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Archive for October, 2015

It just doesn’t matter

Saturday, October 31st, 2015
You really wouldn't expect it any other way, would you? When the College Football Playoff committee releases its first poll of the season on Tuesday, Kirk Ferentz won't be tripping over people to get a quick look at it. Such thoughts are a million miles away from the Iowa football coach's world, although it will be interesting to see where the Hawkeyes and their 8-0 record at the midpoint of the Big Ten schedule rank. Ferentz accurately thinks time could be spent in better ways at this point in the season. Trying to figure out how to slow an Indiana offense that averages a Big Ten-best 467.6 yards to go with 33.1 points per game might be a better use of the time. Asked about the "eye test'' that committee members suggest is a part of what they do, Ferentz suggested following today's win over Maryland that he isn't losing any sleep over it. "I really don't care,'' he said. "I'm not worried about the playoffs. We're still four games from the end of the Big Ten season. We're going to enjoy this one. We'll worry about our next opponent starting tomorrow afternoon.'' Ferentz said he prefers to simply take things as they come. "The one thing I've noticed, and I really haven't followed all the stuff that close, the new system and committees and all that, it just seems like if you win enough, good things happen,'' Ferentz said. "That was true 30 years ago, and that's all we're looking at right now. We're just going to try to keep winning every week we're out there.'' The Hawkeyes have bought into that notion, trusting each other and trusting their coaches. That formula has led to the second-best start in school history and a chance match the best start ever by an Iowa team next weekend in Bloomington. "It just feels like we're on the right path,'' cornerback Desmond King said. Quarterback C.J. Beathard echoed those sentiments, sidestepping questions about his health long enough to suggest that the only thing that matters to Iowa players is winning the week. "I don't care much about (the playoff committee's poll) because we still have four games left, four tough games,'' Beathard said. "Right now, we're going to turn our focus to Indiana. ... They can predict whatever they want but I can guarantee that things will be different than what they think. That's the way it is.'' So it just doesn't matter to the Hawkeyes. They'll let fans and the rest of the country carp about the poll when it comes out. Iowa, it will keep its thoughts on Indiana. Then, the Hawkeyes will move on from there, never peering too far down the road.

Four-down territory: Maryland

Friday, October 30th, 2015
Four things the football teams from Iowa and Maryland can do to put themselves in a position to win in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium: MARYLAND (2-5, 0-3) 1. Do the improbable. Maryland has made its living on the ground this season, a place where Iowa hasn't frequently given an inch. The Hawkeyes allow 74.1 rushing yards per game, second in the Big Ten and third nationally. The Terps have capable ball carries that will challenge that number. Quarterback Perry Hills rushed for 170 yards on Oct. 10 against Ohio State and led the team again last weekend with 124 rushing yards on 26 carries against Penn State. Maryland piled up 466 yards of offense against the Nittany Lions in a 31-30 loss, including 241 yards on the ground. Brandon Ross is the team's leading rusher out of the tailback spot. He has averaged 5.4 yards on 90 carries this season and ran for 58 yards last weekend. 2. Take care of the ball. That message has likely been heard a lot this week and throughout the season around the Maryland camp. The Terrapins were at times their own worst enemy last week against Penn State, turning the ball over five times including on three of the team's last four possessions. In a 31-30 loss, it's easy to see where Maryland could have helped itself. Quarterback Perry Hills was picked off three times and fumbled once against the Nittany Lions. Last weekend's issues were nothing new. Maryland ranks last in the Big Ten with a -13 turnover margin -- six more than the next-worst number held by Purdue. Interceptions have been the biggest issue. Maryland quarterbacks have been picked off 20 times. The team has lost four fumbles. 3. Be special on special teams. Perhaps no team Iowa will face this season has the collection of talent on special teams that Maryland will bring to Kinnick Stadium today. William Likely, a starting cornerback, is one of the Big Ten's most dangerous return men. He leads the Big Ten in punt return average at 19.9 yards and has returned a pair of punts for touchdowns. He's also third in the league in kick returns at 21.7 yards per return. Maryland's kicker, senior Brad Craddock, won the Lou Groza Award in 2014 as the top kicker in college football and he has connected on 8-of-10 field goals this season including hitting three of the four he tried last week. He has kicked four field goals of 50 yards or more in his career, with a career best of 57 yards. Maryland has a true freshman punting this season and Nicholas Pritchard averages 39.4 yards per punt. 4. Attack with sacks. An aggressive approach on defense has kept the Terrapins in games this season. Switching from a three-man front to a 4-3 look on defense this year, Maryland's line is built around quickness. That has led the Terrapins to 26 sacks through seven games, with Yannick Ngakoue moving from linebacker to an end spot this season where he has thrived. His nine sacks ranks second nationally and is complemented by 4.5 from Quinton Jefferson, who shifted from an end to a tackle spot this season in Maryland's new alignment. IOWA (7-0, 3-0) 1. Establish the run. It has all started with the ability to run the football for Iowa this season, something that won't change this week for an offense that is second in the Big Ten to Ohio State with its average of 214.4 rushing yards per game. Akrum Wadley moves into a starting role at running back this week, earning his first starting assignment after rushing for 204 yards and four touchdowns at Northwestern once Jordan Canzeri was sidelined by an ankle injury. LeShun Daniels has returned to the depth chart this week, sharing the second spot with Derrick Mitchell, and is likely to see action as well as he works his way back from his own ankle sprain. Offensive tackle Boone Myers is also expected to see his first action in four games, returning from a stinger suffered in a Sept. 26 game against North Texas. 2. Take your pick. Paging Desmond King. Maryland has been generous in throwing the ball to opposing defenders this season, something the Iowa cornerback will be positioned to take advantage of. Terrapins quarterbacks have thrown 20 interceptions in seven games. King has intercepted six passes in seven games for the Hawkeyes, who share the Big Ten lead with nine picks on the season. Iowa has turned those turnovers into 56 points, 21 more than the Hawkeyes mustered off of opponent's mistakes during the entire 2014 season. 3. Maintain momentum. Iowa is off to its best start since winning its first nine games in 2009 and will look to maintain that momentum coming off a bye week. The week off provided Iowa time to heal some lingering injuries and quarterback C.J. Beathard is expected to be more mobile after being limited by hip and inner thigh injuries in the win over Northwestern. Iowa will also regain the full-time services of receiver Tevaun Smith this week. Smith caught 12 passes this season before suffering a knee sprain in the North Texas win on Sept. 26. He saw a few snaps at Northwestern, but has been working at full speed in practices this week and will return to the lineup. 4. Ignore the noise. Iowa takes the field at 7-0 and ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since it lost at Arizona on Sept. 18, 2010 when it hosts Maryland. To this point, the Hawkeyes have managed to maintain a narrow focus on one opponent at a time. Coach Kirk Ferentz continues to preach that mantra, although he did encourage his team to think about the possibilities during the initial days of the bye week before getting back to work. A strictly-business focus centered on no more than one opponent at a time has served Iowa well. Given that three of Iowa's last five regular-season opponents, including the Terrapins, defeated the Hawkeyes last season, sticking to that consistent objective remains important.

Take a break

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015
With the only Saturday off between the start of the season and the regular-season finale, Henry Krieger Coble wasn't glued to football games on the television last Saturday. For the Iowa tight end and a number of his teammates, it was time to take a break. "I went and watched my brother play in a high school game Friday night, but I didn't watch any football Saturday,'' Krieger Coble said. "It was good to get away and recharge a bit.'' For the most part, the Hawkeyes have been at it since the start of fall camp. Football is never far away and while a number of players who stayed close to campus over the weekend found themselves using the remote to watch some action, others found time away from their sport beneficial. "We don't get a lot of time to ourselves during the season and to have a couple of days, it was good,'' defensive end Parker Hesse said. "I think the bye week came at the right time for all of us.'' Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sees merit in it as well. Beyond the chance to work more with younger players in practice and allow those at the top of the depth chart to heal bumps and bruises, Ferentz thinks the challenges presented by a 12-week season are enough for players attempting to juggle athletics and academics. He bristled at the suggestion last week that an expanded schedule would benefit the sport. "Those things are easy to talk about if you're not playing,'' Ferentz said. Understand the revenue part of the equation, Ferentz feels that the 12-game regular season is plenty for any team at the collegiate level. His players say they welcomed the break. "Seven straight weeks of games, it takes a toll,'' offensive tackle Jordan Walsh said. "We've been going at it hard and we're back to do that now, so to have a little time to relax, catch our breath, that was a good thing.'' Quarterback C.J. Beathard, who did catch parts of a few weekend games, said the chance to step back a bit can be beneficial for Iowa. Ferentz hopes that is the case. "Guys need a little time to be college kids, walk around with their girlfriends, catch up on their social life and academics, those kinds of things,'' he said.

Top-10 shake up

Sunday, October 25th, 2015
Losses by Utah and Florida State prompted a bit of a top-10 shake-up on my ballot for this week's Associated Press college football poll. My ballot may be a bit more conservative than some, but I'm sticking with my top six from a week ago. With the exception of TCU, which was idle, all won by comfortable margins. Ohio State, TCU, Baylor, Michigan State, LSU and Clemson fill my top six spots this week, with Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Iowa and Oklahoma all moving up two spots in the 7-12 positions. I dropped Florida State and Utah into the 13-14 holes after suffering their first losses of the season. Down the ballot, Texas A&M and Cal are out this week after losses. I moved Pitt, which has lost only to Iowa, into the 21st spot this week from 25th and I add once-beaten North Carolina and UCLA, a winner over Cal, in the final two slots. Here is my ballot for this week's AP poll, which will be released around 1 this afternoon: 1. Ohio State 2. TCU 3. Baylor 4. Michigan State 5. LSU 6. Clemson 7. Alabama 8. Notre Dame 9. Oklahoma State 10. Stanford 11. Iowa 12. Oklahoma 13. Florida State 14. Utah 15. Florida 16. Memphis 17. Mississippi 18. Michigan 19. Toledo 20. Houston 21. Pittsburgh 22. Duke 23. Temple 24. North Carolina 25. UCLA

Working as one

Saturday, October 24th, 2015
The cohesion on the field that has led the Iowa football team to a 7-0 start is rooted in cohesion that may not be quite so obvious to Hawkeye fans. Coach Kirk Ferentz considers it one of the untold stories of how and why Iowa has put everything back together following the disappointments the Hawkeyes dealt with a year ago. There were multiple offseason changes within the Iowa program, but Ferentz opted not to start throwing bodies overboard from his coaching staff. Instead, a few roles were tweaked. LeVar Woods moved from defense to offense, providing more hands-on coaching for Iowa's tight ends who had worked with a graduate assistant in recent seasons. Jim Reid assumed responsibility for all of Iowa's linebackers, Seth Wallace settled in as the team's recruiting coordinator, special teams assignments were tweaked and Brian Ferentz stepped in as the run game coordinator. Part of that move was designed to help Iowa players develop a greater understanding of the big picture, how their roles fit in making the collective offense productive. More importantly, Ferentz believes his staff has come together much in the same way his team has matured. It's important to remember that there were multiple staff moves following the 2011 season when Norm Parker retired as defensive coordinator and Ken O'Keefe opted to accept an NFL staff position after working as Iowa's offensive coordinator. Both had been rocks in their roles as coordinator since the time Kirk Ferentz was hired to replace Hayden Fry shortly after the 1998 season. There had been only a handful of staff changes in the years that followed, providing the stability and cohesion from a coaching standpoint that helped position Iowa to win Big Ten championships in 2002 and 2004. Ferentz compares that transition the Iowa staff has gone through in recent seasons to how things developed in the early years of his 17-year tenure as the Hawkeyes' head coach. "To me, the story is really about the growth of our program and our staff and the cohesion of our staff,'' Ferentz said. "We went through that back in '99, 2000, 2001 while we were trying to get our feet on the ground a little bit.'' Ferentz compares that to the move former Northwestern coach Randy Walker made from Miami (Ohio) to the Big Ten that same season. "When Randy went from Miami to Northwestern, his whole staff went with him,'' Ferentz said. "So, they were a team already, where as we all came from different directions back in '99. And, when everybody settled in I think we really grew into a great staff. I got to enjoy that as a head coach for quite some time.'' Flash forward. Ferentz senses that the same thing is developing now inside of Iowa's new football complex. "We've kind of been going through the whole process again the last couple of years, getting to know each other,'' he said. "I really feel like things are meshing. They're gelling, just like a team has to. That's a big thing, but there's really no way to microwave it or speed it up. It's just part of life.'' Life is good right now for the Hawkeyes. Iowa returns to practice Sunday to begin focusing its attention on Maryland and the Hawkeyes' next chance to take another step forward. Ferentz believes if that happens, it will happen together. From an offense, defense and special teams that have worked well in concert with each other to a staff which has grown to understand each other the longer they have been together, the Hawkeyes are working as one. During the current bye week, Ferentz wanted his team to take a little extra time beyond its normal 24-hour rule to enjoy the team's start and think a little about the possibilities. He also wants to make certain the Hawkeyes do not lose sight of how they reached this point. It's that attention to detail, one-week-at-a-time approach that has made the difference in this Iowa team. Not losing sight of that will guide the Hawkeyes through whatever transpires during the remaining weeks of the regular season.

Forward motion

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015
Consider a sign of the times - and a byproduct of a 7-0 start. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis wasn't asked a single question today about passes to the flat, perhaps because they've been working for the Hawkeyes this season. The "horizontal passing game'' talk was replaced with questions about Iowa's success in gaining major yardage with explosive plays. Through seven games this season, the Hawkeyes have gained 40 or more yards on 12 plays. That leads the Big Ten and ranks 11th in the nation in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Iowa totaled 12 plays of 40 or more yards during the entire 2014 season. Five of Iowa's major gains this season have come on running plays, four more than the number of times Iowa rushed for 40 yards on a play a year ago. Davis said a renewed emphasis and successful execution of blocks by Macon Plewa and Adam Cox at the fullback position and by receivers and tight ends blocking downfield has helped those numbers grow. The quick release of quarterback C.J. Beathard has made a difference as well, particularly on passes to the perimeter that are being more quickly delivered, caught and putting defenses slow to react in a bind. Davis shrugged off the notion that much has changed for the Hawkeyes offensively from a play-calling standpoint this season. The bottom line suggests otherwise, but Davis said Iowa pretty much continues to line up in the same formations and run the same plays it did a year ago when grumbling reached a modern era crescendo. "We haven't done a bunch of different things quite honestly,'' Davis said this afternoon. "We've done a few more different formations, played with some 20 personnel, in and out of some 20 personnel (featuring two backs and no tight ends) but for the most part we still believe in running the zone, the slant and then a couple of counter punches.'' Davis acknowledges that Beathard has shown solid growth to help bring it all together. He calls the junior's ability to get the ball to his second and third receivers is a tangible sign of growth in Beathard's development behind center. "I felt like at the line of scrimmage he would do a great job, but his leadership has been pretty remarkable starting in January,'' Davis said. Davis didn't shortchange the contributions made by an offensive front which has helped create a more effective rushing attack which with its average of 214.4 yards per game ranks second only to Ohio State in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are averaging 5.0 yards per carry, nearly one yard better than the 4.1 Iowa averaged last season and a result of the effectiveness of whoever has been in the lineup for a front five which has dealt with its share of injuries. "Anytime your line can take a ballgame over, it's a great feeling,'' Davis said. "... The guys are coming off with such intensity and the backs are running and trusting that there's going to be something when they get there. Then, even if there's not, they're sliding one gap or whatever and are still being productive. That's a great feeling, there's no other way to describe it.'' It's a sign that Iowa's offense, its personnel and its offensive coordinator have found a comfortable fit. It's a sign that for now, things are working.

View from the top

Sunday, October 18th, 2015
Not much changed at the top of my ballot for this week's Associated Press college football poll. The top eight teams from my ballot of a week ago held serve, winning their games this week. Michigan State and LSU in the fourth and fifth spots survived, but the other six all won by at least 16 points. Alabama with its win over Texas A&M and Notre Dame with its win over USC both move into my top 10 this time around. Oklahoma State, Stanford, Iowa and Oklahoma fill the 11-14 slots. Beyond that, things get a bit murky. I moved unbeaten Memphis up to 17 following its win over Mississippi, held Michigan in the 18 spot following its last-second loss to Michigan State and dropped Mississippi to 19, just ahead of unbeaten Toledo and Houston. UCLA, Boise State and Northwestern all dropped off my ballot this week, making room for Duke, Temple and Pitt in the final three slots. Pitt is now 5-1 on the year, losing only on a last-second Marshall Koehn field goal at Iowa, and is off to a 3-0 start in the ACC after a win Saturday over Georgia Tech. Here is my ballot for this week's poll, which will be released early this afternoon: 1. Ohio State 2. TCU 3. Baylor 4. Michigan State 5. LSU 6. Clemson 7. Florida State 8. Utah 9. Alabama 10. Notre Dame 11. Oklahoma State 12. Stanford 13. Iowa 14. Oklahoma 15. Texas A&M 16. Florida 17. Memphis 18. Michigan 19. Mississippi 20. Toledo 21. Houston 22. California 23. Duke 24. Temple 25. Pittsburgh

A needed break

Saturday, October 17th, 2015
Following today's 40-10 victory at Northwestern, Kirk Ferentz suggested his team had more than earned a bit of break during the upcoming week. The notion had to do with more than the bumps and bruises that would made it understandable if the Hawkeyes had traveled by ambulance rather than a bus to the game at Ryan Field. He went as far as to suggest that the 24-hour rule might become a little more like a 48-hour rule for the Hawkeyes this once. It will give the team a bit of a chance to regain the health edge it has lost in recent weeks, particularly during physical battles with Wisconsin and Illinois to open the Big Ten schedule. It will also give the Hawkeyes a chance to ponder the possibilities while understanding the realities of what led Iowa to its 7-0 start. Ferentz suggested during the preseason that his team might not have the single best player at any given position in the Big Ten this season. He may well be right. But what he suspected has proven to be accurate up to this point. Iowa has found a great deal of success by the way it works together. Eleven guys on the field at time doing their jobs, relying on each other to fulfill responsibilities and understanding how that can lead to collective success. The insertion of Brian Ferentz as the team's run game coordinator is an example of that. Linemen have a better understanding of what the guys behind them are trying to accomplish and how they view things. The running backs have a better grasp of how the offensive linemen work and how their thought process operates. Together, it works and that's part of it. So is the understanding between offense and defense and special teams in how their roles relate to the overall success of the team. All were part of offseason work the Hawkeyes accomplished since walking off the field in Jacksonville in early January. That cohesion has led Iowa to a 7-0 start, providing the team with a foundation to build on as long as those pieces continue to function together as a singular unit. There are some interesting possibilities out there for Iowa, but the only number the Hawkeyes were concerned with following today's game was one. "We can't get ahead of ourselves,'' cornerback Desmond King said. "We got to this point taking each game one at a time, not looking back, not looking ahead. We've got to keep working that.'' Understanding that, after taking a few hours to catch their collective breath, may be as important as anything for Iowa as moves deeper into its Big Ten schedule. Beginning later this week, the Hawkeyes will have one thing -- Maryland -- on their minds. "That's the way we have to play,'' offensive lineman Sean Welsh said. "It's got us to this point. The next game is all that matters.''

Four-down territory: Northwestern

Friday, October 16th, 2015
Four things that can help put the Iowa and Northwestern football teams in a position to win Saturday at Ryan Field: NORTHWESTERN (5-1, 1-1) 1. Establish the run. Pat Fitzgerald calls the running game the Wildcats' bread and butter. For five weeks this season, that proved to be the case. Last week at Michigan, Northwestern went hungry. the Wildcats rushed for 38 yards on 25 carries against the Wolverines, a number impacted by both the Michigan defense and a 14-0 deficit less than five minutes into the game. Northwestern is built around an veteran offensive line -- three seniors and two juniors -- that averages 302 pounds across the front five. That has provided Justin Jackson, a sophomore who ranks fourth in the Big Ten with a rushing average of 110.2 yards per game, with room to work. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is also a threat to carry the ball and has gained 161 yards during his redshirt freshman season. 2. Dominate with defense. This has truly been the Wildcats' calling card this season. Northwestern has set an aggressive tone defensively, limiting its first five opponents to 35 points. Michigan's offense accounted for 24 of the 38 points the Wolverines put on the board last week -- a kickoff return and interception return were responsible for the rest. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker has been the Wildcats' most active defender, totaling 50 tackles. Nearly 20 percent of those - 9.5 - have come from behind the line of scrimmage. He also has three pass break ups and leads Northwestern with two fumble recoveries. 3. Win third down. This ranks among the biggest reasons Northwestern has been successful on both ends of the equation this season. Defensively, the Wildcats have been successful enough on first and second down to force opponents into third-and-long situations, and have then thrived. Northwestern ranks third in the Big Ten and seventh in the country in denying opponents on third down, allowing a 24.7 conversion rate. On the flip side, the Wildcats have been the second-best team in the Big Ten in converting on their own third-down plays with a 45-percent success rate. 4. Seize the moment. Expect Iowa to face an emotion-filled opponent. The Wildcats will honor their 1995 Big Ten championship team this weekend, with former coach Gary Barnett serving as the honorary captain. He'll talk with the team today and turning around the Wildcats' lack of success against Iowa was among the reasons Northwestern was able to move its program forward. Coach Pat Fitzgerald was a member of that '95 team and given the Wildcats' loss last week and its 48-7 loss at Iowa a year ago, this one has the look of another physical battle for the Hawkeyes. IOWA (6-0, 2-0) 1. Establish the run. Iowa's clock-chewing drive against Illinois and its effort the previous week at Wisconsin are illustrative of how important an effective running attack can be. Jordan Canzeri ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing at 116.2 yards per game and as a team, Iowa's 201.2 yards per game on the ground ranks third in the conference behind Ohio State, Northwestern's 213.7 yards and Michigan. The Hawkeyes' success has started with the heart of its offensive front where Austin Blythe at center and Jordan Walsh and Sean Welsh at the guard spots have been effective anchors. James Daniels will be a first-time starter at tackle, and will need a solid game against a Northwestern defense that has a pair of solid senior ends in Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry. Gibson leads the team with five sacks and has combined with Lowry for 10 tackles for a loss. 2. Set the edge. Facing a potent rushing attack, Iowa will need to continue to do what it has done throughout much of the season. The play of linebackers Ben Niemann and Cole Fisher has helped pinch opposing run games, helping Iowa string together six straight games without allowing an opponent to compile 100 rushing yards. The Hawkeyes currently rank fifth nationally, allowing 78 yards per game on the ground. Parker Hesse, replacing injured Drew Ott at an end position, factors into that as well and will need to build on the experience he gained in a start against Pitt and last week after Ott left the Illinois game with a torn ACL. 3. Play strong on the back end. With the ground game stopped, opponents have been able to move the ball through the air at times against Iowa. The Hawkeyes are ninth in the Big Ten against the pass, allowing 214 yards per game Opposing quarterbacks have completed 54.8 percent of their passes, rating seventh in the Big Ten. Led by Desmond King, Iowa does lead the Big Ten with eight interceptions. That 54.8 percent completion rate essentially mirrors the success rate Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson has had throwing the ball. The Wheaton North product - who like running back Justin Jackson was a player Iowa attempted to recruit - will be without one of his biggest deep-ball threats against the Hawkeyes. Austin Carr, who leads Northwestern with an average of 23.2 yards per reception, is expected to miss the game because of injury. 4. Win the field position battle. Special teams will have a say in this one. Crisp northwest winds are expected to subside during the day Saturday in Evanston down to 10-to-15 miles per hour by game time. The Hawkeyes have used the leg of Dillon Kidd, who ranks second in the Big Ten with an average of 46.1 yards per punt, and an effective coverage unit to leave opponents with long fields to work with throughout the opening weeks of the season. Desmond King is making a difference in the field position game as well, ranking second in the Big Ten with an average of 15.7 yards on punt returns and kick returns at 22.5 yards. Northwestern's Solomon Vault is becoming one of the league's best kick returners as well. He has only returned nine this season, a byproduct of the effectiveness of the Northwestern defense in keeping teams off the scoreboard, but he averages 28.9 yards on those returns.

Mid-term grades

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015
The Hawkeyes have reached the midpoint of the regular season and report card is back, delivering midterm grades for the Iowa football team. OFFENSE: B+ There's a lot to like about this Iowa football offense, which has seemingly delivered almost everything last year's team was unable to achieve. It starts up front, where Austin Blythe at center and guards Sean Welsh and Jordan Walsh have anchored a line that has allowed Iowa to dictate terms to its opponents. Tackles Ike Boettger, Cole Croston and Boone Myers have shown growth, making progress in their first significant roles on the offensive front. Injuries are a factor now, but their work has helped Iowa average 201.2 yards on the ground. That's a 40 yards-per-game improvement and it starts up front. Quarterback C.J. Beathard has brought an attitude to an Iowa offense which had lost a bit of its edge a year ago. His ability to take the ball and run with it complements what Iowa has gotten out of a healthy Jordan Canzeri. He, along with a group of receivers who have grown in their willingness to block, have combined on an offense which has 11 plays of 40 yards or more through six games, one fewer than Iowa managed during the entire 2014 season. Health issues have been a bit concerning and Jake Duzey's slow return from an injury has impacted production from the tight end spot where he 36 balls a year ago. As a group, the tight ends have helped add to the blocking which has created an effective run game. DEFENSE: B Great Iowa football teams have traditionally stopped the run. This year's defense has done that, with the now-injured Drew Ott and a healthy Nate Meier creating havoc from their end positions on a defensive line which has received solid contributions from Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata as the tackle positions. They've set a solid tone that has been complemented by growth at the linebacker positions. Some offseason lineup tweaks have helped the Hawkeyes. Ben Niemann's athleticism at the outside position has added to the mix of what Josey Jewell and first-year starter and fifth-year senior Cole Fisher have brought to the table. When coach Kirk Ferentz talks about the need for some stories to develop over the course of the season, Fisher is an example of what he is talking about. Iowa's front seven hasn't allowed an opponent to rush for 100 yards in a game yet and didn't yield a touchdown on the ground until the sixth game. They've been complemented by a secondary which has been aggressive but has quietly gone about its business which is a good thing. Desmond King is off to an all-Big Ten type of start at cornerback, Greg Mabin has had his moments and the play of Miles Taylor and Jordan Lomax has been consistent. It has all added up to a defense that has allowed 310.3 yards per game, 30 fewer yards than Iowa allowed last season. More importantly, it has been effective in keeping teams out of the end zone. Iowa is allowing 16.2 points per game, a nearly 10-point drop compare from a year ago. SPECIAL TEAMS: B An offseason emphasis on special teams seems to be making a difference. Dillon Kidd has shown impressive growth as a punter, ranking second in the Big Ten with his average of 46.1 yards per attempt. The Hawkeyes currently rank fifth in the Big Ten in net punting, significant improvement. Marshall Koehn won the Pitt game with his leg from 57 yards, but has missed a couple of extra points that haven't cost Iowa yet. It's an area where the Hawkeyes have room for growth. Desmond King has improved with experience as a first-time kick and punt returner and the Hawkeyes rank second to Maryland in punt return average in the Big Ten. Iowa's kick coverage ranks seventh in the league, and Koehn's leg has led to 22 touchbacks, second among conference teams. COACHING: B We're seeing the product of staff stability and a willingness to take a risk or two that is most likely a result of the trust that coaches have in this group of players to successfully execute what they're being asked to execute beyond the norm. Kirk Ferentz tweaked a few staff assignments during the offseason, but his decision to retain personnel shouldn't be underestimated. It takes a couple of years for a coaching staff to develop cohesion and part of what we've seen is that in play on a weekly basis. Iowa looks and plays like a team that is on the same page, something that starts in the meeting rooms and extends to the playing fields. OVERALL: B This Iowa team has handled everything in its path so far. Saturday's game at Northwestern, and the team's current health questions, create an interesting situation for this week. Much like the early weeks of the season, we'll learn a lot about the make-up of this team by what transpires at Ryan Field. The upcoming bye week should provide the team with a chance to heal a few injuries, reduce a few aches and hit the reset for the final five weeks of the regular season. The margin for error remains small. This is the Big Ten after all. But the start has been solid for Iowa.