In our ongoing efforts to provide Tennessee fans with the best possible coverage of Vol football, InsideTennessee sent a list of questions about Taxslayer Bowl foe Iowa to Rob Howe, publisher of Scout’s Iowa website.
Below are those questions, plus Howe’s candid and in-depth responses. His comments should give IT readers considerable insight into the Vols’ upcoming opponent:
IT: Iowa started the season 5-1, then finished it 2-4. What happened down the stretch?
Howe: I think the biggest factor in the poor ending to the season was the competition improved. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska all won at least nine games this season and represented three of the four losses Iowa sustained in its final six contests. The deficiencies the Hawkeyes were able to overcome against Big Ten bottom feeders like Indiana and Purdue caught up with them when opponents were capable of making them pay.
IT: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock?
Howe: Rudock relies more on the cerebral aspects of the game than he does loud tool. Having said that, it's not like his right arm is a wet noodle. Think Alex Smith from the Chiefs as a comp. He's strong at reading the defense and getting his unit in the right plays. While he's not a statue in the pocket, his ability to create with his legs is limited and has become more so with injuries suffered the last two seasons. He tends to get happy feet if he takes a few hits early in the game and that also affects his accuracy. Though he's improved, he sometimes rushes through his progressions, leaving him to takes sacks or force throws leading to turnovers.
IT: Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard led a 24-10 defeat of Purdue in his only start. How would you describe him? Why didn’t he play more, and what are the chances he could see some playing time in the bowl game?
Howe: It's the $64,000 question in Iowa fandom. The Rudock-Beathard debate has raged for most of the season. First, Beathard is more similar to Rudock than different. A two-quarterback system doesn't make a lot of sense when the difference in skill sets is nominal. Beathard has a stronger arm and can make more plays off- schedule with his feet than can Rudock, but he also lags behind the starter in game management ability. He started slow at Purdue and threw a Pick-6. That victory resulted more from Iowa running the ball and solid defense than the quarterback. Beathard really hasn't won the job when he has gotten a chance in Rudock's absence.
IT: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Iowa running back Mark Weisman?
Howe: What Weisman lacks in natural ability he makes up for in effort and determination. He's not often going to make people miss but is a load to bring down. He does his best work when he can get to the second level with a head of steam and run over linebackers and defensive backs. Weisman needs a favorable hole through which to run as he's not going to mess around with cutbacks. Last season, he found some success running Iowa's bread and butter stretch play but those openings have not been there consistently this fall. That's less of an indictment of Weisman than it is inconsistent play from the line and stubbornness by the coaches to keep trying to run a scheme that doesn't match personnel.
IT: What makes defensive tackle Carl Davis so special?
Howe: Davis is very athletic for a 300-pounder. He's faced double-teams for much of the season, which has slowed his production but allowed teammates to make plays. He's fast off the ball and closes well on running backs and quarterbacks. He keeps his head up in pursuit which leads to him batting down passes and closing off throwing lanes.
IT: Tennessee allowed 42 sacks. How good are Iowa’s pass rushers?
Howe: The Hawkeyes have improved in this area during the last few years but I would say it's a strength. They perform much better against pocket passers but have continued to struggle with mobile signal callers. True junior end Drew Ott might be the most improved player on the team and is a legitimate threat to drop the quarterback. The tandem on the other side, Nate Meier and Mike Hardy, offer different strengths. Meier is an undersized rush end who struggles against bigger offensive linemen. Hardy is less of a threat to register a sack but can absorb blocks and collapse the pocket.
IT: What went wrong in the 51-14 loss at Minnesota and the upset loss to Iowa State?
Howe: The loss in Minneapolis was a complete train wreck. The Hawkeyes drove down the field to take a 7-0 lead on the opening possession of the game and it was all downhill from there. Iowa knew what was coming from the Gophers but just couldn't stop it. The soft spot in the Hawkeye defense all season was containing the edge and Minnesota attacked it unmercifully with running back David Cobb and receiver K.J. Maye running the jet sweep. That set up quarterback Mitch Leidner doing damage on the read option. All three threats froze the Iowa defense long enough for Leidner to exploit one-on-one coverage on the outside. The Gopher game plan brilliantly exposed Iowa's deficiencies on defense.
Like Minnesota, Iowa State represents a main rival where emotions and whacky happenings impact outcomes as much as talent sometimes. That was the case this year when the Hawkeyes lost at home to an ISU team that went winless in the Big 12. It might seem like a cop-op for the guy that covers Iowa to say that it was more talented that its cross-state rival but the results of the season bore that out. This was a case of the Cyclones wanting it more than Iowa on this given Saturday. Also, Sam Richardson being a mobile quarterback, once again, caused the Hawkeyes problems.
IT: How much of Iowa’s run game is between the tackles and how much is outside?
Howe: As I wrote earlier, Iowa's pet play is the zone stretch. Whether it's been effective or not this season, the coaches keep doing to it. Iowa does run up into the tackles, however. That's more suited to Weisman's running style. Again, when they do that, however, the hole needs to be there quick because he hits it hard and doesn't look for a cutback. A healthy Canzeri could make things interesting as he has the ability to find cutback lanes and squirt through smaller holes on the stretch play.
IT: What kind of defensive scheme does Iowa play, and how fast are the Hawkeyes on defense?
The Hawkeyes employ a base 4-3 and stay in that as much as possible. They will run some nickel and dime packages and also a 3-4 on more obvious passing downs. I wouldn't define the Hawkeyes as a speed defense but they're also not slow. That said, they're much better against a pro-style offense than one that spreads them out.
IT: I notice Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner ran for 77 yards against the Hawkeyes. How much trouble have they had handling mobile quarterbacks?
Howe: Mobile quarterbacks act as kryptonite to Hawkeye defense. Iowa replaced three starters at linebacker before the season and the opposition preyed on that inexperience. The read option has proven to be especially effective against Iowa.
IT: Since going 11-2 in 2009, Kirk Ferentz has posted records of 8-5, 7-6, 4-8, 8-5 and 7-5. What has kept the program from flourishing and how is his support from the fan base?
Howe: Along with that 11-2 record, Ferentz received a 10-year contract extension making him one of the 10 highest paid coaches in the country. That, in and of itself, raised the bar for expectations. A number of factors have gone into the program's stagnancy. It experienced a lot of staff turnover, suffered through player attrition and recruiting has fallen off.
The results have produced anger and apathy in the fan base. Iowa has sold out only one of its last 15 home games and that came against rival Iowa State this season when Cyclone backers took up a lot of seats.
Athletics Director Gary Barta offered a couple of unsolicited votes of confidence for Ferentz through the media this month after hearing from discontented fans. There's been more unrest with the coach than any other time in his 16-year run.
Iowa ticket sales for the TaxSlayer Bowl are slow. That's the clearest sign of dissatisfaction from a fan base that historically travels very well.