Michael Stenerson, University of Iowa Photo Services
Iowa beat Michigan State and stop me if you've seen this all before...
It had to be this way, didn't it? I mean... if Kirk Ferentz was going to get his 100th win at Iowa, it was going to come in the most Kirk Ferentz-y way possible, right? That means a game where Iowa scores one touchdown, but kicks four field goals (three from thirty yards or less). That means a game where the defense is stout and frustrates the opposing offense. That means a game where the special teams make key plays for Iowa. That means a game where Iowa wins in double overtime off a tipped-ball interception. It was ugly and it was beautiful but, more than anything, this was a pretty perfect encapsulation of Iowa football over the last 14 seasons. If this game in any way surprised you... well, you just haven't been paying attention.
The parallels between this game and several past Iowa games are plentiful, but maybe that's just an inevitable outcome when you have the same coach and the same philosophies guiding things for so long. Maybe things can't help but repeat themselves. Maybe it's impossible not to find echoes of past triumphs (or past tragedies) in every new win. Or maybe time is just folding in on itself as we careen toward the end of the world in December.
But... this really did feel a little like Iowa's win over Penn State in 2000, no? (If your memory of that game is a little fuzzy, you can go refresh yourself by reading about it; Jacobi wrote about it here back in 2010 and hawk6894 wrote about it here back in August. I'll wait.) They were both significant wins -- Penn State 2000 was Ferentz's first Big Ten road win at Iowa; Michigan State 2012 was his 100th overall win at Iowa. Both featured clutch performances by kickers (Nate Kaeding went 4/4 on field goal attempts in 2000, Mike Meyer went 4/4 on field goal attempts in 2012). Both victories were clinched in double-overtime with a tipped-ball interception hauled in by a seldom-celebrated defensive back (Ryan Hansen in 2000, Greg Castillo in 2012).
(There were also some strong echoes of Iowa's win over Michigan State in 2007, too: Iowa offenses characterized by miserable quarterback play (Jake Christensen in 2007, James Vandenberg in 2012) and beastly running back performances (Albert Young in 2007, Mark Weisman in 2012), another double-overtime win sealed by a less-renowned defensive player (Drew Gardener and his game-ending tackle in 2007, the aforementioned Castillo in 2012).
* Oops, he did it again. When we talked about Mark Weisman's stunning three-game stretch over the bye week, I noted that the same refrain has popped up after every performance from the last month: "Yeah, that was good, but --" Obviously, it made sense to have some skepticism -- UNI is an FCS team (and not a particularly good one, judging by their ghastly 1-5 record), Central Michigan is a lousy MAC team, and Minnesota is a middle-of-the-road Big Ten defense. It was worthwhile to be wary of how he might do against a legit defense like Michigan State. 26 carries, 121 yards, and one touchdown later, I think we have our answer. And I think we can put that familiar refrain to bed: he's good. He's really good. He's just proven that he can perform at a high level against a very good defense. Entering yesterday's game Michigan State had the top-ranked run defense in the Big Ten and the 10th best run defense in the nation -- Weisman probably won't see a better run defense all season. (Only one of Iowa's remaining opponents ranks in the top 20 nationally in run defense -- just Northwestern, surprisingly enough.)
It wasn't always pretty and it wasn't always easy against Michigan State -- he had more carries that lost yards or went for minimal gain (1-2 yards) than he had in probably the previous three games combined -- but he came on in the second half to help lead the Iowa comeback and he was still able to grind out a very solid day at the office. Hopefully the ankle injury he suffered on the game-tying touchdown run late in the fourth quarter really is minor (that seemed to be the indication after the game) because at this point I can't envision the 2012 Iowa offense without a healthy dose of Weismania every week. Or, rather, I can... but that vision gives me night terrors. Sans Weisman, the Iowa offense might be the worst offense we've ever seen a KF-led team field at Iowa.
* Let's talk about
sex sacks, baby. Or more specifically, let's talk about another pretty impressive performance by the Iowa defense. It's still a little mind-blowing to consider that the Iowa defense, a unit featuring seven new starters this year, including an entirely rebuilt defensive line, is basically carrying the team so far. But... they really are, no? I thought we were in for a long day when Le'Veon Bell tore them apart on MSU's first drive and put Sparty up 7-0, but the Iowa defense settled down after that. Bell still had a very good day (148 yards and that touchdown on 29 carries), but they kept him out of the end zone and (usually) made him work pretty hard for those yards. They also did a solid job of harassing Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell and preventing Sparty from doing much damage through the air.
On an individual level, Joe Gaglione was one of the stars of the day: 11 tackles (1.5 TFL), a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Joey Gags has been a pleasant surprise so far this year and he's added a welcome spark to Iowa's pass rush. As good as Joey Gags was yesterday, though, I was just as impressed by Louis Trinca-Pasat, whose stats (per the Iowa box score) were pretty unremarkable: one tackle, one quarterback hurry. It sure as hell seemed like LTP was a lot more disruptive than that, especially at the end of the game. His biggest contribution was getting a hand on the ball and setting up Castillo's game-clinching interception, but he also seemed to be getting a fair amount of pressure on Maxwell at other times. I thought he had a damn fine game.
Meanwhile, the linebacker trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens continues to gel and improve: Hitchens was a tackling machine again on Saturday (15 total, more than anyone else in the game); Kirksey recovered a fumble, got a sack, and made a critical diving pass break-up late in the fourth quarter; and Morris just did a little bit of everything. And, last but not least, Greg Castillo made the biggest defensive play of the day when he grabbed the football fluttering through the air on the final play to lock down an Iowa win (and god bless him for immediately going down to the ground after securing that interception). That's two games in a row where Castillo has grabbed an interception and he's been playing at a solid level these last few games. He's certainly come a long way from being everyone's favorite whipping boy in the secondary.
If you still want to be skeptical of the Iowa defense, I get that -- they did still get dissected by Central Michigan and in their last two games they've played a Minnesota team missing its best offensive player and a pretty one-dimensional Michigan State team. Certainly Michigan and Nebraska -- to say nothing of regular Iowa headache-inducers like Northwestern and Indiana -- will pose a stiffer test for this defense. Hopefully this unit keeps improving to handle those offenses. But... so far, (mostly) so good.
* The good kind of special. I don't want to spend too much time talking about Mike Meyer's heroics yesterday because I know Eric is planning to write more about Meyer this week (and I don't want to steal his thunder)... but I couldn't exactly post thoughts about yesterday's game and ignore Meyer, right? He drilled four field goals, including the eventual game-winner in overtime and never looked rattled. Distance-wise, three of the four field goals were relative chip shots (23, 28, and 27 yards), but given the weather conditions and the pressure involved, I don't know how "easy" they really were. But it's incredibly reassuring to have a kicker that you can actually feel confident about when he lines up to attempt a kick. He's not perfect and he's not automatic... but he's awful damn good and that's a nice thing to have (especially for an Iowa offense that tends to treat the end zone like there are "KEEP OUT" signs posted on the pylons). Just watch a few other college football games every weekend if you don't believe me -- placekicking can be (and usually is?) one hell of an adventure in college football.
Hell, even the return game (or the kick return game, at least) looked threatening yesterday. We haven't been able to say that since DJK was returning kicks. Jordan Cotton would have had a kickoff return touchdown... if not for Ray Hamilton's inexplicable and moronic block in the back penalty. Maybe he really should have been suspended for his off-field "antics" last weekend! (Kidding!) (Mostly.) In general, swapping out Keenan Davis for Jordan Cotton in the kick return game looks like a move that should have happened, oh, a year and a half ago. Still, it's nice that it's finally happened now and I'm eager to see what Cotton can do back there the rest of the year. Who knows -- maybe he can even get a shot at punt returns!
* The offense of Dr. Moreau. Goddamn, this offense is ugly. We're talking Frankenstein's monster ugly. We're talking dogs and cats sewed together ugly. Hell, we're talking Human Centipede ugly here. Well, let's back up for a second: this passing offense is ugly. The running offense is pretty fine, thanks to Mark Weisman's heroic efforts every week. But the passing game... dear god, we might need to invent some new adjectives to adequately convey its awfulness if this keeps up. James Vandenberg is on pace to throw for the fewest passing yards in a season (2268, based on his current trend) since Ricky Stanzi in 2008 (1955 yards), Jake Christensen in 2007 (2269 yards), Nathan Chandler in 2003 (2040 yards), and Kyle McCann in 2001 (2028 yards). Caveats? Stanzi led an Iowa team that was able to lean on a ruthless defense and the greatest running back performance in Iowa history. Chandler was also able to lean on a very good defense and a good running back performance (Fred Russell ran for 1355 yards in 2003). McCann split time with Brad Banks in 2001. Christensen... well, there are no caveats there -- it was just the worst Iowa offense of the last decade. You don't want to be compared to that offense.
Frankly, Vandenberg is probably on pace for an even worse season than that -- he's currently averaging a ghastly 5.82 yards per pass attempt. Even JC6 was able to muster 6.13 yards per pass attempt in the annus horribilis that was 2007. And we haven't even touched on the fact that Vandenberg has thrown two touchdown passes through six games and is currently on pace to throw just four touchdown passes for the entire season. He'll probably end up throwing for more than that this year (it's just too hard to imagine him only throwing four touchdown passes over a 12-game season), but getting to double-digits almost feels like a pipe dream at this point. Incidentally, going back to at least 2004, Iowa has averaged around 20 passing touchdowns a season; to hit that mark this year, JVB would need to throw three touchdown passes a game on average for the rest of the season.
So who's to blame for this horrorshow? Vandenberg? The receivers? Greg Davis? The defense? You can assign blame (or credit, in the case of the opposing defense) to all of those suspects, but yesterday the brunt of the problem seemed to be with Vandenberg. Drops and bad routes didn't seem to be as much of a problem for the receivers as they'd been in previous weeks and I thought Greg Davis called a pretty decent game offensively. The screens and short passes are -- or should have been -- an effective way to counter a unit as aggressive as Sparty's defense. It's not really his fault that the offense couldn't manage to properly execute many (any?) of those screen plays. And the MSU defense was good, to be sure, but they can't take all the credit for making Iowa's passing offense look so thoroughly inept. We do plenty of that on our own just fine, thanks.
Before the season we wondered what the evolution of the Iowa offense would look like under Greg Davis, and I wrote this:
Of course, even as we get our first extended look at the offense in the Northern Illinois game, the truth is that it's difficult (if not impossible) to know how much this year's offense will resemble the offense Greg Davis really wants to run and how much is just the offense he can run with the hand he's been dealt. He's inheriting a senior quarterback in James Vandenberg, which has its pluses and minuses. The upside is that he's experienced, having started fifteen games now. He's also intelligent and (seemingly) very teachable. The downside is that he's experienced running the Ken O'Keefe Iowa offense, not the Greg Davis Iowa offense. He's been getting a crash course in the latter over the last seven months, but you'd have to think that it's a process that's still going to take some time.
The true indicator of what Greg Davis' Iowa offense will look like -- and how much of a change it represents from the Iowa offense we came to know and love (and, occasionally, loathe) during the KOK era -- will probably come in 2013 and beyond.
As it turns out, I think I grossly underestimated how much time that "process" was going to take for Vandenberg and Davis. In fact, increasingly, it looks like they're never really going to figure it out. Maybe JVB just can't "unlearn" what KOK taught him. Maybe he was just never the right sort of quarterback for Davis' preferred offense. Either way, through six games it seems pretty clear that James Vandenberg just isn't going to click in this offense. To the extent this offense is going to work at all this year, it's going to work in pretty much the same way it's worked in the past: with a heavy emphasis on the run game and a passing attack that works off play-action to strike downfield. Maybe next year, when the passing attack is being led by (presumably) Jake Rudock or Cody Sokol, we'll have a better idea of what the evolution of the Iowa offense might look like. Right now it's pretty damn ugly.