Archive for September, 2015
The wins are adding up. The excitement from the fan base is building. And, the Iowa football team is determined to go about its business as it has on a daily basis since it started working in January to make the most out of its 2015 season. A strength of this year's team has been its focus, the ability to ignore the offseason gripes about what transpired last season and do the only smart thing, put it works to turn things around rather than become consumed about game results from a year ago that can never be changed. And now, as players make their way to class and go about their daily routine in Iowa City, the same ability to ignore the noise becomes an equally important trait. "We have to be careful now and understand that we've improved because we've been focused on the right things,'' coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's what we've got to say and the approach we've got to take.'' Iowa players understand that. "What matters is what we hear inside these walls,'' Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. "Really, that's what matters, what we do as a team.'' Free safety Jordan Lomax said both the criticism and the compliments come with the territory. "It's part of the deal,'' he said. "But, we don't focus on the outside noise. We focus on ourselves.'' And win or lose in Saturday's 11 a.m. game, that won't change. Not if Ferentz has anything to say about it. "If the roof should cave in this week, if all hell breaks loose, we're going to line up and play next week, too,'' Ferentz said.
Paul Chryst is in his first season as the head football coach at Wisconsin. But for a coach who spent eight seasons on the sidelines in Madison as an assistant, was a Badgers quarterback from 1985-87 and who grew up the son of a former Wisconsin player, the rivalry between Iowa and Wisconsin is personal. "For me and my recollection, it goes back to when coach (Hayden) Fry was there,'' Chryst recalled this week. "And I know before that I think it was my dad, when he was playing here. That was the one loss they had that kept them from going to the Rose Bowl.'' But despite the similarities between the teams in terms of how they approach the game, the hard-nosed style of football play, Chryst sees differences. "It's interesting when you talk to people, and they compare this is a similar-type of Iowa team or a similar-type of Wisconsin team, they are all so different to me because of the players who play in it each year,'' Chryst said. He appreciates the similarities, but said he sees a newness to the rivalry as well. "I think that's what we get to focus on this week,'' Chryst said. "Certainly a lot of respect for Iowa and their program and yet this is all about this year, these two teams.'' The 11 a.m. game at Camp Randall Stadium will be the first trophy game Chryst has worked as a Badgers head coach. Wisconsin has won the last nine trophy games it has played - dating to a 20-10 loss to Iowa at Camp Randall in 2009 - and will play for hardware next week against Nebraska and on Thanksgiving weekend at Minnesota. Chryst gets the significance and plans to talk about it with his team this week. "If you want to win your side (of the Big Ten), you've got to beat those teams,'' he said. "Therefore, I think they are big games. I think our players, even before that trophy came in, I know our players always enjoyed it and it was a big deal to play Iowa.''
I told myself I wasn't going to do it, but I did. No matter what happened on the field Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, my intention was to wait until after next week's game at Wisconsin to think about whether Iowa belonged in the top 25 on my ballot for the Associated Press college football poll. That was before the bottom fell out of last week's ballot. So long, Oregon. Later, Arizona. Catch you later, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Losses by those four teams, some by rather impressive margin, opened the door for four newcomers on my ballot this week. Mississippi State, West Virginia, Stanford and Iowa are moving onto my ballot this week. Mississippi State is 3-1, losing only a two-point game to LSU, while Stanford was on my preseason ballot, but dropped off after losing its opener at Northwestern. Iowa and West Virginia are unbeaten, but face significant road tests next week. The Hawkeyes travel to Wisconsin, while West Virginia faces Oklahoma in the first of a string of Big 12 tests that follows with Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor. I considered six other teams for those four spots as well, including Florida, Houston, Indiana Memphis, Miami, Michigan and North Carolina State. Given the match-ups next week involving some of teams in the 16-25 spots, I suspect I'll be revisiting things again next Sunday morning. The top of my ballot remains essentially unchanged. Ohio State hasn't been overly impressive the past couple of weeks, but the Buckeyes have done enough to hold onto my No. 1 spot. I did flip Michigan State and TCU in the 2-3 spots with Baylor, Mississippi, Georgia, Notre Dame, LSU, Florida State and UCLA holding steady in my top 10. All but Florida State, which was idle, won yesterday. TCU struggled a bit with Texas Tech before winning a 55-52 shootout, while I continue to be impressed with the defensive work of Michigan State. Here is my ballot for this week's Associated Press college football poll: 1. Ohio State 2. Michigan State 3. TCU 4. Baylor 5. Mississippi 6. Georgia 7. Notre Dame 8. LSU 9. Florida State 10. UCLA 11. Oklahoma 12. Alabama 13. Clemson 14. Texas A&M 15. Utah 16. USC 17. Wisconsin 18. Northwestern 19. Oklahoma State 20. Mississippi State 21. West Virginia 22. Stanford 23. California 24. Iowa 25. Toledo
Dan McCarney left Kinnick Stadium planning to repeat what he did a week earlier. After enjoying a front-row view of Iowa on Saturday as it picked apart McCarney's North Texas team, he plans to vote for the Hawkeyes for the second straight week in the coaches poll. "I put Iowa in my top 25 last Sunday and I'm sure going to do it again tomorrow when we vote,'' McCarney said. From the tape he watched before Saturday's 62-16 game and from what he saw of the Hawkeyes in person, McCarney was reminded of some of the Iowa teams he worked with as a defensive line coach during Hayden Fry's tenure. "The physicality of the team stands out. Iowa is fundamentally sound from the playmakers, returners, punters, kickers and it has a tremendous quarterback that really knows how to execute,'' McCarney said. "... They have big-play talent on their football team, and I was just really impressed.'' McCarney likes how defensive coordinator Phil Parker is deploying his players, centering its efforts around an athletic front four. "They do a really good job of blitzing when they do blitz, their timing of it and their coverage behind it, there is a method to their madness,'' he said. McCarney was pleased with the way his team was able to move the ball on the ground at times against Iowa. The Hawkeyes, who have not allowed a rushing touchdown during their 4-0 start, had allowed 51 yards per game on the ground before Saturday. The Mean Green finished with 183 yards on 45 carries against Iowa, an average of 4.1 yards per rush. Jeffrey Wilson saw his first action of the year for North Texas after returning from surgery and finished with 74 yards to complement a 66-yard game by Antoinne Jimmerson, whose 41 first-half yards were more than any individual had rushed for against Iowa this season, That gives McCarney's team something to build on as it moves into Conference USA play, but it did little to change his impression of Iowa. "They are a complete football team,'' he said.
Four ways the football teams from Iowa and North Texas can help put themselves in a position to win Saturday at Kinnick Stadium: NORTH TEXAS (0-2) 1. Stop the run Something easier said than done so far this season for the Mean Green, North Texas has surrendered an average of 231 yards per game on the ground this season. Opponents SMU and Rice have averaged 52 carries a game and there is no reason to expect Iowa not to follow the same path forged by others. Free safety Kishawn McClain and middle linebacker Blake Bean lead North Texas in tackles, averaging 12.5 and 11 per game. 2. Celebrate homecoming. North Texas coach Dan McCarney is 3-3 as a head coach in games played at Kinnick Stadium. The Iowa City native, a former Hawkeye and 12-year assistant under Bob Commings and Hayden Fry at Iowa, has never had a problem motivating his players to play in past games at Kinnick. His 1998 Iowa State team helped lead Fry's final Hawkeye team to a 3-8 record, ignoring being a 30-point underdog to win 27-9. North Texas quarterback Andrew McNulty is also celebrating a homecoming today. He's a senior from Iowa City High and enters this week coming off of the first 300-yard passing game of his career. McNulty has been effective on third down this season, completing 14-of-21 passes and 12 of those completions have moved the chains. Carlos Harris has been his favorite target. He grabbed a 93-yard touchdown pass last week and his average of 116.5 receiving yards per game ranks 12th nationally. 3. Be opportunistic on defense. North Texas has experienced success during McCarney's first four seasons in Denton in part because of an aggressive defensive approach. Turnovers - on both ends of the equation - have been problematic for North Texas so far this season. The Mean Green enter the game with a minus-four turnover margin. McNulty has thrown interceptions and the team has lost four fumbles through two games. North Texas has recovered three opponent's fumbles in its losses to SMU (31-13) and Rice (38-24). 4. Hang around. The longer the Mean Green can keep things competitive, the greater their opportunity of adding their name to a list of non-FBS opponents who have won at Kinnick in recent seasons. In all likelihood, that would mean forcing some turnovers against an Iowa team which has given the ball away just three times through three games and finding a way to make big plays against an Iowa defense which has not allowed an opponent to gain more than 20 yards on a rush this season and has surrendered four pass plays of 30 yards or more through three games. McCarney said earlier this week his team's best chance to win centers around keeping things close through three quarters and gaining confidence along the way to finish things off in the fourth. IOWA (3-0) 1. Establish the run. Iowa should be in a position to add to its collection of 200-yard rushing performances against a Mean Green defense which has lacked much bite during its first two games. Pitt limited Iowa to 105 yards a week ago, but Iowa the 4-3 defense the Hawkeyes will face this week is more similar to what Iowa saw in its first two games than what it saw against the Panthers. Jordan Canzeri will again likely be Iowa's primary ball carrier. LeShun Daniels continues to work his way back from an ankle sprain and was limited to nine carries and 15 yards a week ago while struggling to get much of a surge off of the injured ankle. Derrick Mitchell and Akrum Wadley could figure into things as well along with quarterback C.J. Beathard, whose 142 rushing yards rank as the most by any Big Ten QB. 2. D it up. The Hawkeyes' defense against the run has been impressive so far this season. Iowa is one of four teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision which has not allowed a rushing touchdown yet this season. Limiting opponents to an average of 51 yards per game on the ground, Iowa will be tested by senior running back Antoinne Jimmerson. He's approaching 2,000 career yards for the Mean Green has a small house blocking for him in 6-foot-9, 360-pound true freshman Jordan Murray, North Texas' starting left tackle. 3. Work the clock. You won't find a golf club on the turf at Kinnick this weekend, but the Hawkeyes have been winning their share of long drive contests through the initial weeks of the 2015 season. Through three games, Iowa has put together four drives covering nine or more plays and 80 or more yards. Only three other FBS teams - Texas A&M, Bowling Green and Florida State - can match that number. That has helped the Hawkeye offense progress and produce. Iowa has scored on 10 of its 11 trips into the red zone this season and has collected touchdowns on nine of those drives. Seven of the Hawkeyes' 15 scoring drives have taken five or more minutes off of the clock. 4. Keep on keeping on. Never too high. Never too low. One of the traditional strengths of the Iowa program under Kirk Ferentz has been the steadiness from one week to the next in preparation. Coming off of two emotional wins and with start of Big Ten play one week away, the routine has remained the same for Iowa. Ferentz explained this week his belief that each week provides his team with a chance to grow and develop regardless of who the opponent is. The differences in preparation are dictated by the different styles of games played by opponents, but if Iowa continues its business-like approach that has been the norm this season, an efficient offense, stout defense and improving special teams should position Iowa to finish unbeaten in the regular season outside of Big Ten play for the first time since 2009.
If it seems Iowa has been huddling up more this season than it did a year ago, that's an accurate perception. Quarterback C.J. Beathard said that has been by design during the Hawkeyes' first three games of the season. He said the no-huddle look Iowa utilized at times a year ago has been reduced in scope for a couple of reasons, including a desire to make certain that everyone is on the same page. "And, coach (Kirk) Ferentz talks about one of the traditional strengths and pride of Iowa football is us being a team together, being physical together and part of that involves everybody hearing the call from the quarterback,'' Beathard said. "It's about us being a team and working together as a team.'' Beathard believes that can also benefit the Hawkeyes when things don't go as planned. "If somebody misses a block or if I overthrow a guy or something gets messed up and a guy or two is a little frustrated, we're there for each other and we have time to go through the next play and pick each other up a bit,'' Beathard said. "It's a team thing. We're in it together.''
Nobody is asking Kirk Ferentz many questions about Iowa's offensive linemen these days. That's not necessarily a bad thing, for all the right reasons. Iowa's first-year starters at offensive tackle, Ike Boettger and Boone Myers, are making progress. Senior Austin Blythe has been his consistent self at center. In between, Jordan Walsh and Sean Welsh are putting together solid performances. It's what Ferentz hoped to see and what the Hawkeyes needed to have happen for this team to get off to the type of start it is off to. There is still plenty of football left to played - at 3-0 Iowa is just a quarter of the way through its schedule - but after a summer filled with questions the Hawkeyes seem to be delivering a few answers. Ferentz even admits to being somewhat comfortable with what he sees developing inside at the guard positions, where true freshman James Daniels joins Walsh and Welsh. "I'm afraid to say this, but right now I think we're playing pretty well inside. Our interior is playing well,'' Ferentz said today. "The point is, really happy with what both Jordan and Sean are doing, but also really happy with James.'' Ferentz said the plan is to keep playing Daniels in a rotation with Walsh and Welsh. "It's a good situation right now,'' Ferentz said. "Again, I'm afraid to even talk about it and jinx ourselves there.'' Ferentz doesn't mind talking about the growth he has seen from Boettger and Myers. "It's been really nice not to have a lot of discussion about them, that's been great in comparison to August and July,'' Ferentz said. He felt both met a different type of challenge in the Pitt game. "They were lining up against different types of players than we'd seen the first two weeks in a different type of defense,'' Ferentz said. "It was a unique challenge. I think they learned from it. I think they did a lot of good things.'' But the thing that excites Ferentz is the potential he continues to see in both. "They're hardly there yet,'' he said. "It's kind of like our team, hardly there yet, but their potential is there. It's a matter now of them getting burned a little more and learning from those experiences. But, I'm really pleased with their progress so far. It's going to be a work in progress, but they're doing a good job.''
Four things the football teams from Pittsburgh and Iowa can do to position themselves for victory in Saturday's 7 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium: PITTSBURGH (2-0) 1. Establish the run. The Panthers build their attack around a productive ground game. Centered around an offensive line that includes four starters weighing in at over 300 pounds, Pittsburgh plays a tough, gritty brand of football. The Panthers did lose returning ACC player of the year James Conner to a season-ending MCL tear, but 6-foot-2, 230-pound redshirt freshman Qadree Ollison has quickly responded to a starting opportunity. He rushed for 207 yards on 16 carries after Conner was injured and carried 21 times for 81 yards last week against Akron. True freshman Darrin Hall is also in the mix. He ran for 52 yards on a rain-slickened turf last week against the Zips. 2. Have Boyd be big time. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called Pitt junior Tyler Boyd the best receiver the Hawkeyes have faced since dealing with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham of LSU in the Outback Bowl following the 2013 season. Much of what Pitt does in the passing game runs through Boyd, who caught 10 passes for 153 yards against the Hawkeyes a year ago and matched a career high with 11 receptions in his 2015 debut last week against Akron. Regarded as a potential first-round NFL draft pick if he opts to leave the Panthers following his junior year, Boyd is also Pitt's punt returner. 3. Win the strength contest. Pat Narduzzi has talked since replacing Paul Chryst as Pitt's head coach about the need for the Panthers to develop the identity of being the most physical team on the field. Narduzzi put those words into actions during his eight seasons at Michigan State, where he served as Mark Dantonio's defensive coordinator. Pitt's defense, which includes three seniors and three juniors in its front seven, has recorded nine sacks through two games. The Panthers had just 19 in 13 games a year ago. This will be a lunch bucket type of game and Pitt views it as a measuring stick opportunity against an Iowa team which has set its own physical tone in its opening games of the season. 4. Find a rhythm at quarterback. The Panthers are a work in progress behind center. Pat Narduzzi likes what he has seen from both 15-game starter Chad Voytik and Tennessee transfer Nate Peterman. The pair have rotated in the first half of the Panthers' first two games and whoever has had the hot hand has worked the second half. That is expected to continue against Iowa, although a 12-of-17 passing performance for 148 yards and three scores by Peterman in a 24-7 win over Akron has Narduzzi thinking about a change at starter this week. He's being coy about the situation, saying it will be a game-time call publicly. IOWA (2-0) 1. Establish the run. Led by LeShun Daniels, Jordan Canzeri and ball-carrying skills of quarterback C.J. Beathard, the Hawkeyes are off to a strong start on the ground. Iowa has averaged 235 rushing yards on its way to a balanced offensive attack through two games. The yards may be harder to come by this week against a Pitt team which has limited opponents to an average of 88 yards on the ground in its first two games. The Panthers held Iowa to 133 rushing yards a year ago. Daniels, dealing with an ankle sprain suffered in the first half of the Iowa State win, is questionable although late-week reports from coach Kirk Ferentz indicated that he may have a "realistic shot'' to play against the Panthers. Daniels has averaged 89.5 yards through two games, numbers complemented by the 76 yards Canzeri has averaged to go with 54.5 receiving yards per game. 2. Play big up front. One Iowa defender mentioned this week that Pitt's preference would be to "run the ball down our throats.'' The Hawkeyes' ability to deal with that looms large. This is the type of match-up seemingly built for the physical and mental strength that Drew Ott brings to the field, but the senior defensive end remains listed as questionable after suffering a dislocated elbow in the Iowa State game. Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson are the Hawkeyes' top back-ups at the end positions. Nate Meier, Nathan Buzata and Jaleel Johnson, who have combined to help limit Iowa opponents to an average of 49 rushing yards per game, will need to continue the type of effort which limited Iowa State to five rushing yards and 66 total yards during the second half of last week's win at Ames. 3. Play smart at QB. Pittsburgh's defense will test C.J. Beathard's mind as well as his body. The Panthers are playing the 4-3 defense which Pat Narduzzi brought with him from Michigan State and through two games, Pitt has shown the ability to shift out of its traditional man look into zone coverage with ease. Beathard's ability to read that will be important in this match-up. Beathard has completed 61.2 percent of his 49 passes and has not been intercepted through his first two starts in 2015. 4. Meerkat and more. Nicknamed "Meerkat'' by his teammates, Matt VandeBerg is off to an exceptional start. The junior leads all Big Ten receivers with 15 catches through two games. Displaying a knack for finding open space and settling in there, he's averaging 86.5 receiving yards per game. Additional defensive attention being thrown in the direction of Tevaun Smith, Iowa's top returning receiver this season, has helped create some opportunities for VandeBerg. Smith and Jordan Canzeri are currently second on the team with five receptions apiece. Iowa could benefit from a more diversified passing attack this week. Jacob Hillyer has two catches through two games, one fewer than the collective pass-catching production of Hawkeye tight ends who have been called on to join fullbacks Adam Cox and Macon Plewa in helping strengthen the blocking that has fueled Iowa's rushing success. George Kittle will provide an additional receiving option from the tight end spot. He is expected back from a leg injury this week. Returning starter Jake Duzey remains sidelined by an offseason injury.
Iowa hasn't had a receiver lead the Big Ten in receptions since 2000, when Kevin Kasper topped the league's all-game receiving charts. The current season is only two games old, but Matt VandeBerg currently tops the conference with 15 receptions through the Hawkeyes' initial games in 2015. He helped himself with nine catches in Iowa's 31-17 win over Iowa State last weekend, a breakthrough performance that comes as no surprise to the seniors in the Hawkeye receiving corps. "We've been watching him make catches like every day in practice for a while now. It was just a matter of time,'' Jacob Hillyer said. "He needed a game like that.'' Every receiver needs a game like that at some point. Tevaun Smith called it the payoff for the work that players put in on a daily basis. "You work to develop a chemistry with the quarterback. It takes time, but once it there it eventually carries over to game day,'' Smith said. "That's what you're seeing with Matt. He's a good receiver, always has been. It's just carrying over to the games.'' Quarterback C.J. Beathard said VandeBerg has done a solid job of getting himself to space and putting himself in a position to make the catches Iowa needs to move the chains. He said the Hawkeyes' entire receiving corps has gained his trust with their work. "All of those guys take what they are doing seriously,'' Beathard said. "We're doing some good things in the passing game and I think that is only going to get better with time.'' Beathard said VandeBerg has proven himself capable in one-on-one situations with defenders. "He's not the biggest guy, but he plays tough and has a knack for putting himself in a position to make a play,'' Beathard said. "He's showing everybody what he's got.'' And his teammates are loving it. "He had a great day and made some great catches,'' Hillyer said. "That's what we're all working hard to do. It was great to see.'' VandeBerg currently ranks fifth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game, averaging 85.6, while Beathard is third in the conference in pass efficiency.
It was a rough week for SEC teams on the back end of my ballot for the Associated Press college football poll. Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi State all lost games and Missouri struggled mightily before disposing of Arkansas State. The Razorbacks, Volunteers and Bulldogs dropped off of my ballot for the week, the Tigers held steady and Auburn didn't help the SEC cause with its overtime escape vs a solid FCS program, Jacksonville State. That performance sent the Tigers down 10 spots on this week's ballot. That's football, as a wise coach once said. The top end of my ballot remains the same with Ohio State, Alabama, TCU, Baylor, USC and Michigan State still filling the top six spots. An impressive win for the Spartans at home against Oregon, which I moved from eight to 16 this week. BYU, Oklahoma State and MAC favorite Toledo, which beat Arkansas in a game played at Little Rock and hosts Iowa State next week, are my newcomers this week. BYU has had a pair of solid wins over Nebraska and Boise State, while Oklahoma State has taken care of business in its two wins. I gave consideration to a couple of Big Ten teams, most notably Northwestern, and 2-0 Temple for the final spots as well but I'll keep them on the outside looking in for now. Here is my ballot for this week's AP poll, which is scheduled to come out later today: 1. Ohio State 2. Alabama 3. TCU 4. Baylor 5. USC 6. Michigan State 7. Georgia 8. Notre Dame 9. Florida State 10. LSU 11. UCLA 12. Georgia Tech 13. Oklahoma 14. Mississippi 15. Clemson 16. Oregon 17. Auburn 18. Texas A&M 19. Missouri 20. Arizona 21. Utah 22. Wisconsin 23. BYU 24. Oklahoma State 25. Toledo