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A historic chance

December 31st, 2015
Two former Iowa football players now working as college football analysts don't expect anything to come easily in Friday's Rose Bowl. But, they do expect the Hawkeyes to be well prepared to make the most of a historic chance. Iowa hasn't won a Rose Bowl since 1959 and with the chance to earn a 13th win for the first time in the program's history, motivation won't be in short supply. "If Iowa is on its game, it can compete with anybody,'' Big Ten Network analyst Chuck Long said. "They've proven that.'' Long believes the Hawkeyes are in for a game much like the one they played in the Big Ten title game earlier this month against Michigan State. "It's going to be another slugfest from the way I look at it,'' Long said. "They're a physical football team. Iowa is a physical football team. They're both balanced on offense, sound on defense. I think it's going to be a game that comes down to two or three plays that will decide it.'' Former Hawkeye Anthony Herron, who completed his career in coach Kirk Ferentz's second season as head coach in 2000 and is now a studio host for the Pac-12 Network, senses a close, hard-fought game as well. He said a win against the Cardinal would add to the legacy that this year's 12-1 team has already created. "It would take things to an entirely different level to be the first team to come out here and go home with a win,'' Herron said. "People would look at this team in an entirely different way if they could add Rose Bowl champions to what they've accomplished.'' Iowa has already accomplished much this season -- a 12-0 regular season, a berth for the first time in the Big Ten championship game -- but Herron is right. A Rose Bowl victory would allow this collection of Hawkeyes to take the way they are remembered to an entirely different level. Long, who saw action in both the 1982 and 1986 Rose Bowl games, hopes people appreciate the opportunity Iowa has in front of it in its first appearance in Pasadena in 25 years. "It's hard to get here,'' he said. "Everything has to fall just right and with the new playoff set up, it will become even more difficult for Big Ten teams to be here every year. Enjoy it.''

A new twist

December 30th, 2015
Rose Bowl participants Iowa and Stanford took part in a Super Bowl-style media day. As one of the six bowls that is part of the College Football Playoffs group, the Rose Bowl hosted a mandatory open media day that required all players, head coaches and assistants to take part in a one-hour free for all at a downtown Los Angeles hotel. They paraded in one team at a time, Stanford at 8 in the morning, Iowa 90 minutes later.. Players and coaches fielded questions, some quirky, some purposeful. They posed for pictures with the Rose Bowl trophy, taped television interviews and had pictures taken with a variety of props that added a little levity to the situation. Four players from each team and the head coach were seated at elevated podiums, while the rest of the team filled a hotel ballroom. It was a unique format that provided players who might normally not be interviewed with the chance to field a few questions. For the first time this season, Iowa freshmen were available for interviews. It was a good chance to talk with them about what it has been like to be part of an Iowa team that has had a historic season no matter what the scoreboard reads on Friday. Tuesday's access was the last interview opportunity for players until after Friday's game. Coaches Kirk Ferentz and David Shaw meet the media on Wednesday morning. Both will appear with their teams at a banquet on New Year's Eve just outside the Rose Bowl. The questions won't be as quirky and the answers will likely be more measured. After all, kickoff will only be two days away.

Staying the course

December 27th, 2015
Kirk Ferentz wasn't going to give Stanford any bulletin board material tonight prior to the Beef Bowl, the Rose Bowl's annual outing for participating teams to Lawry's Prime Rib in Beverly Hills. He didn't give the California beef producers any bulletin board material either, opting to say beef produced in both Iowa and California was top-of-the-line stuff. That echoed his sentiments about the Cardinal team the Hawkeyes are preparing to face on Friday in the Rose Bowl. "They're the type of team you would expect to play in a bowl like this, a very good team,'' Ferentz said. "They play the game with a tough, hard-nosed attitude and we know that we will need to be at our best.'' Chew on that for awhile. The Cardinal are no strangers to the Rose Bowl, visiting for the third time in four years. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, will see the turf in Pasadena for the first time in a quarter of a century later this week. Ferentz isn't sure that factors into things on Friday. He just echoes his players in saying that Iowa needs to be prepared to bring its best. He did say Iowa's workouts in California have been productive, something that offensive coordinator Greg Davis mentioned earlier in the day. That's been part of the make up of a 12-1 team that has maintained a business-like approach. That may explain the choice of music the Hawkeyes were listening to as they stretched prior to today's workout. "Satisfaction'' by the Rolling Stones was the musical choice of the day, an accurate description of where Iowa stands today following one of the most successful seasons in the program's history. There still is some work to be done and Ferentz accurately gauged the opponent his team faces this week. Stanford will present Iowa with a some challenges, even beyond the depth of skill that Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey offers. There is no need for bulletin board material, just the need to stay the course and get back to work.

Outside looking in

December 22nd, 2015
The coach of the fifth-ranked college football team in the College Football Playoff Poll -- also known as the coach of the first team left out of the four-team playoff -- is OK with that. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz repeated today his long-held stance that a four-team playoff in the Football Bowl Subdivision is just fine with him. "I don't know why we need more. We're the fifth team according to the rankings. We had our opportunity. We came up three points short,'' Ferentz said, referencing the 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game. "Hopefully, next year we can push over that wall. We're not looking back. We're where we are at and we're excited about where we are at and looking to make the most of this next opportunity.'' That opportunity comes in the Rose Bowl, where the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes and sixth-ranked Stanford meet on New Year's Day in Pasadena. That's a great consolation prize and a sizeable national spotlight for both programs, but Ferentz's thoughts on an expanded playoff field are worth pondering. "To go beyond what it is, some smart person is going to have to explain to me how we do it practically,'' Ferentz said. His sentiments are based around concerns for his players more than anything. "As a coach, I'm fully aware of what our players are asked to do,'' Ferentz said. "We played in a (Big Ten) championship game on December 5th and I'm not sure when that next round of playoffs would begin, but we have finals on campus in December, they come every year, have for the last 17 years,'' Ferentz said. "How you deal with those, and they are important because we want our guys to graduate, ... I just don't know how you do that (with an expanded playoff).'' He sees potential academic conflicts if the whole thing were pushed deeper into January as well. Ferentz doesn't want things to go beyond the potential 15 games that a team could play now. "At some point, you have to think about the players and what's good for them,'' he said. "...This is still college football. It's about the players. It's not pro football where it's their jobs and you get up every day and go to work. That's a whole different discussion in my mind.'' That's why you won't hear the coach of the fifth-ranked team this season complaining about being on the outside looking in. In many respects, he's got it right.

On the outside looking in

December 6th, 2015
As the coaches of the first two teams not invited to this year's Colege Football Playoffs party, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Stanford's David Shaw expect an expanded playoff field is simply a matter of time. Ferentz said Sunday he's fine with the current four-team alignment, but he is also a realist. "I can see change coming down the road, but to me it's just fine where it is right now,'' he said. "Everything worked well last year. I think it's worked well this year.'' Iowa director of athletics Gary Barta said today he believes the process worked as it was intended to work. He feels the first two years have been relatively free of politics and likes the way the committee has worked to place value on a team's entire season. He learned a little bit about the process, both for the four semifinalists and for teams invited to the other four bowls that are part of the New Year's Six that will rotate as hosts of national semifinal games. Barta spent Sunday afternoon sitting by the phone, waiting to hear what bowl Iowa might be headed to. He said he had no contact with Rose Bowl officials this weekend until after it was announced on television that Iowa and Stanford would be meeting in the Rose Bowl. "That's the way it is supposed to work, and it did,'' Barta said. "There were no calls until it was announced, no chance to influence any decisions.'' If an eight-team playoff existed this year, the Hawkeyes would have found themselves facing fourth-rated Oklahoma in the opening round and Stanford would have been paired against third-ranked Michigan State. Shaw can see the day when that will become the norm. "I think the four-team playoff is great, but I've always thought that it's a beginning,'' Shaw said. "I've said it over the first five or six years what we're going to do is poke holes in it, find out what works, what doesn't. But I do believe at some point it's going to be an eight-team playoff.'' He describes that as "unavoidable.'' "I'm not upset by any stretch of the imagination,'' he said. "I just know that this year part of the process where you have these teams in Stanford and Iowa, and Ohio State that you can make a case that could be in a playoff and it would be a phenomenal playoff.'' He believes the current structure, which provides avenues to reach the playoff field for only four champions from the five power conferences, will ultimately force the change. "Right now, that doesn't make any sense,'' Shaw said. "At some point, we'll make it eight but I'm fine with the way it is now. To be honest, I'm excited about playing in the Rose Bowl.''

The final countdown

December 6th, 2015
I flipped Iowa and Michigan State on my ballot for this week's Associated Press college football, shuffling the Spartans into third and the Hawkeyes into fifth following last night's 16-13 game in Indianapolis. Today's ballot is the final pre-bowl countdown and was due earlier than usual this morning to allow the overall ballot to be released before the College Football Playoff committee announced its national semifinal matchups. My ballot mirrors their top four seeds. BYU and Utah move into the last couple of spots for this go round of what has been an interesting and parity-driven season in college football. Behind the Hawkeyes, I have Ohio State in sixth followed by Stanford, TCU, Notre Dame and North Carolina. Iowa will learn where it stands in the final CFP poll and its bowl destination around 2 this afternoon. Coach Kirk Ferentz and a handful of Iowa players will meet with media later in the day. Until then, here is my ballot for this week's AP poll: 1. Clemson 2. Alabama 3. Michigan State 4. Oklahoma 5. Iowa 6. Ohio State 7. Stanford 8. TCU 9. Notre Dame 10. North Carolina 11. Northwestern 12. Oklahoma State 13. Houston 14. Florida State 15. Oregon 16. Michigan 17. Mississippi 18. Baylor 19. Florida 20. Wisconsin 21. Navy 22. LSU 23. Western Kentucky 24. BYU, 25. Utah

Tough way to finish

December 6th, 2015
A last-minute loss in the Big Ten Championship Game didn't diminish what the Iowa football team accomplished during a 12-0 regular season, but tonight's 16-13 loss to Michigan State was a tough way to for the Hawkeyes to finish. A defense that had been dominant throughout the regular season seemingly lived on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during the second half as the Spartans overcame a 6-3 halftime deficit. And with the exception of an 85-yard C.J. Beathard pass to Tevaun Smith 11 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes didn't make nearly enough plays to give their defense the rest it needed. So as usual in these types of situations, the loss was a collaborative one as was the postgame hurt. "We didn't do enough to earn the win. They did,'' defensive end Nate Meier said. "It's a tough one to stomach.'' In a match-up between lookalike teams, Michigan State did what it needed to do. It's running game gained just enough yards on the ground - 174 - and its defense never really allowed the Iowa rushing attack to get going. The Hawkeyes averaged 203.7 yards per game on the ground during the regular season, with the lowest output through 12 games the 105 yards Iowa rushed for against Pitt and its defense that Pat Narduzzi took with him from East Lansing to the ACC one year ago. Saturday, Iowa gained a season-low 52 yards on 24 carries. It was the first time the Hawkeyes had been held below 75 yards rushing in a game since Michigan State limited Iowa to 23 yards on 16 carries in a 26-14 win over the Hawkeyes in 2013. It didn't help that ankle injury kept leading rusher Jordan Canzeri off the field after the first quarter. The senior was carted to the team bus after the game on a golf cart, his right foot in a walking boot. It came at the end of a tough day for the Hawkeyes, who tasted defeat for the first time in 13 games this season. "We've gone all season long and haven't experienced what it feels like to lose a game,'' quarterback C.J. Beathard said. "Every time we've been in that locker room after a game, it's been exciting, joyful stuff. It's just tough because losing a game like this when it's this close, it's hard to handle. We have another game left. You just have to move forward.''

Four-down territory: Michigan State

December 4th, 2015
Four things the football teams from Iowa and Michigan State can do to put themselves in a position to win at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday: MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 7-1) 1. Lean on experience. The Spartans will arrive at the Big Ten Championship with previous experience and senior leadership from a quarterback who has been through it before. Connor Cook was behind center two seasons ago when the Spartans stunned second-ranked Ohio State in the Big Ten final and the senior carries a 33-4 record as a starter into MSU's third title game appearance in five years. Cook, who returned to throw three touchdown passes against Penn State last week after missing MSU's win at Ohio State with an injury in his throwing shoulder, has a solid skill set. He has completed 194-of-337 passes for 2,730 yards and a Big Ten-best 24 touchdowns this season. He has been intercepted four times. He has a long-ball threat in Aaron Burbridge, the Big Ten's receiver of the year, in his group of receivers but against Iowa's defense, Cook will may find the mid- and short-range passing game more to his liking. That positions R.J. Shelton and MacGarrett Kings for the possibility of productive games against the Hawkeyes. Burbridge has 75 receptions on the year, while Shelton and Kings have combined for 72 catches. 2. Defend the run. The Spartans' front seven will be the best Iowa has faced this season and it has a track record of derailing productive ground games. Facing the Big Ten's top two backs, Michigan State limited both Ohio State and Indiana to fewer than 100 yards rushing. Iowa averages 203.7 yards on the ground, but picked up a season-low 105 yards when it faced a similar-style Pittsburgh defense in September. Expect linebacker Riley Bullough, the Spartans' tackles leader and Jon Reschle to populate the A gap inside, which will allow interior defensive linemen Joel Heath and Malik McDowell to attempt to create some havoc. 3. Find strength on the ground. Michigan State's running game has been impacted by a number of injuries on the offensive line throughout the season. The Spartans have used six different combinations of players up front and four starters have opened at multiple positions this year. That has led MSU to average 159.6 yards per game on the ground for the season, however that number improves to 177 yards over the last three games as the Spartans have regained health. All-Big Ten center Jack Allen anchors the offensive front that has helped sophomore Gerald Holmes average 97 rushing yards per game over the last three starts. Like Iowa, Michigan State will mix and match backs. LJ Scott leads the Spartans in rushing on the season and at 6-foot, 233 pounds is more of the prototypical big back that Michigan State teams have featured in recent years. Holmes, Madre London and R.J. Shelton provide more quickness at the position. 4. Push back against playmakers. C.J. Beathard has been the fuel which drives the Hawkeye engine this season and he'll be working against a secondary which has dealt with its share of injuries as well. The Spartans, like Iowa, have been opportunistic and a plus-14 turnover margin indicates that Beathard will need to be on target as he has been much of the year. The junior has been intercepted only three times in 303 attempts. The Spartans have 14 interceptions on the season. Montae Nicholson with three leads a group of five Michigan State players who have multiple picks on the season. The back end of the MSU defense underwent a bit of a makeover following the team's only loss, a 39-38 setback at Nebraska on Nov. 7. Demetrious Cox is the only Spartan defensive back who started against the Cornhuskers who was in the lineup against Penn State last week. IOWA (12-0, 8-0) 1. Establish the run. Easier said than done against Michigan State, but the Hawkeyes will need to find some success against a dominant front seven. Iowa's running backs are healthy, with Jordan Canzeri needing 36 yards on Saturday to become the first Hawkeye since Marcus Coker in 2011 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley combined for just three carries in the second half against Nebraska last week, but coach Kirk Ferentz said both should be good to go with "fresh legs'' against Michigan State. They'll be attempting to move the ball against a front line anchored by all-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who leads the Spartans with 8.5 sacks and shares the team lead with 11.5 tackles for a loss. He's recorded 17 quarterback hurries and broken up three passes while creating issues for nearly everyone MSU has played. Malik McDowell, a sophomore nose tackle, has also recorded 11.5 tackles for a loss among the 80 the Spartans have had this season. Iowa's offensive line will need one of its most cohesive games of the season. 2. Expect the unexpected. Remember the fake punt in 2013? The Hawkeyes haven't forgotten that Mike Sadler's 25-yard carry on a fourth-and-seven play from the Spartans' 37 yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter of the team's most recent meeting. The fake on a play dubbed "Hey Diddle Diddle'' by MSU coaches led to a score that sent Michigan State on its way to a 26-14 win at Kinnick Stadium. That is among a number of surprises the Spartans have served up on special teams during Mark Dantonio's tenure and are among the reasons that alert and effective special teams production will be important for Iowa against MSU. Special teams have won two important games for the Spartans this year, including the return of a fumbled punt snap that decided a win at Michigan in the final seconds and a 41-yard field goal by Michael Geiger as time expired in a win at Ohio State. Geiger is 9-of-14 in field goals this season, but his kick against the Buckeyes is why Iowa is preparing to face Michigan State on Saturday. 3. Be big in the back end. Iowa has seen a number of potent passing games in recent weeks and Connor Cook will deliver that challenge to the Hawkeyes on Saturday. The Michigan State senior has completed 57.6 percent of his 337 passes this season, but has thrown just four interceptions along with connecting on 24 touchdown passes. Aaron Burbridge will be the biggest long-ball threat that will challenge an Iowa secondary which has recorded 12 of Iowa's 17 interceptions. Big Ten defensive back of the year Desmond King has eight of the picks, matching an Iowa single-season record which was last reached by Lou King in 1981. 4. Play healthy. This is a game where Iowa needs all hands on deck. Defensive end Nate Meier and linebacker Ben Niemann exited last week's game against Nebraska with injuries and both have spent the week trying to work their way back onto the field for Saturday's game. Meier hasn't missed a start since the first game of the 2014 season and has played through shoulder and leg injuries in recent weeks. Redshirt freshman Matt Nelson replaced him during the fourth quarter at Nebraska and with Drew Ott already watching from the sidelines after undergoing ACL and Tommy John surgery, the Hawkeyes need to get something out of Meier if possible. Niemann underwent concussion protocol after getting knocked out of the Nebraska game in the first quarter. Coach Kirk Ferentz said he returned to practice on Tuesday. Iowa can use his speed at the outside linebacker position against an improving Michigan State offensive front that has moved forward after dealing with its own midseason injury issues.

Maverick Kirk

December 1st, 2015
New Kirk? Old Kirk? Try Reliable Kirk on for size. The Iowa football coach has proven again that thought-guided reactions are always better than letting raw emotion and quick decisions guide the way. Ferentz stayed true to Ferentz when he surveyed the wreckage following Iowa's late-season slide in 2014. He stepped back, found areas that needed work, regrouped, repositioned several members of his coaching staff and went back to work. That reasonable response to what some viewed as a near-crisis situation within the Iowa program has led the Hawkeyes to a 12-0 start to what is already a memorable season and a spot in Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game. What Ferentz saw that was lost in a second-half collapse against Nebraska and a bowl game against Tennessee that was over almost before it started was a program in need of a tune-up, not an overhaul. He shuffled a few staff members around, worked with staff members and players to develop a fresh start and provide clarity where it was needed, including at quarterback. New Kirk? Old Kirk? Ferentz had his own way of describing the somewhat modest fix he prescribed. "Maverick Kirk,'' Ferentz suggested today hours before being announced as the Big Ten coach of the year for the fourth time in his career. He had been asked if he felt vindicated for sticking with his staff when others were looking for significant change. "Sometimes, it not all about what it appears to be,'' Ferentz said. "It's a little deeper than that. I think anytime you experience adversity, if you're involved in intercollegiate athletics, pro athletics, high school athletics, you're going to have that, you examine it and make the best decision,'' Ferentz said. "Sometimes, it's about changing just a few things, making some tweaks and then sometimes there are a lot of circumstances involved. You just try to size it up and do what you feel is best.'' Ferentz felt he had the right pieces in place on his staff. Director of athletics Gary Barta made it well known he felt the foundation was solid, support Ferentz welcomed. "I've been here 26 years and about the only thing I know anymore is about what's going on here, and hopefully I've got some idea of what's going on.'' Based on what his peers and everyone saw on the field this season, that proved to be the case. As a result, Big Ten coaches named Ferentz the league's coach of the year for the fourth time and he joins Michigan's Bo Schembechler as the only Big Ten coaches honored four or more times with that recognition. Ferentz took time today to share that award with his staff members and players, calling the honor humbling. He received it because he again has proven to have a firm grasp on his program and a willingness to study the situation and adapt as necessary. In that respect, he will always be Reliable Kirk.

The Sooner surge

November 29th, 2015
I touched on this a couple of weeks ago, mentioning that I felt Oklahoma was playing the best football of anybody in the Big 12 and that the Sooners would likely have a chance to prove that down the stretch. Bob Stoops' team did just that, finishing off an 11-1 regular season with 58-23 beatdown of Oklahoma State in Stillwater last night to move into the fourth spot on my ballot for this week's Associated Press college football poll. Clemson, Alabama and Iowa continue to fill the top three spots on my ballot after wins over rivals this weekend. The Hawkeyes can talk all they want about Nebraska being just another game, but from what has transpired over the past few years with the road team winning the last four match-ups, if it looks like a rivalry, if it feels like a rivalry, it's a rivalry. The Sooners rise was facilitated by Stanford's last-second win over Notre Dame, one of three top-10 teams on my ballot from a week ago to lose. The trickledown moves Michigan State and Ohio State in the fifth and sixth spots on my ballot this week, followed by the one-loss North Carolina team which gets a shot at Clemson on Saturday in the ACC title game. Stanford, TCU and Notre Dame round out my top 10. I have Northwestern at 12th, Michigan dropping six spots to 18th and Wisconsin up two positions to 20th on my ballot this week. Losses dropped Toledo, Mississippi State, Washington State and UCLA off of my ballot this week. They're replaced by Temple, LSU, USC and a Western Kentucky team that moved to 10-2 and put itself in the Conference USA championship game with a 21-point win over Marshall on Saturday. Here is my top-25 ballot for this week's AP poll: 1. Clemson 2. Alabama 3. Iowa 4. Oklahoma 5. Michigan State 6. Ohio State 7. North Carolina 8. Stanford 9. TCU 10. Notre Dame 11. Florida State 12. Northwestern 13. Baylor 14. Florida 15. Oklahoma State 16. Houston 17. Oregon 18. Michigan 19. Mississippi 20. Wisconsin 21. Temple 22. Navy 23. LSU 24. USC 25. Western Kentucky