1. Entering the season, it seemed the story in Iowa was of "Ferentz Fatigue." How has a 5-0 start to the season altered the recent perception of Ferentz, who has accomplished so much in Iowa City?
I think he's always had some loyal support, so that has remained, and those that stayed loyal to Ferentz are now rubbing it in to those that weren't (haha). It's kind of a two-faction fan base. It's comprised of a group that has always supported Kirk Ferentz and are now reaping the rewards, and then another group that had grown tired of the monotony that ensued after their fantastic 2010 campaign. That group is more cautiously optimistic about how the rest of the season will go, but they are excited about the prospects. Their emotions are more of "where has this approach been all along, Kirk" than anything else. So while he's off the hot seat in Iowa City, he still has his critics and a portion of the fan base that will never let themselves buy into his stock again.
2. It's fair to say that the Iowa staff made a good call picking C.J. Beathard as their starting quarterback over Jake Rudock, who transferred to Michigan. What has Beathard added to that offense?
I wasn't around for the Rudock years but I can detect from talking to the players, coaches, and other local media members that were, it just seems that Beathard is much more of an infectious leader off the field. The team follows his lead. The coaches trust him with the keys to the car. His teammates have the utmost faith in him to deliver in a variety of ways. His leadership is praised weekly. On the field, I think he just adds a different element. He is fearless out there, willing to stand in the pocket to take a big hit, willing to throw the ball downfield and take risks, and has a great awareness of what needs to be done in certain situations. He is just a playmaker that always seems to find a way. I think the biggest thing he brings has been his improvisational skills, mostly as a runner. He makes something out of nothing a lot of times as he's escaping pressure in the pocket. He can pick up yards on the ground in designed runs and when it's not called for such as situations where the pass protection breaks down.
3. Last season, Iowa dominated the Illini with a 30-14 win in Champaign. The story of the game was Iowa's complete dominance in the trenches -- where the Illini have been weak but are getting stronger. Iowa lost a few great ones (OL Brandon Scherff, DL Louis Trinca-Pasat and DL Carl Davis) on either side of the football. So far, it doesn't appear Iowa has struggled much at the line of scrimmage. How strong are they up front compared to last season?
The defensive line is pretty good but not as good as their secondary, which is led by cornerback Desmond King who would be an all-conference selection if the season ended today. The front four has shuffled some so it's been difficult to get a real gauge on them. They've played six or seven different bodies there this season, and some of that has been due to the health of Drew Ott. He was injured against Iowa State and was then limited significantly against Pittsburgh and North Texas. Everyone knows he is a beast of a pass rusher, and he was back to usual form last week against Wisconsin. The difference maker with this group though has been Jaleel Johnson. He's a huge defensive tackle beginning to emerge as a heck of a player. He clogs the run in the middle, takes on double teams, and really does the dirty work for this Hawkeye defense.
On the offensive line, they're very strong on the interior. They return all three of Sean Welsh, Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh, and they also shuffle in true freshman James Daniels at times, who was a four-star prospect out of Ohio a year ago. They're breaking in new offensive tackles but they've held up thus far. Boone Myers and Ike Boettger are the starters and neither has been exposed in a bad way. Boone Myers has been dinged with a reoccurring stinger issue and didn't play last week. He was not listed on the depth chart for this week's game so I'd expect Cole Croston to possibly start for the second week in a row at left tackle. It's been a unit that has done much better than expected but they had no answer for Wisconsin's Joe Schobert this past Saturday.
4. The Hawkeyes picked up a huge early Big Ten West victory over Wisconsin. Why could this Iowa team win the West?
They can win because they run the ball well, play sensational defense, and do a very good job of remaining focused week to week regardless of the opponent. That's a very strong recipe and it's been the same recipe they have used in every banner season they've played with Kirk Ferentz at the helm. They also now have a quarterback that can make plays on his own, too.
Outside of the play, it's the schedule. Any year you have the luxury of avoiding Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State on the slate, you should have a chance. That's one of the reasons last year was so disappointing for most of the fan base. Already beat Wisconsin on the road and don't have to face the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Spartans. You do the math. Should they beat Illinois, they'll be 6-0 with Purdue, Maryland, and Indiana among their final six games. They also get Minnesota at home. The two stiff tests remaining that seem to stick out are when they travel to Northwestern in two weeks. They play the Huskers in Lincoln the final game of the regular season. That probably doesn't seem like a difficult matchup since the Illini were just able to get over the hump against them, but I expect Mike Riley to have the Huskers ready to roll at that point in the season, especially with a possibility of spoiling Iowa's season.
5. Illinois is making its first trip to Kinnick Stadium since 2007 and these two teams last season finally broke a five-year string of no head-to-head matchups. At one point, Illinois-Iowa was a rivalry in football and basketball. Is there room for an Illini-Hawkeyes rivalry and what is the perception of the Illini program in Iowa City?
Yeah, there's a bit of that going on in the Big Ten this year. Iowa's trip to Madison last week was the first for any Hawkeye player on the roster. Weird, especially since the winner of the contest takes home the Heartland Trophy. I'm not sure there's room for a rivalry. Iowa has the in-state rivalry with Iowa State, of course. They have three other trophy games against Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The trophy game with the Huskers was added when Nebraska joined the league in 2011. With those four already being covered, it would be difficult for there to be any space for another. I will say this; I think if the West remains the same as far as the layout and alignment are concerned, there will be a bit of a rivalry with every opponent within the division just based off of familiarity. It will probably be more so if there's two or three teams duking it out the most.
There's always the concern about the sandwich game. This is a sandwich game for Iowa. At Wisconsin last week and at Northwestern next week with Illinois squeezed in the middle of both. There's always a tendency to let down in these types of occasions but I don't see that happening because the chemistry and leadership on this team seems to be at a very, very high level. I think Iowa's offense will be motivated to bounce back after their lackluster performance of last week. Remember, they only scored 10 on Wisconsin but they also left two other touchdowns on the field when they failed in the red zone their first two trips of the first half. They've run the ball well all year. Illinois is better up front defensively but Iowa even ran for around 150 yards against Wisconsin. I think Wes Lunt is a heck of a quarterback but this might be the best secondary he faces all year. He'll still have some success because that's what great players do. I just don't think it will be enough.
Iowa 28 Illinois 17