Where do things stand at the midway point for the 2013 Iowa football season? Who's performing well? Who's performing... not so well? Read on.
The table above contains Rudock's average rating in the weekly Community Player Ratings. Rudock's highest rating came in Iowa's most impressive win (the 59-3 shellacking of Western Michigan) and his lowest rating came in Iowa's ugliest loss (the 26-14 bludgeoning by Michigan State). For the most part, the ratings reflect a general level of satisfaction with Rudock's play, which seems fair. He's on pace to throw for more passing yards than James Vandenberg did a year ago and he's already surpassed JVB's passing TD total (8 vs 7). (He's also on pace to throw more interceptions than JVB, 12 to 8.) I think Rudock has benefited from lowered expectations -- after last year's dismal QB performance, it wouldn't take a whole lot to be viewed as an improvement and people were also willing to give Rudock more leeway as a first time starter -- but that also does him a bit of a disservice. He's played well this year.
He's made some mistakes (bad interceptions against Northern Illinois, Missouri State, Minnesota, and Michigan State), but he's also shown great poise and composure (especially on the road) and an impressive ability to rebound from those poor plays. (He led scoring drives shortly after his interceptions in the latter three games.) Rudock has areas in which he needs to improve and he's not a phenom out of the box like Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston, but he's been good and given every reason to expect additional improvement as he acquires more experience. Considering that QB was one of the biggest question marks on the team entering the season, I think the answer we've received in the form of his play has been pretty positive.
The running game was expected to be the strength of the Iowa offense this year and, for five games, it clearly was. Iowa went over 200 rushing yards in each of the first five games of the season and was averaging 244 ypg entering the game with Michigan State. The running game ran into a brick wall in that game (23 yards on 16 attempts), unfortunately. Iowa's still averaging over 200 ypg (207.5), but keeping that average so high will take an incredible effort: three of Iowa's six remaining opponents (Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin) rank in the top-10 nationally in run defense. They might not be quite as ferocious as Michigan State (MSU's 58 ypg average is a full 10 yards better than any other run defense in the country), but they're still very good.
One of the primary strengths of the Iowa running game so far this year has been the ability to get multiple individuals involved. The bell cow has (obviously) been Mark Weisman, but Bullock has 65 carries, Rudock has 31 carries, Canzeri has 24 carries, and Daniels has an additional 19 carries. Iowa's on pace to have five players with 40 or more carries, which is not the norm for Iowa; in the past, Ferentz has tended to ride his most trusted back heavily. Of course, that also suggests that said pace will actually maintain in Big Ten play, which is... debatable. Canzeri and Daniels were non-entities in the Michigan State game; will they be trusted more in other B1G games? Weisman is already dealing with an ankle injury, so Iowa may need some of Daniels' power running to lighten the load on Weisman. Canzeri's speed and quickness in space also offers something that no other RB on the roster has, so it would be nice if they could find more ways to utilize him. The potential still seems strong with his contingent of runners, but if Iowa defaults to Weisman and Bullock exclusively, I worry that the excellent production we've seen so far this year will dwindle rapidly.
We've also seen the running backs be more involved in the passing game -- or Bullock, at least. He'd probably be near 200 yards receiving already if he'd been able to hang on to a few more screen passes that have been thrown his way. Still, he's been a (mostly) solid outlet for Rudock and one hopes that the coaches continue to make use of his pass-catching abilities in the second half of the season. (It might also be nice if they'd try some of those plays with Canzeri; I have to think he could do well with some of those screen passes.)
Wide receiver was expected to be a big question mark entering the season and six games in it's... still a question mark? I think so. Iowa has one reliable target in KMM -- he has 26 catches, just slightly fewer than the combined catches for Iowa's next four most prolific receivers, and that's despite missing most of the MSU game -- but no one else has really emerged yet. VandeBerg has had a pair of multi-catch games but been completely MIA in other games; Hillyer had TD grabs in back-to-back games against Iowa State and Western Michigan, but is still only averaging a catch a game. Tevaun Smith had a solid game against MSU; perhaps that was his breakout performance and he'll emerge as a consistent weapon in the passing game in the second half of the season -- Iowa could certainly use that.
And then there's Damond Powell. Despite playing a fraction of the snaps as KMM (and catching less than a quarter as many balls), Powell has managed to tie KMM for the team lead in receiving yards. That's impressive and a testament to his big play ability. Even after a middling performance against MSU (2 catches, 19 yards), he's still averaging 37.5 yards per catch, which is pretty astonishing. We've been clamoring for more Powell since the season began and while we haven't seen as much of him as we'd like, we have seen more of him on the field in the last few weeks, which is a great development. Hopefully the bye week has further improved his awareness of the playbook and he's able to make an even bigger impact in the passing offense -- lord knows we need more playmakers there. That said, the MSU performance probably also suggests that we should temper our enthusiasm for him slightly -- he has tremendous ability, but he's still not an instant panacea for the passing offense and there will be some growing pains for him. (Luckily, I don't think he'll see cornerbacks better than the Sparty DBs the rest of the season.)
So raise your hands... who expected a fully healthy C.J. Fiedorowicz to have fewer than 100 receiving yards at the halfway point of the 2013 season? No hands? Yeah, that's what I thought. The Polish Hat just isn't having the monster senior campaign we thought/hoped he would have. Part of that is the fact that the receivers have been a bit better than expected and part of it is that Ray Hamilton has emerged as another reliable option at tight end, but CJ just hasn't become the game-destroying matchup nightmare that we thought (or hoped) that he'd be. It happens. He's still a very useful player -- he's turned into an excellent blocker and Iowa's finally started to figure out how to use him near the goal line, which is a very welcome development. It's also encouraging that guys like Hamilton (who's also turned into a nasty blocker), Duzey, and Kittle have been able to make plays at tight end this year -- that gives us hope for the position after CJ graduates. Still, tight end was expected to be a big strength of the Iowa offense this year, so for the combined TE stats to be just slightly better than KMM's individual stats is definitely surprising (and a bit disappointing). Hopefully Greg Davis & Co. find a few more ways to get the tight ends involved in the last six games of the year.
The stats suggest that Iowa's offensive line is playing at a high level: they've allowed just 5 sacks all year, 11th best in the nation. They also helped pave the way for all those 200+ yard rushing performances and Iowa is averaging 4.46 yards per carry this year. That last stat might tell the tale, though: 4.46 yards per carry is good... but it's not great. (It's the 60th best ypc figure in the nation.) A lot of Iowa's success on the ground has come through volume. Still, the offensive line has been good enough to allow the offense to do that and they've been good enough to allow the running game to grind away yards.
But it still feels like this a good offensive line, rather than a great one. The tackles have been very strong bookends for the unit (especially Brandon Scherff, who's been manhandling most of the defensive ends sent his way), but the interior of the line has been frustratingly inconsistent. When they're on, the offensive line as a unit clicks at the level we'd hoped for out of this unit in the pre-season; that's when Iowa's offense is truly able to impose its will on opponents and control games. Unfortunately, we haven't seen it click at that level as consistently as we'd hope to see. The guard play, in particular, has been hot and cold, which has also been reflected in the rotation between Andrew Donnal and Jordan Walsh at RG; by now, it would have been nice to see one of them emerge as the better option, but that just hasn't happened. Again, the offensive line certainly hasn't been bad; we've seen bad offensive lines at Iowa in the not-too-distant past (2007 springs to mind) and this squad is nothing like that. But it's also not a great unit yet and given the issues Iowa has on other parts of the offense, we might need it to be a little closer to great in order to have an effective offense.
This unit was another big question mark for Iowa entering the season; through six games we've seen some good signs and we've seen some bad signs (mainly play that looked a lot like last year). The good news is that they've been stout against the run: 88.5 ypg, 8th nationally. Even running/scrambling quarterbacks (Jordan Lynch, Sam B. Richardson) have been kept in check pretty well. There are much bigger challenges looming (Braxton Miller, Devin Gardner, Northwestern's tag team of terror), but so far Iowa's looked good against the run up front.
Getting pressure on the QB, on the other hand... Well, that's still an issue. Iowa has just four sacks out of this unit (and six total, "good" for 111th in the nation) and I believe all of those came against Minnesota. Sacks aren't the be-all, end-all stat; the defensive line has been credited with 10 official QB hurries and there have been other plays where they were able to pressure the QB into rushed or bad decisions... but I don't think it's going out on much of a limb to suggest that getting pressure on the QB is still an issue for the Iowa defense, especially the defensive line. Until they're able to generate more pressure -- and do so more consistently -- Iowa's defense is going to have issues against the pass.
We entered the season thinking that the linebackers would be the strength of Iowa's defense; halfway through the year, we're just impressed at how good the linebackers have been for Iowa. Morris, Kirksey, and Hitchens are all playing at a very high level right now. Hitchens is a tackling machine and Morris has become the MLB we've hoped to see for years: an intelligent, decisive playmaker. Kirksey's been no slouch, either: he's provided solid pass coverage and been one of Iowa's best pass-rushers this year (he's probably Iowa's most effective blitzing linebacker) and he's still got a knack for making big plays -- his fumble return TD against Northern Illinois seemed to provide a spark that the entire Iowa team badly needed. There have been occasional bad plays -- Hitchens getting burned on a wheel route against NIU, the odd missed tackle here or there, a few times being out of position -- but on the whole I think it's been pretty hard to complain about the play of the linebackers this year.
This unit was really, really good against Western Michigan. It was pretty bad against Northern Illinois and Michigan State. It's been good, it's been bad, it's been up, it's been down, it's been hot, it's been gold. Inconsistency has been the name of the game for the defensive secondary this year, with the bad probably slightly outweighing the good so far. Iowa's given up a lot of big plays through the air already this year, and while that's partly due to a slightly more aggressive defense under Phil Parker, it's also because we've seen too many breakdowns in coverage between the corners and the safeties.
B.J. Lowery is kind of the poster child for the secondary: at his best, he's been phenomenal (those pick-sixes against Western Michigan, that jaw-dropping one-handed INT against Iowa State), but at his worst, he's done his best impression of a charcoal briquette. A bad attempt at a tackle led to a long Iowa State passing TD in that game and he's also been caught out in other games. I would say that, on balance, his play has been good, but the mistakes have been very costly. True freshman Desmond King was thrust into the fire at CB after Jordan Lomax went down with a hamstring injury in the NIU game and while he's definitely had his share of freshman mistakes (and been targeted ruthlessly by several opposing QBs), he's managed to hold his own fairly well. It will be interesting to see whether Lomax (now apparently back to full health) or King plays more down the stretch. Iowa's depth at CB isn't great, as we've seen; Sean Draper was pressed into action more against Michigan State and had a day to forget while Gavin Smith has mostly made his impact on special teams. Iowa can ill afford injuries to Lowery, Lomax, or King.
The bigger issue for the Iowa secondary seems to be the safeties. I would argue that perennial whipping boy Tanner Miller has improved this year; his play is still a far cry from the excellent Iowa safeties of yore, like Considine, Sanders, Pagel, or Sash, but it's still been an improvement on last year's performance. Lowdermilk has been a fairly solid presence in run support, but his pass defense is still extremely inconsistent; he seems to have been guilty of more breakdowns than Miller so far this year. Admittedly, assigning blame in the secondary is tricky, but the safeties do seem to bear a fair amount of responsibility for the big plays that Iowa has given up in the passing game this year. The safety play seems improved -- if only marginally -- from what we saw a year ago, but can Iowa get away with "just OK" play from their safeties? I don't think so. Until Iowa can turn safety play back into a net-positive, the passing defense is going to continue to suffer.
As the table above would suggest, it's not been a great year for the kicking game at Iowa. The biggest problem hasn't been Mike Meyer (who could stand to be a little better on field goals and put a few more kickoffs into the end zone, but has been otherwise quite reliable), but on kickoffs. Iowa isn't getting very good kickoff returns themselves; after an excellent showing last year when he was arguably the best kick returner in the Big Ten, Jordan Cotton has had a very forgettable year so far (averaging just 21.8 ypr, no big returns). That isn't helping Iowa win the field position game. But the real issue is on kickoff coverage; Iowa's giving up 25.95 ypr, 111th worst in the NCAA. I've lost track of how many big returns Iowa's conceded, but they've been frequent. None of the returns have been broken for a touchdown yet, but given how much Iowa's coverage unit has struggled, it only seems like a matter of time. Iowa really, really, really needs to get this figured out; they cannot afford to gift teams a field position advantage through returns.
Oh, and Iowa State recovered Another Goddamn Onside Kick against Iowa. So that's still an issue.
Let's be honest here: the problem with the punting game comes down to one thing -- fake punts. Iowa got burned by a fake punt against NIU and they got burned by a fake punt against Michigan State. This has been an issue for a while now and, regrettably, it's still very much an issue. It's a maddening, baffling, enormously frustrating issue that's continued to plague Iowa for far too long. Please, please, please -- fix it.
But other than that, Mr. WB, how was the pla--er, punting game? It's pretty mediocre. Kornbrath's average of 39.84 is 100th in the nation; part of that number is that Iowa seems to have had a lot of drives stall out around their own 35-50 yard line, which doesn't give a punt a lot of room to work with, but I think it's also fair to say that he's not booming them quite as much as you might like to see, either. Only 14 of his 31 kicks have pinned the opponent inside their own 20-yard line. Iowa's giving up 6.64 yard per return, 60th in the country -- that's neither particularly, not particularly bad. Which is about the best way to sum up Iowa's punting game.
The punt return stats look nice, but obviously the overwhelming majority of those stats came from KMM's once-in-a-lifetime performance against Western Michigan. Maybe we can approximate a performance like that in the punt return game if we play another bad team with a bad punter and a lousy punt coverage scheme. Otherwise, don't expect much out of the punt return game. (That is, if Iowa even continues to return punts.)
What do you think? What are your grades for Iowa at the halfway point?