The madness of crowds notwithstanding, this team now intrigues me. If one believes that football is a game that demands fundamental virtues, Iowa is closer to an above-average year than I think we, and the Big Ten community, quite expect. This team is closer to outperforming many of our expectations, in several key respects. Here is why I think we need to examine what Iowa does well, today, and why we may do more things well, tomorrow. I am excited about the rest of the season for the following reasons.
Changes and Expectations; Ethic of Toughness.
While this remains Ferentz' team and culture, we need to credit the impact, which is visible now, of the coaching changes and new hires.
First, aside from Weisman, the biggest surprise for me this season is the performance of the DLine, which I cringed to consider all spring and summer. The DLine is playing with energy, discipline and effectiveness. They are nothing like the scout team line it seemed they might be, when simply looking at resumes and game experience. They play with an energy that was lacking in Clayborn's senior year; they consistently 'do their jobs' in the sense that they stay in their lanes, tie up opposing OLines, and free the linebackers to clean up. They are extremely well conditioned and they run well. They get better the deeper into the game we get. There is no one playing at an elite level, but as a unit they greatly outperform expectations. I haven't seen us routinely lose contain and I haven't seen guys standing around, as even Clayborn would in critical 4Q moments. In the Minnesota game we even forced a turnover while distributing 23 tackles across 8 athletes. They adjust well in-game and I would never have predicted this level of play, in August. Credit the athletes and Morgan. Again, they're doing their jobs.
Second, I've watched the Minnesota game three times now. Don't tell anyone yet, but Brian is building a throwback Iowa line: a tough, confident outfit. DiNardo highlighted this above and beyond our running stats Saturday, and DiNardo has always been right when praising an Iowa OLine. Weisman is not getting all these yards on his own; Bullock's efficiency was not simply because he too was grossly underrated. Donnal moved inside on a few days notice and had a B+ game. I see confidence, toughness and skill with this line. We have a lot to work with here, and will for the foreseeable future.
Particularly in any conference not playing Geno Smith, controlling the LOS is just one of those old, fundamental truths that has always been central to Ferentz' success. We simply cannot play well without this attribute, with this coach. Something is going on here with both of these lines: one, clearly a project, is outperforming any reasonable expectations; the other is clearly improved under a first-year college coach. I do not expect us to be pushed around at East Lansing. Right there, we thus have a chance to beat a very good football team.
Third, don't look now, but we have three linebackers who are approaching dominance. Again, a first-time college coach, one first-time starter, and we witness confidence, toughness and skill. Our new starter is third in the country in tackles, and our guys are first and third in the conference. Playing throwback football, perhaps, this unit is rangy, misses no tackles, and also gets better as the games lengthen. The linebackers are outperforming August expectations as well.
Fourth, our new defensive coordinator has executed a flawless transition from a near-legendary predecessor. While standing on the philosophy and scheme employed by Norm, Phil Parker is adding (confidently) a new willingness to innovate on the margin, perhaps the smartest way to inherit a sound unit while moving it forward. We still don't blitz a lot; we still only run a handful of zone blitzes, and we still sit in quarters most of the game. But Parker will blitz you as you tire, and did so very well against Minnesota; and Parker and Wilson will trust their DB's to make plays, alone on the outside. No one trifles with Hyde, and I saw only one truly busted coverage against Minnesota. We slid Castillo in there, Minnesota went right after him, and we were solid. Shortell is better than the MSU quarterback, and probably many others in the conference.
Nearly halfway through the season we have to acknowledge that Parker's first season as coordinator, with new position coaches at DB, LB and DLine, is going well. ISU scored 9, and we recovered and shut out CMU after a poor first half. Parker had a rep as a bit of a screamer when he worked for Norm, but we're seeing thoughtful in-game adjustments in most of these games, and we are seeing no dropoff in Norm-style toughness. Norm said in one of his coaching talks once that there were really only three things that he coached and required: toughness, the discipline to maintain leverage at all times, and tackling ability. None of these three qualities has declined with this young defense. Credit Phil, Wilson, LeVar, and Morgan. Credit Ferentz for the re-org. I see confidence, discipline and toughness with this D. It will be interesting to see, next, how we adjust to the hair-on-fire offenses of Northwestern and Indiana, and if we innovate further against these teams that put so much pressure on a 4-3.
Fifth, we got lucky with Weisman. Rarely does a guy, whose name I doubt Ferentz remembered easily six months ago, become both a statistical and emotional leader. But luck, in sports, is always the residue of design. Weisman is the archetypal Doyle athlete, and I think we often forget how central Doyle is to the historical success of this team. He's an extremely active coach on game-days; he spends more time with these athletes by rule, year-round; Weisman is the poster boy for the Ferentz-Doyle ethic of preparation, fitness and toughness. Remember, these guys are teenagers, and the impact of a Weisman is evident in the fleet nastiness that our OLine is displaying; check out how many brutal knockdowns Vandenberg received Saturday, some pretty late, and know this: this team is physically tough. This team appeared physically identical to Minnesota, a remarkable transformation by Kill in just 18 months. But not when the game started. It was the varsity versus the freshmen once the game began. This has always been characteristic of a good Ferentz team.
Well, obviously we do not have an intimidating passing offense yet, which we will require to win more than 5-6 games. But note, and I will not rehash everyone's frustration with the senior QB: we have scored 31 and 31 points in the last two games; we have thrown two interceptions all year (and fumbled once); we will go vertical to (or try to) punish anyone who gameplans as Minnesota did, putting 9 guys within five yards of the line; Soup has been our most effective assistant since he arrived (prior to this year), so he will coach up his guys so they stop blowing their route optionality. We will have at least two additional running backs return (Canzeri and Bullock) to complement and support Weisman. We have stopped dropping the ball. We are playing four tight ends.
Incremental improvement and we can project 35-40 points from this offense when we play well, and against better teams we should be able to score 21. I think Davis knows what he is doing, I think he is more flexible and creative than his predecessor, and I think he's too old to give a damn about the madness of our Iowa crowd amidst the sputtering and misfires that we all see. (In any event the squalling is five percent of what a Texas coach hears.) I think he knows exactly where he wants to take this offense and I do believe that Vandenberg knows as well. If he can coach this passing game up Iowa can surprise a few teams, and will. I can't imagine a better time to have two weeks to prepare the passing game for MSU. We won a lot of games with Nathan Chandler, and I would not rank Vandenberg below him.
Second, I remain utterly mystified by the tentativeness and seeming lack of preparation by our special teams. The 10 minute exercise we watched Saturday to just get a punt off was excruciating. I don't understand it. It's the inverse of Ferentz-ball, where everyone has a job and has it drummed into his head. We've lost one game because of confusion and fear; we see prior debacles repeated this year. When will it end?
Reasons To Be Cheerful.
We have a fairly easy schedule, we are completely off other teams' radar now, and in the public mind (which includes the teenagers playing for other schools) we occupy a spot somewhere in the bottom quartile of the Big Ten. We are tough enough to slug it out with MSU, we have stopped Denard before and we have the secondary to undress him if he tries to throw the ball, we may have the discipline to frustrate Northwestern's hair-on-fire offense, and who knows how emotionally exhausted Nebraska will be after four months with Coach Crazy -- and they come to our home. We lost two games by a total of four points, and the second was lost in an epic two minute cascading choking exercise, after a 28-minute second half shutout.
Saturday's game presented two disparate halves of football. The team that showed up in the first half can beat anyone on the schedule. They won't, but they could. If we make incremental progress in the passing game, week over week, I see 7-8 wins as a reasonable objective for the year. The foundation appears to have been rebuilt with new ideas and new leadership, and the core attributes of all successful Ferentz teams (line play, physicality, and discipline at all positions save receiving) are evident.