Expectations are high for Hawkeye fans. That's what happens a season after your favorite team goes 8-0 in the Big Ten and plays in the Orange Bowl. It's a natural reaction. You want Iowa to be as strong as it was a year ago ... and you want it to happen NOW.
As a result, I know there was some anxiety about the Hawkeyes' performance in their opener against Miami. There are fans who expected Iowa to beat the RedHawks by 30-plus points. But, that simply wasn't realistic.
After all, the Hawkeyes only defeated Ben Roethlisberger & Co. by five points last fall and that was with guys like Brad Banks, Dallas Clark, Bruce Nelson, Eric Steinbach, David Porter, Andy Lightfoot, C.J. Jones, Colin Cole, Fred Barr and Derek Pagel on the field.
Considering that Iowa went into Saturday's game with several players making their first collegiate starts, I felt that there were plenty of positives for the Hawkeyes, including…
Iowa's defense played an outstanding game. Once again, Norm Parker showed why he's one of the best defensive coordinators in college football. The Hawks "bent" a few times, but when it mattered most, they made the plays necessary to keep Miami out of the end zone. Obviously, the Hawkeyes benefited from a handful of RedHawk miscues (dropped passes and poor throws), but there is no reason to apologize for that. After holding its last seven opponents in 2002 to only 15 points per game, Parker's unit did a great job in the 2003 opener, allowing no points in the final 50 minutes.
Iowa's run defense was extremely stingy. The Hawks allowed only 54 yards rushing on 29 carries, a measly 1.9-yard average. That's definitely a good sign.
The Hawkeyes were +3 in turnovers. Making four interceptions against one of the nation's top quarterbacks is an impressive feat. Sophomore Jovon Johnson led the way with a couple of interceptions, three pass break-ups and five tackles. Sure, Nathan Chandler made a big mistake by fumbling in the red zone, but it's good to learn that lesson in a victory, rather than later in the season with a game on the line. Anytime you are +3 in turnovers, you've got a pretty good chance to win.
Special teams play was very good for Iowa. Nate Kaeding's kickoffs were excellent and David Bradley had an outstanding day, punting the ball five times for a 48.6-yard average. The coverage units fared very well, too. With Iowa's defense looking like it will keep the Hawkeyes within striking distance against its opponents, special teams play might be able to scratch out a couple of victories again this season.
The offensive line played better as the game went along. The four new starters — David Walker, Brian Ferentz, Eric Rothwell and Pete McMahon — saw a lot of different looks from Miami, which was trying to stop Iowa's rushing attack and force the Hawkeyes to beat them with the passing game. There were some rough spots early, but I thought that Iowa's run blocking improved as the game went along, springing Fred Russell for a couple of big runs in the second half. I'm sure that the new guys learned a TON in this game that will help them heading into the next couple of weeks. Robert Gallery looked — and played — like a monster, as usual.
Fred Russell performed like an All-Big Ten tailback. The senior from Inkster, Michigan has put on some additional muscle (5-8 and 190 pounds) and appears as evasive as ever at the line of scrimmage. Russell routinely made the first RedHawk miss as he totaled 165 yards on 22 carries, a 7.5-yard average.
Nathan Chandler played a solid game in his first start. There were a few plays in the first half when the senior QB looked uncomfortable and times when he showed some "happy feet," but overall, I felt that Chandler did a good job. He may not be as "exciting" as Brad Banks was…but who the heck IS? Chandler made a mistake by being careless with the football and it cost Iowa some points, which was not good. But when you look at his stat line — 12-of-19 for 130 yards, 2 touchdowns and 0 interceptions — you have to be pleased with his performance.
Maurice Brown is a stud. Iowa has had plenty of terrific receivers in the last 20 years — guys like Danan Hughes, Quinn Early and Tim Dwight — and Brown is looking like he belongs in that category. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, the senior from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida has the size and speed to pose a big-play threat every possession. It will be difficult for Brown to improve on his numbers from last season (48 catches, 966 yards, 11 TDs), but I wouldn't bet against him. He finished Saturday with seven catches for 78 yards and a score.
Chad Greenway was all over the field. The sophomore linebacker was in on 13 tackles against Miami and appeared to be as athletic as advertised.
Matt Roth reminds me of the Tazmanian Devil. There's always a whirlwind of activity —and usually a panicked offensive lineman — wherever he goes. Quick, fast, disruptive ... and scary. He flushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket a number of times, recorded a pair of sacks and forced a fumble.
Matt Neubauer turned in a surprising performance. I certainly didn't expect much from the 6-6 sophomore defensive tackle today. But, Neubauer looked right at home on the defensive line, recording three tackles, including a sack. His future could be pretty bright.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of positive signs that 2003 could be another memorable season. And I think it's great to have high expectations…it certainly beats the alternative. But, I believe it's going to take a little time for all of the new players to gain the experience and confidence that they're going to need to defeat teams like Michigan, Wisconsin and all the rest.
Here are some of the areas that Iowa will probably want to address in the next few weeks…
Find another receiver who's a consistent threat. With Maurice Brown on one side of the field, Iowa has one of the top receivers in the Big Ten. It would put a ton of pressure on opposing defenses to develop a strong option on the other side of the field. Who will that be? Ed Hinkel? He had no catches in the opener. Ramon Ochoa? Seems like a better option as a third receiver. Calvin Davis? Matt Melloy? Someone else? Considering the attention that Brown will attract from opposing teams, this seems like a great opportunity for somebody else to make some plays.
Involve the tight end — or a running back — in the passing game a little more. Obviously, Iowa doesn't have another Dallas Clark to put in the lineup, but I think that when the Hawkeyes have been most effective offensively in the last two decades, they've had a good tight end to go to (Jonathan Hayes, Mike Flagg, Marv Cook, Scott Slutzker, Michael Titley and Clark). Erik Jensen had a pair of catches for 20 yards on Saturday, which is a pretty good start. Another option is to make use of a running back as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Would this be Russell? He hasn't caught many passes in his Iowa career.
The offensive line must continue to improve. This unit played better as the game went on against Miami. It will be a HUGE key for the Hawkeyes for the linemen to keep progressing and give the offense a chance to move the ball with some consistency. If the offensive line plays well, Iowa will be very tough to beat.
Pass coverage must improve. This is nitpicking, I'll admit. For the most part, Iowa's pass coverage was good. But, the RedHawks dropped three or four passes on Saturday that would have been big gains, including at least one sure touchdown. Iowa can't count on getting those kinds of breaks each week.
It would be good to jump on Buffalo early to get some backups a little experience. Obviously, there are plenty of inexperienced starters who need all the playing time they can get, but there are several other guys who might need to get their feet wet. For example, it would be nice to see either Drew Tate or Jason Manson get in a few series at quarterback. I wouldn't mind seeing A.J. Johnson, Calvin Davis or Mike Follett get some touches, as well.
Overall, Saturday was a very good day in Iowa City. No doubt the Hawkeyes were happy to go against some different athletes for a change and test themselves a little bit. I'm sure that the game — and the videotape to be reviewed — provided a terrific education for many of the inexperienced players on offense and defense. Let's hope that the team can take another step forward next Saturday against Buffalo.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular Web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)