Could the 1998 or 1999 teams beat Kent State in the dominating way that the 2001 version did on Saturday? Absolutely not! Northern Illinois was a weaker opponent in 1999 than Kent State was on Saturday, yet Randy Reiners and the Hawk OL played the Huskies to a 0-0 score at the half on Hayden Fry Day that year before winning 24-0.
This is the first Iowa team since 1997 that has the ability to annihilate opponents that are not playing well. The 1997 team lost too many close games in their 7-5 season, but they destroyed Northern Iowa, Tulsa, Iowa State, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota. The 1997 team had great talent at WR and RB while also having good interior linemen, but the tackle play was not very good. As a result, the skill players exploited weaker teams with long scoring plays and athletic moves in the open field. However, the offense could not sustain anything against teams with better defenses because the OL was not up to the task. Having experienced senior QB Matt Sherman out for most of the season did not help either.
The 2001 opener may have been against one of the weaker MAC teams, but when was the last time the Iowa OL systematically ran the ball down the field over and over against anyone? Because of the injuries and lack of depth at the tackle spots, I would make the argument that the OL looked better on Saturday than they have since 1995 or 1996. What is encouraging is how Iowa had so many consistent plays in which they were able to physically run the ball down KSU's proverbial throat. The main thing that I was looking forward to in the game was that the OL could come out and dominate like they should against a weaker opponent, and they did that and more.
QB Brad Banks looked so elusive and mobile that the coaches could have really exploited KSU by rolling him out more with more option plays or quarterback boots and draws. Maybe they would have scored 70 points and really excited the fans, but the staff was content to run between the tackles for most of the game and work on the basic skills that the OL has not been as successful at for the last few years. Robert Gallery struggled compared to how he played in the spring game, but the rest of the OL looked great despite the fact that senior RG Alonzo Cunningham missed the game with an ankle injury.
By no means is this OL ready to be compared to the 1984 or 1990 Iowa Offensive Lines, but it was the start that I was hoping for. Sam Aiello played as well as I have ever seen him play in person, while David Porter and other 2nd string linemen showed the depth that we all have been talking about. If Cunningham and Ben Sobieski get back into the mix, it is going to be a fun year.
Partly as a result of the great blocking, the depth at tailback looked great. Aaron Greving got national exposure because he scored 3 TDs on 3 carries, but I was more impressed with the quickness and speed of Fred Russell. Fred was a blur out there, and although he will not break as many tackles against Michigan as he did against Kent State, I would love to see him provide a change of pace to compliment Ladell all season. Siaka Massaquoi and Greving both looked good, but Russell showed me something that I hadn't seen from him before.
Ladell Betts and Jeremy Allen both showed why they could form the best backfield in the Big Ten. Allen has the capability to do many things, but he can still improve even though he had a very good game. If he can stay healthy and continue to get experience, he is going to become a more consistent blocker and will get a better feel for running lanes and how to break and avoid tackles.
Ladell looked quicker and was very explosive while he was in the game. Besides being so physical, the advantage he has over most backs is how good he is at making little cuts and using angles from blocks to gather more yards. There was only one play in which he didn't seem to hit the hole as quickly as he should have. He doesn't accelerate in the open field like Fred Russell, but he is definitely an all-conference player. He is a joy for anyone that loves watching backs follow and exploit blocks.
TE Dallas Clark is going to continue to be a good receiver this season as he was on Saturday, but he did have problems finishing some blocks. Erik Jensen blocked well for the most part, while redshirt freshman Tony Jackson had a day he would like to forget. He was called for jumping off sides, but his worst play was when he illegally blocked a defender downfield in the back after the play was pretty much over. However, between Clark's potential to catch 40-50 passes for the season and the general athleticism at the position, the tight end spot looks better this year than in recent years.
Both quarterbacks looked better than they did in the spring game. Kyle McCann made good decisions and looked calm behind the good blocking of the OL as he only made one poor throw. Kyle's stats should have been better, but C.J. Jones dropped a perfectly thrown ball that hit him in stride that would have gone for at least 40 yards. However, when the offense puts up 51 points and 567 yards, it doesn't matter so much about one play that could have been. Although he doesn't get much credit from the fans, if players stay healthy, Kyle and this offense are going to be successful.
As mentioned earlier, the coaches could have scored even more against Kent State by getting Brad Banks in the open field on several drives, but they chose to keep it close to the vest. He looked more in control of the offense than he did in the spring, and he could be great as a change of pace to compliment McCann. I could see Banks and his speed really presenting problems to inexperienced mediocre defenses of teams like Minnesota and Iowa State, because if they break down or forget to account for him, look out! Plus, Brad is going to be more athletic than some of the players who play on mediocre defenses.
While the offense played very well in the opening stages and throughout the game, the Iowa Defense got out of the gate a little slower. R.J. Meyer's hit on the Kent State QB causing an Aaron Kampman interception was a huge play in the early stages of the game, but the DL did not come out like I thought they might. Derrick Pickens, Jerry Montgomery, Colin Cole, and Kampman all ended up dominating and making plays, but the unit got going slowly. The defensive line must be a strength if the defense is going to continue to improve, and I look for them to play better this week against Miami (Ohio).
The Iowa LB corps played well. Besides his key hit, Meyer played very well throughout his time on the field. Grant Steen did a nice job trying to replace LeVar Woods, and although he lacks the experience and history of making the big plays that Woods made, Steen seems faster than Woods and he made several plays. Fred Barr and George Lewis were very active, while Matt Roth is going to be very good as he learns the college game. Roth made 7 tackles, and showed good speed and aggressiveness while trying to destroy enemy ball carriers.
The secondary covered better as the game went on, and looked very good at tackling and making big hits. Even though Bob Sanders did not play much after he limped off the field, Chris Smith showed that he is healthy and legit this year as he made two big hits on receivers. Jermire Roberts still needs to become more acclimated to the system, but he looked very fluid in coverage and put one good hit on a receiver. The 2nd string secondary was also covering well as the game went on, but Miami (Ohio) is going to present a stiffer challenge this week.
The Hawks did what they were supposed to do. They were favored by Vegas to run over Kent State, and showed more improvement on offense than even the most positive Hawk fans could have hoped for. The key is that instead of looking forward to the ISU game or the Big Ten season, they need to focus on a Miami (Ohio) team that has beaten Virginia Tech, Northwestern, Purdue, and other opponents in recent years. Since Michigan just beat Miami 31-13 on Saturday in a close game, the next logical step for this Iowa team is to jump on Miami early and show them how much more physical the Hawks are this year. Michigan might have a better defense overall than Iowa right now, but the Iowa offense is ahead of the Wolverines. No matter who the Hawks play each week, they need to continue to make strides if they want to have the season that many can foresee.