the past four - but there have disappoints along the way including last week's 26-24 loss Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes' last win over a rated opponent at home came during the freshman year for this year's seniors, a 24-16 victory over 13th-rated Michigan on Nov. 5, 2011. Consecutive losses by Nebraska leaves the Cornhuskers on the outside looking in at this week's top 25, but home is still special for the Hawkeyes. "The fans last week, we fed off them and the energy they brought,'' senior safety John Lowdermilk said. "Playing at Kinnick is always special, something we never take for granted.'' Quarterback Jake Rudock said the players share in the responsibility of creating an environment where fans have something to get excited about. "We need to make plays, give them a reason to get into the game,'' Rudock said. "It's up to us as players to help give the crowd a reason to get into the game.'' Senior tackle Brandon Scherff said the crowd played a role in helping Iowa rally last week against the Badgers, although he recalls the volume cranked to an even higher level when the Hawkeyes held off Northwestern 17-10 in overtime a year ago. "It's a great place to play,'' he said. And that is something coach Kirk Ferentz never takes for granted. He said the concentration level of coaches tends to block out the noise, but he said he does feel and sense energy in the environment. "If we're playing good football, we're playing a good football team, we've always had great fans here,'' Ferentz said. "So, I look at it as our job to provide the juice. That's what our job is. If we're playing good on the field, good things will happen.''

Thanksgiving feast

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014
Iowa football players will sit down for a team Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday night, where the Hawkeyes will get a jumpstart on the holiday. With a game to play on Friday, Iowa will maintain its usual Friday routine on Thursday, with all the trimmings of a holiday feast pushed up one day as well. The Hawkeyes point to one player as the teammate most likely to enjoy the most of whatever meal is put in front of him. "Carl Davis,'' tight end Ray Hamilton said. "Without a question, it's Carl. He's just a big man. I wouldn't want to be the one taking him shopping for groceries.'' Offensive tackle Brandon Scherff believes he could give Davis a run for his dining dollar, but concedes that as one might suspect the linemen probably move to the front of the line when food is being consumed. "Carl can put it away,'' Scherff said. Davis didn't dispute the notion. "You should have seen me at the Outback Bowl last year when they took us to the restaurant for all that they had,'' Davis said. "I enjoy a good meal.'' One of 16 seniors on the Hawkeye roster, Davis said his family will celebrate Thanksgiving on Saturday in Iowa City after attending Friday's game against Nebraska. He's looking forward to some homecoming from his mother and an aunt. "It's going to be a good time,'' Davis said. He also said one Hawkeye who people might not think of can hold his own at the dinner table as well. "Kevonte (Martin-Manley), he can put it away,'' Davis said. "It seems like he's eating something like 24 hours a day.'' Iowa's fine dining actually started after practice today. As part of its Heroes Game sponsorship, Hy-Vee feeds a meal to both the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers on their campuses on a day leading up to their annual trophy game. "The guys will not eat any better this year than what they will eat tonight,'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this afternoon. "Our guys aren't going hungry this week.''

Calm before the storm

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014
With a number of rivalry games on the schedule next weekend providing the potential for a shake-up on my ballot for the Associated Press college football, poll, this past weekend was relatively calm. Some of it had to do with scheduling. Alabama/Western Carolina, Georgia/Charleston Southern and games of a similar flavor are better suited for September and the results were pretty much predictable. The only team in my top 18 from last week's ballot to lose was Mississippi, which was blanked by Bret Bielema's Arkansas team that has seemingly turned a corner with consecutive shutouts over LSU and Ole Miss. The setback dropped Mississippi from ninth to 16th on my ballot for this week moving the teams I had in the 10th through 16th spots last week up one position. As has been the case throughout much of the season, the bottom six, seven spots have been a constant churn and that didn't change this week. With Nebraska, Notre Dame, Utah and USC all losing, I dumped them all out of my top 25 for the week. They're replaced - at least for now - but Minnesota, Louisville, Boise State and Clemson. I have no four-loss teams on the ballot and the only three-loss teams listed this week are Auburn at 14, Mississippi at 16, Oklahoma at 21, Minnesota at 22, Louisville at 23 and Clemson at 25. On the outside looking in, in no particular order, are Notre Dame, Utah, USC, Nebraska and Northern Illinois. Here is my ballot for this week's AP top 25:: 1. Florida State 2. Alabama 3. Oregon 4. Mississippi State 5. Baylor 6. Ohio State 7. TCU 8. Michigan State 9. Georgia 10. UCLA 11. Kansas State 12. Wisconsin 13. Arizona 14. Auburn 15. Arizona State 16. Mississippi 17. Marshall 18. Georgia Tech 19. Colorado State 20. Missouri 21. Oklahoma 22. Minnesota 23. Louisville 24. Boise State 25. Clemson

Quick change

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014
So much for the 24-hour rule. You know the routine, good, bad or ugly, celebrate and/or recuperate from whatever happened on football field Saturday for 24 hours and the move on to the next one. Saturday, that became the 24-minute rule in the interview room just down the hall and around the corner from the Iowa locker room at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes had invested plenty in their match-up with the Badgers, the first game this season Iowa has shared the field with a rated opponent. It was a chance to make a statement. The Hawkeyes seethed at the notion it was some sort of moral victory to come close against Wisconsin. "We're not going there,'' quarterback Jake Rudock said following the 26-24 game. Where Iowa is going is back to the practice field today, taking a 7-4 record into its regular season finale Friday against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers, dealing with issues of their own after letting a 21-7 lead slip away in a 28-24 loss to Minnesota, have already caught the attention of several Hawkeyes. Carl Davis said Iowa is in need of a quick change of mindset, forgetting about what took place Saturday and moving on to a Nebraska team that will be looking to end a two-game slide when it arrives at Kinnick. "All this disappointment and anger, we're going to unleash it on Nebraska,'' linebacker Quinton Alston said. "It's senior night and I'm not going out on a loss."

Report card: Wisconsin

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014
Grading the Iowa football team's performance in today's 26-24 loss to 14th-rated Wisconsin: OFFENSE: B Iowa went down swinging today against Wisconsin, following a slow start with its best half of offensive football this season. The Hawkeyes put the ball in the air out of necessity after falling behind 19-3 and quarterback Jake Rudock and the 10 guys around him found the necessary rhythm. The Rudock who had a case of happy feet at times in the first half was exceptional after the break. His passes were well-timed and precise. His receivers were where they needed to be and his line gave him the needed time to work against a stout Badgers defense. It all added up to 412 yards for Iowa, the most allowed by the nation's best defense this season. Iowa averaged 3.6 yards per carry on its way to 101 yards on the ground, not quite enough to sustain the two brief drives the Hawkeyes had in the second quarter. Iowa turned the ball over just once, on a Mark Weisman fumble on the second play of the game. The Badgers were held to a field goal there, but as the final score indicates the margin for error on this day was slim. DEFENSE: B- Melvin Gordon did run for 200 yards, but that was less than half what he piled up on Nebraska a week earlier. The Hawkeyes made the Heisman candidate work for his yards and with the exception of an 88-yard gain which led to a field goal, Iowa did a decent job of keeping the junior in check. The extra attention the Hawkeyes placed on Gordon did allow other Badgers to beat Iowa. Tanner McEvoy found room to run for a 45-yard score in the first half and the Hawkeye struggled in both the second and fourth quarters to get Joel Stave off the field on third down. Given the challenge presented by an offensive line that averaged 321 pounds per player, that eventually took a toll which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. SPECIAL TEAMS: C- Iowa matched Wisconsin's average of 16 yards on kick returns, Marshall Koehn hit his only field goal attempt and lone PAT try and the Hawkeyes' Jordan Canzeri ran for a two-point conversion. Iowa's punters continued to struggle, with Connor Kornbrath delivering a 31-yard effort in his lone attempt and Dillon Kidd averaging 35.5 including a long of 42 on two tries. They operated under pressure, but given the near-ideal late November weather with temperatures hovering around 50 and a south breeze at 3, Iowa needed more. Only one of its three punts was downed inside the 20. The communication issues on Iowa's second two-point conversion try which led to Iowa burning what could have been a welcomed timeout in the final minutes of the game. Coach Kirk Ferentz said following the game in retrospect he should have headed down the sideline to talk with officials instead of angling himself toward the field, but the confusion did little to help Iowa. COACHING: C The communication issues noted above impact this one. The game plan was solid. Iowa needed to keep Wisconsin's offense off the field and the combination of a run game blended with a short passing game to work the clock and move the chains is about the best way possible to keep Melvin Gordon in a place where he can do no damage. Iowa opened things up when needed after the Badgers built a 16-point lead and the Hawkeyes had Wisconsin scrambling as the game moved into the final quarter. Iowa ran just 58 plays in the game, two more than Wisconsin, and rushed 28 times while passing 30 times while outgaining the Badgers by five yards.

It’s now or never

Friday, November 21st, 2014
From the lifts of frigid early January mornings to the summer sweat at the onset of fall camp, it all comes down to Saturday for the Iowa football. Simply put, it's now or never. When the Hawkeyes take the field at 2:30 p.m. at Kinnick Stadium and welcome Wisconsin, Iowa's season boils down to a 60-minute effort against a Badgers team chasing dreams of its own. Win, and the Hawkeyes live to play another week in the Big Ten race. Lose, and the Black Friday game with Nebraska becomes a trophy game for two teams that have let their desired prize slip away. This is probably the biggest game Iowa has played at Kinnick Stadium since Wisconsin showed up there in 2010, executed a fake punt midway through the fourth quarter and put the ball in Montee Ball's hands for an 8-yard score which rallied the Badgers for a 31-30 win. The match-up between top-15 teams sent Iowa on its way to the Insight Bowl that season. A couple of Iowa fifth-year seniors remember the electricity that day at Kinnick Stadium that day, energy they hope will be there again Saturday. "The crowd was into it, a great environment, and something we'll need again,'' receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. "Playing at Kinnick is always special and that was one of those games I'll remember, although I'd rather forget the outcome.'' Senior Mark Weisman is hoping for another "special'' day in Iowa City on Saturday. "It's a huge game,'' Weisman said. "It's a huge game. If people can't get up for this game, get ready for this game, I don't know what they get ready for. This is why you play college football. It's fun stuff, good stuff. I'm excited for it.''