Another Week, Another Passing Team on the Iowa Schedule – It would be great if Iowa could get some running teams like Air Force, Army, Nebraska, or Boston College on their schedule this season for a little balance, but for the eighth consecutive week Iowa plays a team that likes to pass the ball to open up the running game. Penn State has found offensive balance against other opponents this year, but against Iowa they were one-dimensional. The other Iowa opponents have only found balance against weaker opponents or teams that overplay the pass.
Being down 29-10 late in the third quarter last week against #23 Wisconsin, the opponent and situation dictated abandoning the run game, and IU was successful as they rallied to win, 32-29. Senior QB Gibran Hamden was named Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his performance as he threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns.
Whether it is the result of trailing in games that they have come back to win, falling way behind in games that they have lost, or just not having a good running attack, the Hoosiers have found most of their success in the air this year. Through six games they are averaging 264 yards per game, and have completed more than half of their passes. In contrast, the Hoosier ground game is ranked last in the Big Ten, averaging 118 yards per game and only 3.2 yards per carry. Since Iowa is ranked first in the Big Ten and second nationally in run defense, but is last in the conference against the pass, expect Indiana to abandon the run game pretty quickly this Saturday.
Tough to Win in Bloomington? - Although it seems strange to talk about Bloomington being a tough place to win a football game since the Hoosiers have little football tradition and only average around 30,000 fans per home game, IU has won six straight contests at home dating back to last season. Some of that success has to be attributed to the outstanding play of ex-Hoosier QB Antwaan Randel El. Randel El may have been the most exciting college player in the country over the last four years, and he was the difference in the Hoosiers beating the Hawks in three of the last four meetings. Iowa finally beat Randel El in Kinnick Stadium last season, 42-28, thanks to 172 rushing yards from RB Ladell Betts, but Antwaan made some great plays in a losing effort.
The last three years the two teams combined for gaudy offensive statistics in their encounters, thanks mostly to Randel El and to a poor Indiana Defense. However, the most memorable game of the four was a defensive 14-7 Hoosier win in 1998. Although it was an ugly game and a bad moment for Iowa fans, it was the most memorable as Randel El led his team to two fourth quarter touchdowns after the Iowa Defense had held them all day. Coach Hayden Fry had a very poor offense that year and, much like the Michigan game, played not to lose late in the game and put the game on the shoulders of the defense. And just like the Michigan game, the Hoosiers pulled the game out late and dropped Iowa to 3-4 with the loss. Since Iowa had beaten Cam Cameron's Hoosiers 62-0 in Kinnick in 1997, the Iowa loss in 1998 was supposedly the biggest turnaround loss in NCAA history. Worse yet, the loss dropped a poor Iowa team into a downward spiral that resulted in a five-game losing streak, an embarrassing loss to Minnesota, a 3-8 season, and the retirement of Coach Fry.
Matt Roth will get to play – Some fans around the state have wondered why DE Matt Roth does not get to start since he has played very well since the start of the Big Ten season. After his good performance last week against Michigan State in which he forced a fumble with a great hit on the QB and had three sacks and four tackles for a loss, Matt is now tied for the team lead in sacks with DT Colin Cole. Starting DE Jonathan Babineaux plays better against the run and has done a great job this year, while Roth has taken playing time away from starting DE Howard Hodges with his physical play and a motor that never stops. However, there is enough playing time for everyone, as Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker loves to rotate guys up front.
Roth just started playing end this fall, so the sophomore has a tremendous upside if he keeps progressing at this pace. However, the former linebacker is still not very disciplined in his run defense responsibilities, and is still making mistakes. In passing situations, he has fewer responsibilities, and as long as other linemen can read the screen plays as Roth goes flying toward the QB, the Hawks will be all right.
Since Indiana does not usually run the ball well, and Iowa usually does a great job against it, expect to see Matt coming in the game for many second-and-long and third-and-long situations. Hoosier QB Gibran Hamden is a big signal caller and has a strong and accurate arm, but does not move as well as other quarterbacks in the conference. If Iowa is going to stop Indiana and play well on defense, they need to stop the IU running game and put pressure on Hamden. Roth will have a big say in that, as the ends should be able to rush the QB this week without worrying so much about containing the QB in the pocket.
Hitting is Contagious – Iowa has had a physical defense that is known for hard hits ever since junior SS Bob Sanders became a starter late in the 2000 season. They had a physical defense before Sanders became a starter, but Bob made everything click after he moved into the lineup. In addition to a big physical line with tough linebackers behind them, Sanders was able to run around and make plays in past seasons since the starting corners did such a good job in coverage.
The hitting has not been as noticeable this season, and there have been several reasons for it. First, the defense has been so good against the run and so poor against the pass that no opposing offense spends much time trying to play physical against Iowa – they would rather spread Iowa out and make them make plays in space. Also, Bob Sanders has been fighting injuries, which affect his ability to cut and move to get in position to make hits. Finally, the secondary and linebackers have covered so poorly at times that they can never get in position to make a big hit on the receiver.
At least for one week, the Iowa Defense was back playing the way they played in 2000 and 2001. The DL and linebackers were great as usual against the run, but they also put enough pressure on Spartan QB Jeff Smoker to give him a bad case of happy feet. The secondary and linebackers did not always have perfect coverage, but they did cover as well as they have all season and certainly better than they did in the Purdue game. Through film study and improvement, not only did the pass coverage put themselves in position to make three interceptions, but also put several great hits on opposing receivers. Sanders was the best of the bunch, but S Scott Boleyn and starting FS Derek Pagel were all over the place as well. The safeties and linebackers have always been good hitters, but until the MSU game, were just not in position to make the hits.
Indiana has a productive pair of receivers in Glenn Johnson (27 catches for 500 yards) and Courtney Roby (25 catches for 530), so look for more Cover 2 and more package substitutions depending on down and situation. Iowa redshirt freshmen Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge are getting better at linebacker and do a good job in long yardage situations with their speed, while Boleyn has been outstanding at times. After seeing his first extended action against Purdue, Greenway made fewer mistakes against MSU.
Barring injuries, the Iowa Secondary is going to be the weakest link on the Iowa Defense for the rest of the season. There are going to be more games in which the secondary is going to struggle like it did against Purdue. However, the question is whether there are going to be more quality performances like last Saturday. Many players gave credit for their performances to all of the film work they did last week. If that is what made the difference, then I hope they continue to work and study at that same level each week. If they continue, opposing teams are not going to want to watch tapes of Iowa and the Hawk Secondary leveling opponents with hard hits all over the field.
That is why they play the games – According to the statistics, Iowa should be able to run the ball on Indiana. Iowa is ranked among the top twenty teams in the country in rushing offense, averaging 225.7 yards per game. They also average 5.2 yards per carry. Indiana is near the bottom of the Big Ten in rushing defense, giving up 204.1 yards per game. Opponents average 4.8 yards per carry against the Hoosiers.
Despite the statistical advantages on paper, Iowa has not run the ball as well the last two weeks as they had against Penn State and the non-conference opponents. Purdue was able to blitz and confuse Iowa's zone blocking schemes, and LT Robert Gallery was the only lineman who noticeably made strong run blocks against both the Boilermakers and Spartans. Other linemen picked up their blocks in both games, but they did not get the downfield push or control that Gallery did. The Hawk OL was dominant in pass blocking the last two games, but has not dominated the line of scrimmage on running plays.
The Spartans had two weeks to prepare for Iowa's strong OL and the zone blocking schemes. Zone blocking allows you to sort out the opposing defensive front without giving up penetration in the backfield because you have two men blocking a defensive lineman before handing them off and going on linebackers. However, Iowa has not been able to get to linebackers on some plays or has not been able to move them off the line of scrimmage. As a result of some stalemate blocks at the line of scrimmage, RB Fred Russell (138 carries, 797 yards) has not had as many huge holes on the attack side of running plays and has often gotten yards only after cutting back or bouncing outside. This can become a bad habit as Fred sometimes bounced outside too quickly and did not follow his blocks against MSU when a hole eventually appeared. Overall, the OL and running of Russell has been the strongest part of the football team.
Although the Iowa ground game has been a little off the last two weeks, FB Edgar Cervantes has played very well. His lead blocking last week was, perhaps, his best performance of the season. The Hawks ran many plays out of passing formations with a one-back set, and Cervantes did his usual good job of blocking in those formations. TE Dallas Clark went in motion and hooked the opposing DE to spring Brad Banks on some run and pass plays. Fans wonder why RB Aaron Greving plays more than RB Jermelle Lewis, but Aaron showed one reason on a continual basis last Saturday. Although he struggles to get yards, he had a few great blocks in pass situations that allowed a big play to take place. Once Jermelle learns how to block better and run more efficiently within the system, he will be playing more.
Teams like Utah, Ohio State, and Wisconsin ran all over Indiana, but few teams have been able to have success passing the ball. The Hoosiers are allowing just 180.3 yards per game through the air (second in the Big Ten), and held Kentucky down in a losing effort. Part of the reason they have such a low pass defense average is that teams try to run and have run on the Hoosiers, but although Wisconsin ran the ball well enough to win, the Badgers only passed for 121 yards and could not hold their nineteen-point lead. It would be surprising if Iowa uses as many passing sets against Indiana this week as Iowa did last week. Expect them to run the ball more and use Dallas Clark, especially if the Hoosiers try to stop the run by loading the box and playing zone. QB Brad Banks needs to play well and make key throws and runs to get drives moving, but it is also time to get the running game back on track. Fred Russell has been nursing injuries since early in the season, so this may be a good week to get carries to Lewis in some first and second down situations. It is great to see the Iowa Defense improving and Nate Kaeding and the punt and kick coverage units are as good as anyone in the nation, but this team goes as the OL and offense go. If they hang onto the ball and blow a weaker Indiana front off the line of scrimmage, it should be a good day in the state of Iowa.