Are they living up to our expectations in all facets of the game? What areas are better than expected and what areas are less than expected? Let's dive in.
This is an area that continues to improve each and every week for Iowa. Since getting shredded for more than 500 yards in their Big Ten opener and allowing 6.4 yards per play, the Hawkeyes circled the wagons and began to experiment with some alignments that have slowed down the popular spread attacks they have faced since then.
Illinois averaged 4.9 yards per play, Indiana averaged 4.5 yards per play (on 101 plays!) and Michigan averaged 5.4 yards per play.
Iowa's young and undersized defensive line allowed Ohio State to shred them for more than 300 yards on the ground in the Big Ten opener. Since then, they have allowed just 3.1 yards per carry and 110.25 yards per game. That is right in the wheel house with regards to what we talked about before the year began. We felt that if this team could get to the point of where it allowed similar rushing numbers to that of the 2001 Iowa Hawkeyes, which was slightly above 117 yards per game on the ground, they would definitely have more than a chance to win each and every game they have played. Those numbers have Iowa third in the league in rushing defense and
However, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan rate no higher than seventh in the league in rushing in Big Ten play, with Illinois and Indiana being 10th and 11th.
Minnesota is the final game on Iowa's schedule, and as you would expect, they lead the league in rushing. However, they are mostly a one dimensional team, as they rank dead last in passing offense.
Iowa's next opponent is Northwestern, and they are fourth in the league in rushing, averaging over 200 yards per game. They are also tops in total offense, so they can hurt you in a lot of ways.
Wisconsin is a surprising 9th in rushing offense and ninth in total offense. They are also dead last against the run, something we will talk about here in a bit. So their being atop the Big Ten standings right now is certainly an amazing statistical anomaly.
Iowa is 10th in the league in opponent third down conversion percentage, but they are number two in the league in red zone defense, just one percentage point behind Northwestern. That tells you that Iowa is allowing its yards between the twenties, but they are strong when opponents get near their end zone.
Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway are putting up amazing tackling numbers and they are making plays that you would expect out of senior All Americans. Greenway is second in the nation in tackling with Hodge checking in at tenth. They are 1-2 in that category in league play. Last week, Hodge had 20 tackles and Greenway had 16. They are the heart and soul and the younger players are feeding off of them.
Bryan Mattison has shown the most improvement along the defensive front this year, while all of the players are getting better each and every week.
Norm Parker's switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment has paid dividends and is giving offensive coordinators more to prepare for when Iowa comes on the schedule. Mike Humpal looks like Chad Greenway Light; a great athlete who hits hard. Zach Gablemann and Mike Klinkenborg are making names for themselves on special teams, the forerunner to solid contributions on defense for this Iowa program. Matt Kroul also gets better and when he has been called upon as of late, Alex Willcox has contributed. Adam Shada has filled in nicely when Antwan Allen has been unable to go.
It has taken this group a while to find its identity, but they are getting close. It's a similar identity to that of recent Iowa teams, without the amazing physical dominance we have seen. This group is running Norm Parker's defense; bend but do not break.
Michigan's high powered offense gained just 317 yards against Iowa in regulation, with 52 of those yards coming on the screen pass to Steve Breaston late in the game. There was a hold on that play that was not called. Iowa allowed just 17 points in regulation and just 10 to the point late on that Breaston score.
They gave up 445 yards to Indiana, but again, it took 101 plays from the Hoosiers to get those yards and they surrendered just 21 points in the process. This defense is all about keeping the offensive players in front of you and allowing some yards in the soft spots of its zone coverage. It forces you to string together long scoring drives.
Illinois scored just once on Iowa, and they needed 12 plays and 80 yards to do it. Iowa allowed 17 points to Purdue, but the Boilermakers had to run eight plays on each drive to score. Indiana's three scores came on drives where they ran 11, 18 and seven drives, with each of those being at least 80 yard marches. Michigan regulation points came on three drives that totaled 25 plays; two of them were 10 play drives.
The bottom line is that this defense is more than carrying its weight this year and through eight games might be ahead of where some experts thought they might be, or right at the level of optimistic expectations.
In the most important category that matters, Iowa is third in the league in points allowed per game.
This is a group that has probably not met preseason expecatations, be they lofty or realistic.
Much was expected from Iowa's offense, with the returning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in Drew Tate, a healthy group of running backs and two of the leading returning receivers in the Big Ten in Clinton Solomon and Ed Hinkel.
The good news is that Iowa has found a running game this year. Albert Young is playing some hard football and appears to be the best weapon at tailback that Iowa has had since Sedrick Shaw. His ability to catch passes might push him into the Ronnie Harmon category before his career is over. Keep in mind that he probably has another gear in the speed department that we may not see this year. He is little more than 13 months removed from his ACL injury, and it can take up to 18 months for someone to totally regain their skills. That is bad news for the rest of the league as Iowa should have a very solid offensive line for the rest of this year and next. Tom Busch has done an excellent job of blocking for the Hawks this year, too.
The offensive line took awhile to get on the same page, but they are there now and Iowa is finding some success on the ground as we have mentioned.
Michigan's front line might be the biggest group that Iowa sees all year. They were bigger than Ohio State's front that literally manhandled the Hawkeyes in Columbus in late September. Albert Young ran for 153 yards against that front on 30 carries, with his long run being 16 yards. So his 5.1 yards per carry did not come on some 80 yard spurt.
Scott Chandler has emerged to be a solid go-to guy for Tate, as he leads the team with 29 receptions. Solomon is right behind him with 28 grabs, but that is a point unto itself. That is just 3.5 catches per game, and Solomon should have three grabs per half. Granted, he has dropped more than his fair share of balls this year, a problem he battled last year. The only step that he needed to take this season to go down as one of the elite Iowa receivers in history was consistency with routine grabs. He has not done that. He does have an impressive 18.2 yards per catch and has caught six touchdowns. Losing Ed Hinkel against Purdue has hurt this team, and I think that was evident against Michigan. It would be great to see Tony Moeaki become a bigger part of the offense, as he is averaging better than 15 yards per catch on his six grabs.
Drew Tate has thrown 13 touchdowns to just four interceptions, improving on that ratio over last year. His completion percentage is better as is his passer rating. But in watching Tate this year, you just get the feeling that there have been some big plays left out on the field, with Tate resigning himself to go to the underneath stuff more often. Perhaps that is what he is being told to do, but if the Hawkeyes are going to win their final three games, Tate is going to have to be at the top of his game. He played a great game against Michigan, going 27 of 39. There were at least four or five drops on the day, with one of them coming on the first play of the second half. It went through Solomon's hands for an INT. If Solomon had made that routine catch, Iowa is at midfield. Instead, Michigan wound up scoring a field goal. And when a game goes to overtime at 17-all, you don't need to be a match whiz to know that those mistakes kill you.
For the most part, this has been a solid area for Iowa.
Until last week, Andy Fenstermaker was turning in a sterling season as Iowa's punter. Fenstermaker had averaged 41.7 yards per kick prior to the Michigan game on 25 punts. 14 of those kicks had been fair caught, with 11 coming down inside the opponent's 20 yard line. Against Michigan, Andy had six punts that did not average 29 yards. He has shown that he has the ability to be consistent, and in this these last three games, he will have to be.
Kyle Schlicher is 11 of 13 on the season for Iowa in the field goal department, including a pressure packed kick to send the game into overtime last week and then the field goal in overtime. Most will remember his blocked attempt earlier in the game that proved to be crucial in a game that went to overtime. For his career, Kyle is 32 of 39, which is excellent.
Iowa's kickoff coverage unit is the best in the Big Ten and future stars seem to be emerging on that unit. Iowa's punt coverage unit is allowing just one yard per return on the season, an incredible number. Part of that is due to the guys making the stops and part of that is due to Fenstermaker's hang time.
The one sore spot for Iowa has been its kickoff return team. They are averaging just 13.1 yards per return, a distant last in the Big Ten conference.
ON THE WHOLE & LOOKING FORWARD
Northwestern's offense is ranked #1 in the Big Ten with Minnesota being #4. Iowa's defense will have its hands full, so it's imperative that the offense comes out in these final three games with crisp execution. That means limiting the dropped passes and finding the open man for the big play. It would be great to come out of this bye week with Tony Moeaki as a bigger part of the offensive game plan, especially on those tight end screen plays.
Iowa should be able to run the ball well during its final three games, as Northwestern is 7th (178.5), Minnesota 9th (192.2) and Wisconsin is 10th (241.6) in league play against the run.
Iowa may well have to average more than 30 points per game in each of these contests if they are to win.
Last year against Minnesota, against one of the best defenses in Iowa history at stopping the run, the Hawkeyes surrendered more than 330 yards on the ground, and won, thanks to five Kyle Schlicher field goals and some miscues by the Gopher defense. The Gopher defense is still prone to error and exploitation, but we all know what Lawrence Maroney can do. It might also be his last game as a collegian.
It will be Barry Alvarez's last game in Madison when Iowa comes calling, adding pomp and circumstance to an already dangerous game and location.
We are seeing just how dangerous Northwestern is, and they are favored at home against Michigan for the first time in decades this week. Do not be surprised to see Northwestern beat Michigan.
All three games are winnable, yet all three games are losable. Should Iowa put on another amazing finish down the stretch, it's still not inconceivable that they would share another Big Ten title trophy. It's just that now, like last year, they will need some help in addition to running the table.
With the defense coming on line, with the offensive line hitting its stride, it's time for Drew Tate and his offense to lead the way.