Now that we’ve all shed our tears over the loss at Penn State and overcome our sadness by letting the hate flow through us, we turn our attention to the Golden Gophers’ Hate Week matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Benjamin Ross, a managing editor from SB Nation’s Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants, was was kind enough to set aside the hate for a moment and answer a few questions about the Big Ten birds from Iowa City.
The Daily Gopher: The Hawkeyes' season has taken a bit of a turn in the last three weeks. Iowa opened the season with back-to-back blowout wins over Miami (Ohio) and Iowa State by a combined score of 87-24. Then came the last second loss at home to North Dakota State, followed by a narrow 14-7 victory over Rutgers on the road. Now the Hawkeyes are reeling a bit after a 38-31 loss at home to Northwestern -- a team that was 1-3 with losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. What the heck has happened to the Hawkeyes?
Benjamin Ross: That's a complicated question with no real one answer. It's easy to blame the coaching and mind-boggling playcalling... so that's what I'm going to do. This team has shown flashes of brilliance with up-tempo playcalling in spread out (for Iowa) packages a la the last few minutes of the first half against Northwestern and during spurts against Miami (Ohio) and Iowa State, but for whatever reason those plays get thrown out once Iowa is in a position where it desperately needs a score. I don't think the coaches have been doing a good enough job of exploiting weaknesses in Iowa's opponents, while also doing a piss-poor job of adjusting when the other team is feasting on a mismatch of its own -- look no further than a mediocre Northwestern defensive end notching FOUR sacks against Iowa last week for an example of this. We've seen shades of these tendencies before, but not much last year, which makes it especially frustrating.
TDG: Last season, quarterback C.J. Beathard threw for 200 yards or more in 10 of the Hawkeyes' 13 games. This season, Beathard has reached that mark in just 2 of 5 games. The loss of leading receiver Matt Vandeberg to a broken foot last week certainly hurts, but the passing game wasn't spectacular before the Northwestern game. The offensive line -- touted as one of the best in the country during the preseason -- has also allowed 14 sacks so far. Is there a cure for what ails the Hawkeyes' passing game?
BR: I'm afraid there really isn't. Receivers Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel haven't been able to get great separation, and when Smith does get loose, his hands have proven to be suspect at best. This offensive line is so slow it could gain weight walking, which isn't doing C.J. Beathard or our two incredibly talented running backs any favors. Normally Iowa has at least two and often even three tight ends that can block or catch or do sometimes both, but right now George Kittle is the only one on the roster who is effective in any facet of the game. Iowa needs him on passing downs, and all of its other tight ends are incapable of slowing down a defender for three seconds so the Hawkeyes lose an extra blocker, and that's where you see all this pressure on Beathard.
TDG: Running backs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley have combined to rush for 682 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wadley alone is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Yet the Hawkeyes are 95th in the country in rushing, averaging 143.2 rushing yards per game. North Dakota State and Northwestern were both able to hold Iowa below 100 yards rushing. What will it take for this rushing attack to find its footing and become more consistent?
BR: I talked a little about how this offensive line looks about as confused as a goat on astro turf, but perhaps that's blaming the unit too much. Unfortunately defenses are becoming aware that Iowa has few passing options, and all its receivers can be single-covered. Iowa's run game was so effective last year because the pass was able to open up the run as defenders had to respect the play-action, but that's not the case anymore. Play action ain't fooling nobody and seven defenders can just stack the box and gobble up these running backs, which is a shame because they both truly are NFL-caliber talents. Also, Iowa normally benefits from excellent fullback play (I know nobody uses a fullback anymore) but the Hawkeyes are breaking in two new lead-blockers this year, and they both missed their holes and blocking assignments multiple times against Northwestern alone. Nobody is doing these running backs any favors, and it’s showing.
TDG: With Thorpe Award winner Desmond King leading the secondary, the Hawkeye defense has been strong defending the pass, allowing just 181.8 passing yards per game. But the rush defense has been less impressive, allowing 182.8 rushing yards per game and ranking 87th in the country. Northwestern running back Justin Jackson alone gashed the Hawkeyes for 171 rushing yards on Saturday. Who needs to step up for the Hawkeyes to stop the Gophers' rushing attack?
BR: This really falls on the defensive line. [Defensive tackle] Jaleel Johnson is a star, but he literally gets double-teamed and sometimes even triple-teamed every play. The other tackles and defensive ends rarely beat their one-on-one assignments, and I see them get stood up at the line a lot. That allows other teams’ guards to get to the second level and blow up Iowa's linebackers and reel off seven-yard runs like clockwork. Basically the entire defense line needs to step up, while linebacker Bo Bower needs to figure out how to not take bad angles in pursuit for Iowa to stop any sort of run.
TDG: What are you most excited for in the next ten years of Kirk Ferentz? All kidding aside, the timing of his contract extension could not have been worse, with the Hawkeyes now 1-2 since he signed on the dotted line. Have most accepted that Ferentz isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future, for better or worse? And how does that influence your perception of where the football program is headed under the continued leadership of Captain Kirk?
BR: Well if you're asking me what Iowa fans think of Kirk, then you haven't been to the comments section of BHGP lately, and I suppose that's a good thing. Kirk is slated to have his best recruiting class ever (let's see how that holds up) this year, and I still think Phil Parker is a pretty damn good defensive coordinator. HOWEVER, seeing the same mistakes we saw in 2010, 2012, and 2014 again and again and again is more than a little concerning. We all thought Brian Ferentz was installed last year to fix those very things. That has turned out to be not so true, and we're seeing complacency and inept playcalling on the offensive side of the ball, and downright ignorance for the other team's talented weapons and a fear of blitzing and maybe even a little roster malpractice on the defensive side. I'm inclined to say that I see more positives than I do negatives in the short term for the program, but a few de-commitments and some attrition on the roster could switch all that faith. Right now the team is in a state of complacency, but I have enough blind faith that they'll turn it around, for some reason.
That being said, last I checked Les Miles was out of a job?
TDG: Who brings home the Floyd of Rosedale on Saturday? The Hawkeyes are 1-3 at TCF Bank Stadium, and their last visit to Minneapolis ended with a 51-14 defeat at the hands of Mitch Leidner and the Gophers. Can Iowa flip the script? Give us your prediction!
BR: I think Iowa retains Floyd, and that's not blind homerism. I actually picked Northwestern to beat Iowa last week! I grew up in Minneapolis and was a Gopher fan from a young age because my dad didn't know any better, so I always keep an eye on Minnesota teams. I know all about the #LeidnerIsland movement, but I truly believe he's average at best. If he makes plays Saturday, it's going to be with his feet and not his arm. I don't see Drew Wolitarsky or any other Gopher receivers getting much separation against this secondary. I think Minnesota's offensive line is pretty overrated, and Jaleel Johnson will feast against this interior while our defensive ends might actually look serviceable. I haven't been too impressed with this Gopher defense either and I think it's going to be a good day for Iowa's rushing attack to get back into a groove. The Goofer passing defense is pretty suspect; as is the Iowa passing game but I'm still going to go advantage C.J. Beathard here. That last trip to Minnesota won't rear itself here either because as I'm sure you've learned by now Tracy Claeys is no Jerry Kill.
Final Score: Iowa 31, Minnesota 21.
I’ve been asked to mention that Benjamin holds a special place in his heart for Burrito Loco, Stub & Herb's, and Annie's Parlor, so please keep that in mind while assessing his remarks. That should give you a peek into his state of mind. But seriously, thank you to Benjamin for providing us the inside scoop on the Hawkeyes! Let the Battle for Floyd begin — and hope that it goes better than the Battle for the Bell.