Iowa Football 2004: The Quarterly Report

This space is normally reserved for a breakdown of game film from Iowa's most recent game. After about 15 minutes of viewing the Iowa-Arizona State game, that plan went into the scrap heap. What we WILL do is provide a review of the questions that faced this year's team prior to the Kent State game and see what progress has been made in those areas, as well as taking a look at the rest of Iowa's season. You still get the standard five-plus pages worth of analysis, per Monday tradition.

In lieu of a game tape breakdown, as I don't know what could possibly be seen as a positive from watching that tape again, save Walner Belleus' punt return for a touchdown, we are going a different direction this Monday.

The Hawkeye Nation is confused, bewildered and angry.

We haven't seen a full blown message board meltdown for some time, at least since the Hawks lost to Wisconsin in Madison in 2001, when Kyle McCann was the whipping boy of choice.

Some Iowa fans are as shell-shocked as the Hawkeyes were on Saturday night regarding the 44-7 beating they received at the hands of Arizona State.

Some of those fans probably would have been surprised even if Iowa lost a close game to the Sun Devils, as some act as though the Hawks have won 10-plus games per year for a decade or so, when actually its just two years in a row, the first time that has been accomplished in school history. You know, the group that is acting like the Nebraska fans they love to chastise for firing their head coach after a nine-win season.

The kind that will lead the cheer of ‘Fire Ken O'Keefe' after EVERY loss, regardless of the fact that for the last three years, Iowa has led the Big Ten in scoring twice and finished 3rd the other time.

For that small group of people, the fact that Iowa has gone 26-7 over its last 33 games is a moot point, and three hours and ten minutes of play in Tempe takes precedent.

For them, to borrow a line from my friend Steve Deace, it's all about the Church of What's Happening Now.

Yes, it's always interesting (masochistic) to read what the cat drags onto the message boards after an Iowa loss.

Hey, I can appreciate people being upset with the loss. Any loss stings, but this loss was a mowing the lawn near a hive of Africanized Honey Bees sting. In the 25 years that I have watched Iowa football (thankfully I was spared the Burns, Nagel, Lauterbur and Commings era's), I can't recall too many tail whoopin's like the one we witnessed on Saturday.

However, the ‘shock' factor is different for different people.

My preseason guess at Iowa's 2004 record was 8-3, with more of a lean towards 7-4 than 9-2. I had the Iowa-ASU game pegged as a Hawkeye loss back when Howard Dean was expected to win the Democratic Nomination. I don't say that to boast, it's just what I felt then and posted about all summer and fall.

We polled several hundred Hawkeye fans over the summer for our Hawkeye football preview issue of Hawkeye Nation magazine, and the average record for the Hawkeyes as predicted by the fans was 9.5 wins to 1.5 losses.

In fact, there was one lone Hawkeye fan that predicted Iowa would fare any worse than 8-3, and that was a 7-4 pick.

Some might call that runaway optimism, especially when the question marks facing the 2004 Hawkeyes were fairly obvious.

In the same issue of the magazine, HN.com Senior Writer and HN Editor Rob Howe picked 10 things to watch for this year.

Want the recipe for a 44-7 loss on the road to a BCS conference foe? Howe listed Iowa's strong strength of schedule, particularly in Big Ten conference play, whether or not the 2004 Hawkeyes could stay hungry, like their predecessors who were around for the lean years, the offensive line replacements, special teams, Kirk adding several new gray hairs this year due to youth on offense and needing to avoid the injury bug as concerns facing this year's team.

I think Rob pretty much nailed the areas of concern, and it would appear that each of those areas has not only NOT been answered in the affirmative, some of those questions are now full blown Category Five's within the Hawkeye Nation.

After three games, or one quarter of the Hawkeye season, we felt like it was a good time to turn in our quarterly progress report based on some of those preseason concerns.

OFFENSIVE TURNOVER

When you look at the players from 2003 who started the majority of Iowa's games last year and compare them to the players that started Iowa's season opener against Kent State this year, the Hawkeyes returned a grand total of two of them. That's two out of 11.

Sure, you can say that Jermelle Lewis and Ed Hinkel are bonafide starters, and you would be right. But still, Mike Jones (7 starts) and Pete McMahon (13 starts) were it, technically.

Not only that, but of the 11 offensive starters for the season opener, seven of them were making their first career start, period.

That's green acres, my friends.

O-LINE SHUFFLE

Here is another recipe for bumps on the road: Three games played, three different starting looks on the offensive line.

Game One Starters
LT: Gray
LG: Plagman
C: Elgin
RG: McMahon
RT: Jones (first career start at RT)

Game Two Starters
LT: Gray
LG: Plagman/Gates (lost for at least three games to injury in the second half)
C: Elgin
RG: McMahon
RT: Jones

Game Three Starters
LT: Gray
LG: Jones (position switch)
C: Elgin
RG: Walker/Gates (lost indefinitely by half time)
RT: McMahon (position switch)

This week, you will see yet a different look. It's expected that the starters will be, from LT to RT: Gray, Jones, Elgin, Gates and McMahon.

Or you can also say, from LT to RT: a converted DT in Gray who is in his second season on the OL, a true soph in Jones, a first year starter in Elgin, a converted TE as of this spring in Gates and a veteran in McMahon who looked a whole lot better with Robert Gallery on the other side of the line than he has this year.

Now, with Walker out again and Plagman on the shelf for a few more weeks, all of your available reserves have a grand total of ZERO starts and no playing experience in the heat of Big Ten action.

Though we share the same birthday, I am no Albert Einstein, but Stevie Wonder can see that this is an area of frightening concern three games into the season.

TRICKLE DOWN FOOTBALL ECONOMICS

So having reestablished how green Iowa is up front, the trickle down effect impacts every aspect of your offense. Starting a true second year player at quarterback is enough cause to hit the Rolaids on occasion, but that roller coaster is even more modulated with offensive line concerns. The starting fullback had never started before the Kent State game, too. And when Calvin Davis was your leading returning receiver to start the year as far as career yardage goes, you might be green in that area, too.

Some fans are saying Iowa should open up the offense a bit more than they have, given their troubles running the football.

In the sake of not insulting anyone, I will mundanely say that I disagree.

What is Ken O'Keefe supposed to do when his quarterback is not getting enough time to throw the ball, because the defense is not buying the play action fakes and they are sending more blitz waves than London faced in WWII?

You start doing things like that without all of your personnel on the same page, and you get a few pick 6's per game.

If the OL stays healthy the rest of the year, there is a chance that this group can get on the same page and turn things around, I do believe that. But it isn't going to happen overnight, and there are no quick fixes. And Iowa does not have the horses to create personnel mismatches on the edge right now, and Tate does not have the time to throw it.

I guess if there is any good news thus far, Hawkeye fans have been showing great restraint in calling for the backup quarterback. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, he is hurt, too.

FROM STRENGTH TO CONCERN

Iowa's coverage units on special teams have left a lot to be desired three games into the year. What has been a trademark strength for Iowa the last two years, we have seen this area turn into average, at best.

Kyle Schlicher has missed a field goal and had another one blocked, and he kicks the ball fairly low on field goal and PAT attempts, but struggles in that area were to be expected. Troubles with coverage aspects were not.

STRONG SCHEDULE LOOKS STRONGER

Stronger, as in Coralville Reservoir full of garlic cloves, strong.

Iowa has to play every team that looks capable of contending for a Big Ten title.

ROAD: Michigan, Minnesota
HOME: Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin

Plus they have to travel to Happy Valley riding the crest of a four-game winning streak against the Nittany Lions of Penn State. You don't think those guys haven't circled Iowa on their calendars?

Speaking of that, HawkeyeNation.com's football expert Chuck Hartlieb had this to say here on HN.com after the Kent State game:

"My thoughts for the year and for Hawkeye fans, as I see it, is that we need to respect the fact that it gets a lot tougher for these Hawkeyes than it gets easier. What I mean by that is so much of this game is preparation and a mental approach. After the last two years, more and more respect gets given to the Hawkeyes by other Big Ten teams. What that means is that during the off season and preseason, is there are more days committed to prepare for Iowa in Ann Arbor, Columbus and Madison than there were in previous years. I think coaches purposefully circle games on their schedule. Iowa might not have been circled a few years ago, which allowed them to perhaps sneak up on some teams, now they are in everybody's headlights.

"It just won't be Michigan that is preparing for Iowa, every team knows they have to come up with an ‘A' performance to beat the Hawks, so you will get their best.

"Now on the flip side, you have your own team to worry about. It's not like the Hawks are going to get soft, but it's to get motivated after two great years. It's tough to get cranked up for everyone outside of Michigan and Ohio State. You have to do it against everyone, as all of those teams will be gunning for you now more than ever before.

"So one of the themes I look at is that it gets tougher on both sides. Tougher to stay motivated, and tougher as teams are gunning for you. So to approach anything like what we have seen the last two years would be amazing, to me."

ASU color commentator and former Sun Devil and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Danny White said during their broadcast last night that ASU coaches broke down tape on every Iowa game for the last three years during the off season. They cited the Iowa game as THE game to get their program back in the right direction.

Iowa has beaten Michigan and Wisconsin two years in a row, Minnesota three years in a row and Penn State four years in a row.

You don't think the Hawks have their collective attention?

Welcome to the world of the hunted.

NO EXCUSES: LOOKING FORWARD

I don't think you will hear Kirk Ferentz rolling out excuses, and I don't want his item to be considered as an answer to why Iowa got kicked in the teeth on Saturday.

But the signs were there before the year began that there were going to be some bumps along the way in 2004.

That being said, Iowa still has eight regular season games on their schedule and they have the same record as every other team in the Big Ten conference: 0-0.

The road does not get any easier, both figuratively and literally, as Iowa travels to Michigan this week.

The Wolverines are experiencing some troubles of their own, as they are breaking in a young quarterback and trying to find a consistent ground game. Iowa will only face one more quarterback this year as talented as ASU's Andrew Walter. The bad news is that Purdue's Kyle Orton is better, but that game is in Kinnick.

Ohio State is still doing it with mirrors, Wisconsin's offense is not what you would call high octane, but Minnesota looks like an awfully tough out in the Dome.

PSU's Zach Mills seemingly has a prop bet with Michigan's Chad Henne for who can throw the most INT's in the league this year, but Happy Valley is a tough place to win.

After Saturday night's game, a healthy Jon Beutjer makes Illinois feel like they have a shot at Iowa this year.

Do I think Iowa's defense is as bad as they looked on Saturday? No. The Iowa offense put them in a bad spot as far as being on the field for a very long time in the first half, and Walter's passes seemed laser guided.

In the Big Ten, most teams are still going to have to establish the run to get the best of the Hawkeyes, and the Iowa defense is designed to stop the run.

However, one of the best ingredients for a good to great defense is an offense that is capable of moving the football. Iowa does not that right now, and it will be interesting to see if the wear and tear (read exhaustion) begins to mount on Iowa's defensive line as the season rolls along.

But if you have the horses, the game plan against Iowa is laid out for you right now.

1. Take advantage of the spaces in Iowa's cover two zone and 40 zone aligments. That is easier said that done, because those passes that Walter was completing on the outside just over top of the CB and just in front of the safeties were wicked good. That came against Iowa's 40 zone, or 'quarters', where the CB gives the flat, and the safeties have deep quarter and deep out assigments.

2. Blitz the heck out of Iowa's offense until they beat you. In Iowa's last two games, the Hawkeyes have not made their opponent pay for employing this strategy.

3. Call a healthy dose of screen passes (read: Michigan) against an ‘overpursuing' Iowa defensive front, and be sure to work your tight end into the game plan. Iowa probably won't face another TE as talented as ASU's Zach Miller (10 catches on Saturday), however.

4. Bringing edge blitzes will negate Iowa's bread and butter play action passing game.

Now, those strategies have been used by Iowa opponents for the last two-plus years, and they have failed more than they have worked. But the Hawkeyes still had Robert Gallery at left tackle last year, and faking the zone plays left and waggling out to the right was the play of choice.

Teams are not buying the fact that Iowa can run on them this year, and they are daring Tate and the Hawkeyes to beat them in man to man coverage. But again, the offensive line is not doing a good enough job of protecting Tate to give him any time to make reads.

Getting Norm Parker back in the mix will be a good boost to the team's morale, and if Iowa never plays another game that starts after 9PM central time, it would be a good idea.

All is not lost for the 2004 season, but the original question marks are still lurking in the shadows.

Kirk Ferentz can circle the wagons with the best of them, as the 2003 season showed.

It will be interesting to see how the Big Ten portion of the 2004 season plays out.

Keep the faith, but you shouldn't be totally shocked if this team stubs a few more toes along the way. This was set up to be a rebuilding year before the first snap of the season.


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