It’s hard to imagine that the Hawkeyes could play a game where fans would accept the final score ahead of time, and yet be horrified at the game itself upon watching it.
Now, the Indiana game lurks, and we can better understand where this strange football team is at for the year. Did they merely come up short? Are the problems permanent? Can they beat the freaking Hoosiers?
Well, let's look.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
Iowa OL vs. Indiana DL
The Hoosiers are able pass rushers this year (gulp), led by rush end Greg Middleton. Worse yet, Indiana has given up only 3.1 yards per carry this season; this would be the first season in six years where that total was lower than 4.5 ypc. Seriously. Granted, the statistic is a bit skewed by the Indiana State game; without it, the average rises to a hair under 3.5 ypc. Still, though, cherry-picking statistics to fit an argument is the domain of children and liars, so let’s be sure: this is Indiana’s best defensive line in years.
As for the Iowa line, oy vey. They submitted their worst performance of the year last Saturday in Madison, though let’s be clear: it’s not easy to block seven Wisconsin defenders charging across the line at once. Also, Dace Richardson is back and should start on Saturday at right tackle (Christensen’s blind side), so the right side of the line will go Eubanks, Olsen, and Richardson, conveniently the three best offensive linemen on the team. If Iowa can’t run right behind those three, then something is seriously wrong. Still, it’s impossible to give Iowa an advantage here when they haven’t controlled the trenches since the Syracuse game (and even that was often debatable).
Iowa WR/TE vs. Indiana DB
So cold. So, so cold.
Trey Stross rejoins a receiving corps that needs him as badly as Notre Dame needs a scapegoat. They’re lost without him. Iowa fans are desperately hoping that Stross at 80% and DJK at continued superhuman levels will be good enough to give the offense some sort of a second dimension. As it stands, they have zero; the spot of the ball remains a point, not so much stationary as incompatible with the very idea of motion.
The role of the Iowa receiving corps must be clear this weekend—to get the eighth man out of the box. Go three wide if you must. We know Stross can stretch a defense. We know Chaney can get behind a prevent. We know DJK can make catches on the edges. Use them in whatever combination you must, but Iowa cannot hope to succeed by running off tackle into the teeth of a blitz. It is an admission to opposing defenses that the passing game is moribund, and it must not continue.
All that said, I assume Indiana can stop the passing attack with relative ease.
Iowa RB vs. Indiana LB
As mentioned before, Indiana’s rush defense is vastly improved this year, and if there ever was a Big Ten opponent to further pad those stats, it would be Iowa. The Hoosiers could theoretically put 12 in the box (four linemen, four linebackers, a safety, Bill Lynch, and a couple traffic cones) and not worry about being burned.
Meanwhile, Iowa continues to wonder how to best utilize the only three seniors they have on offense, all of whom reside in the backfield (read that again if you have to). The Wisconsin game showed packages with Sims and Young in the backfield, while Tom Busch continues to offer himself up to blitz pickup, usually to no avail as Christensen scurries into the pass rush.
I seriously hope Iowa can rush for more than three yards a pop, but this looks like only a slight edge in the Hawkeyes’ favor, and one that can easily be negated through coaching.
Iowa QB vs. Indiana D
Give this to Jake Christensen—he’s a miser. Despite the fans’ hand-wringing about the sophomore, he has yet to commit a turnover in four games of work. Sure, he spends his third downs scrambling and tossing the football halfway up the stands, but it’s better than giving up a pick-six, right? So it’s not as if the problem’s as easy to fix as putting Arvell Nelson behind center.
Still, the offense just seems to sputter these days. Indiana’s defense isn’t the best Iowa will face this season—hell, they let the Illini run up almost 400 yards—but they’re not awful. Ken O’Keefe should take note that the Illini were able to move the ball on the ground by spreading out the field and taking advantage of a stretched defense. That can’t work out of an I-formation.
Can Jake Christensen direct a successful offense? Well, of course. He did so during the first two games of the year. Can he do it against Indiana? We’ll see.
WHEN INDIANA HAS THE BALL
Indiana OL vs. Iowa DL
Simply put, Iowa must continue to dominate the defensive line of scrimmage. If they let Indiana dictate the pace of the game and run at will, the onus to succeed will be on the Hawkeye offense. We, uh, don’t want to see that happen. Indiana’s offensive line is experienced, if unspectacular. They’re certainly no Wisconsin, but as long as they keep Iowa rushers off Lewis, that may be all they need.
Still, this is the second-biggest matchup disparity in the game, and the best in Iowa’s favor. The best for Indiana? Well...
Indiana WR/TE vs. Iowa DB
"Can’t sleep. James Hardy will eat me... Can’t sleep. James Hardy will eat me... Can’t sleep. James Hardy will eat me..." – Adam Shada
Indiana RB vs. Iowa LB
Strictly from a tailback standpoint, Marcus Thigpen should be easily controlled by Iowa’s linebackers; he doesn’t carry the ball very often (only once over 20 carries, against Western Michigan), and even with the glorious Sims-like outliers of big gains, his ypc still hovers around a middling 4.1.
But, of course, tailbacking (new word) is but a portion of Thigpen’s duties; his mere presence as a returner forces opponents to completely scrap their agendas on special teams. Iowa would do well to limit the amount of time Thigpen spends with the ball in his hands.
Indiana QB vs. Iowa D
You’ll probably notice that the praise for the defense has been every bit as effusive as my disdain for the offense has been. If you think that’s unreasonable, you have not watched Iowa football this season. A moderately good defense would result in Iowa losing by double-digits over the last two weeks.
Unfortunately, it’s also a defense whose main weakness has been mobile, accurate quarterbacks (see: Wallace, Seneca; and Meyer, Bret). Kellen Lewis is both, which is usually cause for great alarm. Does he have another big Iowa game in him? Can he get it done on the road? Can he bounce back, both physically and mentally, from a game in which he had 14 points to show for 51 passes and 17 rushes?
Behold, the enigma of Iowa special teams:
For the first time in years, Iowa changed a game on special teams—in a good way. They could have turned a dogfight into a legitimate spanking. And yet, four plays later, they got no points off this potential stake to the heart. The field goal team allowed a blocked field goal, and Wisconsin stayed within three. That’s not to say the play was the lynchpin of the game; Wisconsin didn’t even score during that quarter, much less off that stop, but that’s an opportunity that good teams just can’t blow.
Meanwhile, as mentioned before, Marcus Thigpen is a raging freak who can turn the tide of a game single-handedly. Be afraid of the little bastard.
It’s clear now that the scope of coaching as it relates to Iowa’s success goes far, far beyond Kirk Ferentz. HS expertly laid out the failings of the offense and the protection schemes last weekend, and it certainly raises the question: Is a more dynamic offense worth four more points? Six? Seven?
It's an ultimately useless intellectual exercise, but just as Bush isn't everybody in the White House, Ferentz isn't everybody on his staff. Therefore, to say "Kirk Ferentz will out-coach Bill Lynch" narrows the scope of the question beyond utility. Will Kirk's staff outcoach Lynch's? Tougher question, right?
All in all, though, this is still Kinnick Stadium, and Indiana still isn't a very good team. They don't suck, but they also didn't come close to beating Illinois. It'll be a tough game, but expect Iowa to pull this one out to the tune of 20-10. It won't be pretty.