1. Stop the Miami Offense – If anyone is laughing, they shouldn't be, because Miami (Ohio) runs a very similar style offense to Randy Walker's Northwestern team. Walker coached at Miami until 1999, and his staff was working with the MU staff this summer on how to implement the spread offense that the Wildcats used to tie for the Big Ten title last fall. Although Iowa and Nebraska held the Northwestern Offense in check last season, they were the only two teams to do that as the Wildcats mauled teams like Michigan and Illinois.
Miami runs a no-huddle spread offense like Northwestern, but they do not run it at the same pace as the Big Ten favorite Wildcats. They spread the field to run, and they moved the ball well at times against Michigan even though their best running back, Steve Little, did not play. Miami also has good athletes at the quarterback position, as redshirt freshman Ben Rothlisberger is a pure passer who turned down a scholarship offer to Ohio State to play for the RedHawks. Ryan Hawks starts at wide receiver, but he is also the option quarterback who brings an extra dimension considering that Miami really has two quarterbacks on the field at the same time most plays.
Until the Northwestern game last year, the thing that the Iowa Defense struggled the most with the last few years was playing in space. Speed, quickness, sound tackling, and understanding assignments are always important in playing good defense, but the spread offense forces defenses to put a premium on those things since defenders are so spread out. The Iowa Defense has one of the bigger and more physical fronts in the Big Ten this year, but the unit is going to have to continue to show that they are more athletic and skilled than last year. The NU game was one of the Hawks best games last year, but they also had the advantage in preparing for the Wildcats after having already played ten games. The 2001 Hawks have only played one game so far, so it is paramount that the players really study this week so there are few mental mistakes and no blown coverages on game day.
2. The Defensive Line Needs to Bring Their "A" Game – The DL needs to be one of the strengths of this Iowa Football team. Although they played well last Saturday, they did not seem to be firing on all cylinders in the 1st quarter. Physical players like Jerry Montgomery and Colin Cole would rather play physical teams like Wisconsin editions of the last few years that try smash mouth football and running between the tackles, but this weekend is going to be different. Teams like Miami (Ohio), Northwestern, and Purdue will try to run the ball a majority of the time this year, but they annoy defensive linemen with spread formations, no-huddle, and short passes.
No matter what kind of offense the Iowa DL faces this year, they need to be able to adjust and defeat it. Saturday will be a good test to see how quick and active the front can be for 60 minutes. The power and strength of the front four should still be important in wearing down the Miami Offense, but they also must be able to put pressure on the quarterback with limited blitzing. One of the keys to the win over Northwestern last year was that the Hawk Defense beat them by only rushing 4-5 players, while everyone else dropped into coverage. If the front four do their job, this same game plan can work on Saturday.
The DL does not always have to make the plays in open space, but at least they need to slow people down and make runners waste precious time so the linebackers can clean up. R.J. Meyer and the linebacking corps had a great game against the Wildcats last year, and I expect them and the safeties to have big games against Miami as well. If the DL does their job and plays like one of the strengths of the team, things should be easier for the rest of the defense and the Hawks should have a good game.
3. The Iowa OL Needs to Play Better Than Michigan – Michigan had the most talented and productive offense in the Big Ten last season with skilled players like QB Drew Henson, WR David Terrell, and RB Anthony Thomas. What separated them from other very good offenses was the fact that they may have had the best offensive line in the country with four great seniors among the starting five. However, the 2001 UM Offense and the 2000 version are totally different at this point in time. Michigan always has talent, but they are struggling to replace the best college group of seven players in America. Michigan had 403 yards and 31 points against Miami, but the statistics were very misleading as they were very sluggish in the 1st and 3rd quarters, as the score was 17-13 in the 4th quarter before the Wolverines scored 2 touchdowns to put the game away.
When healthy, Iowa has more experience and talent than the Wolverines in the offensive backfield, but the big difference in how UM did versus Miami and how the Hawks fare lies in the OL. If Iowa continues to progress at this position, they should give Miami more trouble in the trenches than what Michigan did last week. Michigan ran 47 times for 189 yards against the RedHawks, and although Iowa is unlikely to run 49 times for 331 yards like the Kent State game, Iowa should be able to muster a more dominant ground effort than the Wolverines.
4. Break Out the Special Teams – Nate Kaeding had a great game last week as he set an Iowa kicker scoring record with 15 points. He was also very effective with most of his kickoffs as he pinned Kent State deep in their territory. Last season the kickoff return and punt return units were some of the strongest areas on the football team. As the competition goes up every week, it becomes more paramount that these units continue to shine and make plays that change momentum like last season. The punt unit has been somewhat of an unknown quantity as a result of Iowa's offensive flexing in the first game, but the unit should see more action and be effective as the season progresses. If David Bradley struggles for any length of time, Kaeding can step in and be productive.
5. Reverse the MAC Attack – Although most of the country is laughing at the Big Ten Conference for its struggles against the Mid-American Conference, the league has pulled upsets against many schools that schedule them. Minnesota should stop scheduling MAC teams as they lost to Ohio University last season and were destroyed by Toledo last Thursday, 38-7. Among other big schools, Penn State lost to Toledo and Iowa lost to Western Michigan last season, while Bowling Green defeated Missouri last weekend. Marshall has knocked off enough bigger school opponents that many times these wins are not considered upsets.
The traditional king of upsetting bigger schools in the MAC is Miami. In recent years they have defeated teams that were rated at the time like Virginia Tech (1997), North Carolina (1998), and Northwestern (1995). The win over NU was in the magical Wildcat Rose Bowl season under Gary Barnett, and for good measure the RedHawks beat NU again in 1999. Because of the 85-scholarship limit, more and more good players are falling down to smaller schools, and combined with recent history, very few small schools are intimidated by playing major conference foes. In fact, schools like Miami look forward to the chance to show the football world that their team and certain players have been overlooked and are worthy of attention.
The days are gone of people showing up and winning just because they are Notre Dame or USC. If a certain team has experience, talent, and believes in itself, they can play with anyone. If a team lacks experience or isn't playing well, they can get beat by anyone whether they are in a major conference or not. If Iowa wants to keep their momentum going this season, they better forget about ISU this week and get ready for Miami. There are plenty of bad examples of teams that were not able to do that.
Just ask Glen Mason.