At BHGP, we (okay, just I) have complained endlessly about the sorry state of Iowa sports journalism today, but one newspaper/site remains simply nonpareil. We've called it "the site that should have replaced HawkCentral in your bookmarks long ago" and "the paper of record for Hawkeye information." Yes, HawkMania.com, owned by the Quad-City Times, is our favorite Iowa read on a daily basis. What's more, they do it with just two writers: Steve Batterson and his moustache cover basketball, and Eric Page handles football.
We were quite fortunate to have Eric Page agree to answer a few questions, and what ensued was nearly 2,000 words of a near-pornographic exploration of this season and next for Iowa. We cannot overemphasize our gratitude to Mr. Page, and we hope you readers enjoy the interview as well.
OPS: Let's get right into it: Who's your MVP so far?
EP: I've got to go co-MVPs, sorry. Albert Young and Mike Humpal. Young is the guy players say held things together when the team lost four straight, and Humpal has been all over the field for a defense that has been beat up by injuries. Young hasn't had the greatest statistical season of his career, but his leadership is a big reason the Hawkeyes are back at .500. And I hate to think where this team would be without Humpal. He was considered Iowa 's second best linebacker coming into the season, but he has emerged as one of the best in the Big Ten with his play on the field. He leads the league in tackles and has three interceptions. He doesn't get the recognition of Dan Connor, Sean Lee, J Leman or James Laurinaitis, but Humpal is right up there in that group of elite Big Ten linebackers.
We did not agree on co-MVPs. This interview is over.
Actually, I was having a hard enough time choosing between five; mine were Young, King, Mattison, Humpal, and Godfrey, in no real order. You could even make a considerable case for Eubanks as well. Humpal's really stepped his game up this season; while I wasn't as down on him as most fans were for stuff like his coverage on that wheel route TD to Jamaal Charles in the Alamo, there's no question that he has really grown into his role as a leader on the defensive side of the ball. Is he a first-team All-Big 10 player this year? What are his and Klinkenborg's NFL futures?
But as Young goes, it's interesting that you cite him as sort of a glue for the offense. Do you suppose there was something Tom Arnold knew that most didn't when he guaranteed a 100-yard game from Young before the MSU game, or is that statement as unworthy of our attention as his opus, The Stupids? By the way, this is probably the last time I mention Tom Arnold.
Both Humpal and Klink will get NFL looks. I don't know if either has a real future in the league. The best pro prospect on the roster is Godfrey, who is having an All-Big Ten season. No, Tom Arnold didn't know anything that any of us didn't. He knew Albert Young was long overdue for a good game. That's about it.
One player we both forgot to mention in the MVP conversation is Ryan Donahue, who might truly be the most valuable player on the field by season's end. His punting has gotten the Hawkeyes out of some tough spots in recent weeks.
Donahue's an interesting case. It is not an exaggeration to call his 81-yard and 76-yard punts both game-changers. You can't name another player who turned the tide for Iowa each of the last two weeks. Nonetheless, he's also followed those bombs with some unseemly shanks that could have (and, in MSU's case, did) let Iowa's opponents back into the game. Do you think Donahue's got a future as a "finesse" special teamer, or is he going to be the punting version of Brion Hurley, dropping bombs where need be and leaving the delicate work to a walk-on?
It's also worthy to note that Donahue was Iowa's only Army AA participant in 2005. Iowa's 2004 Army AA class, of course, is struggling in its own right. What do you think of the job this Iowa coaching staff has done developing its high-level talent? Is the (apparent) lack thereof a major factor in Iowa's recent struggles, or are Iowa fans merely guilty of short-sighted, unrealistic expectations?
I think the expectations were a bit unrealistic. Go back to the beginning of the season, forget for a moment that the team we're talking about is Iowa, and consider these circumstances: New starting quarterback, untested offensive line, inexperienced receivers, new specialists and brand new safeties. There aren't many programs where that means a winning season is on the way. So, those Iowa fans who were expecting 10-2 just because Michigan and Ohio State were off the schedule were way off base. I had them going 6-6, and, given that it looks like they'll finish 7-5, I think the coaching staff has done a remarkable job with the hand it was dealt.
As for the talent level, I think fans expected way too much from that 2005 recruiting class. Recruiting ratings mean very, very little. And you've got to remember that a 5-star kid in suburban Chicago more times than not is going to be a little overrated. That same kid might be a 3-star player in Texas or Florida, maybe even 2 or 1. It's a total guessing game, outside of a few sure things who certainly aren't going to be landing at Iowa. So, I think the coaching staff has handled the talent well, too. And I love the way they're handling this year's freshman class, letting them get on the field early. I think it'll pay dividends next year and the year after.
As for Donahue. I think he'll be a multiple-time All-Big Ten punter by the time he's done. The finesse will come. He's got the leg, that much we know.
Sub-question here: Arrests aside, If Iowa stays healthier--to a reasonable level--throughout the year, is their W/L record any different at this point?
No. They were healthy when they lost to ISU and Wisconsin, and I still think they would have lost to Indiana and Purdue with everyone healthy.
So, here we find the Hawkeyes as 5-5, and it's safe to assume they'll end 7-5. It is safe to assume that, right? Minnesota and Western Michigan are lousy, right?
What bowl do you see them in? Do you think they'll leapfrog many of their Big Ten brethren, or is it going to be a by-the-book, down-the-line deal where Iowa ends up in Detroit or Birmingham or something?
Minnesota is terrible on defense, but the offense can score some points. So, I like the matchup for Iowa, because the Hawkeyes have a solid defense and an offense that can use all the help it can get. And against Western Michigan at Kinnick Stadium, yes, I would say it's safe to assume Iowa will pull out a pair of wins and finish 7-5. As for a bowl destination, if I had to put money on it, I'd say the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. That's No. 6 on the Big Ten's list. Iowa could finish as high as tied for third place in the conference, depending on how things shake out, so they also could wind up in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla. I don't see them falling lower than the Insight, though. The fans just travel too well.
Let's look ahead, then. Is it safe to say that there are some assistant coaches who are really hoping Iowa finishes on a four-game winning streak? Is Kirk the "firing" type, and is it possible that making no personnel moves after the season is in fact the correct course of action?
As far as the game itself, the 2008 schedule makes this season's slate look downright murderous. What's the toughest game on the docket at this point--could it seriously be a road game at Illinois? There's a great quote about "schedule pick" teams that--I think--came from Phil Steele, and since I can't find it I'll just paraphrase it and undoubtedly butcher the wit right out of it. He basically said that it's a bad sign when the best thing you can mention about a team is who they don't play. Still, looking at those 12 games, how many wins are you thinking Iowa can squeeze out of them?
Everyone around the program would love to finish on a four-game win streak and make it to a bowl, no one more than Coach Ferentz. And, no, Kirk is not the firing type. Any assistants that don't retire or take other jobs will be back next season. I think, for now, that might be the best way to go. These coaches won a lot of games for Iowa from 2002-05. Why couldn't they do it again.
As for next season. Let's look at it:
Florida International: W
Iowa State: W
at Pittsburgh: W
at Michigan State: ?
at Indiana: L
at Illinois: L
Penn State: L
at Minnesota: W
I guess I've got them 7-4 with a swing game at Michigan State. The team will be much better than this year's team but will finish with a similar record despite the soft schedule.
Interesting that you think Iowa's dropping (at least) four in a row next year. The Hawkeyes have certainly struggled recently, but until the epic 2006 meltdown, Iowa hadn't lost back-to-back games at Kinnick since What do you think the mood's going to be like among the program around loss 4? Worse or better than, say, after the Purdue loss this season?
And on the subject of fans grousing (as they so often do), what's your take on criticizing college players? Is there a certain standard that you hold yourself to? If so, how does it make you feel both as a journalist and as a fan if you see published reports that don't meet that "standard?" I am assuming you're a fan, because to plunge yourself so thoroughly into a season and a program like this just for the money would likely be a hollow, soul-crushing existence. And there are so many easier things to do just for money--and a lot more money, to boot. But I digress. Does that standard change at all when it comes to other teams' players, or from the freshman to senior seasons?
I think Division I college athletes are fair game, just so long as you're not getting personal. If we're going to sing their praises when they're playing well, why can't we point out when they're not playing well? College athletics is big business. People pay a lot of money for tickets, jerseys, etc. They deserve to get the truth, even when it's harsh. Again, I don't think you can get personal on kids, and you can't step outside the facts. But if you have facts to backup an opinion, by all means, run with it. I hold myself to the standard of facts and truth. I want to give an accurate picture of what is going on with a team or what goes on in a game. I don't try to sugar coat it, and I don't try to make it more negative than it needs to be. I try to put the reader in the press box or on the field. That's what I've done be it little league, high school, college or pro. I am a fan, not necessarily of the Hawkeyes, but I love sports, and that's why I do what I do.
As for fan unrest next season if/when Iowa loses four straight. It will be worse than this year, because people are going to expect 10 wins at a minimum with almost everyone back.
Thank you Eric. One last question before we let you go; you also said that the key to Iowa winning last week was a fast start. Can we safely assume that the opposite is also true of everything you've told us?
That’s one thing you learn quick in this business. Right when you think you know what you’re talking about, you find out you know nothing at all.
With that glimpse into the Zen life of a writer, Page bid us adieu. Again, we offer nothing but the most gracious of thanks to the man for such a wide expanse his time. We strongly encourage you to read his paper, support his advertisers, and at least make a token offer to mow his lawn.