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Iowa 31, Pitt 27: What The Hell Was That?

That wasn't exactly the script any of us were expecting to see play out. Near the end of the third quarter, as Iowa trailed 24-3 and things looked bleak. The Iowa offense had looked dead on the table for most of the game, either shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly (the first half was an avalanche of stupid penalties that moved the offense backwards) or by being generally incompetent (they didn't string together too many decent drives). I was prepping a venting thread and pondering a recap of the game that highlighted the eerie (and unpleasant) parallels between this season and the 2007 season. A heavily-hyped new quarterback who had looked promising in cameo appearances but who had struggled upon giving the keys to the offense permanently? A multi-year skill position starter on offense back for one last go 'round? A defense loaded with new faces that struggled to stop the run and the pass? Check, check, and check.

But then the script turned yet again and the most obvious parallel to the Iowa team that played the fourth quarter wasn't 2007 Iowa but 2004 Iowa. An offense built around a shotgun passing attack to replace an ineffective running game? A defense that got timely turnovers and bent but (crucially) did not break?: Hell, there was even incredibly competent kickoff coverage. So... where do we go from here?

* The offense of the past is the offense of the present -- and the future. Let's be clear: the offense we saw at the end of the third quarter and through the fourth quarter was the result of some special circumstances. Pitt shifted into more of a prevent defense and a 21-point deficit finally forced Ferentz and O'Keefe to stuff the gameplan and any semblance of balance on offense, essentially just throwing Vandenberg in the shotgun and telling him to let it rip. Which he did and the results were, well, spectacular and the most exhilarating display of offense from an Iowa team since... well, at least since the 2010 Michigan State game. But what's it all mean for the future?

They probably aren't going to turn the offense on its head and fully embrace a no huddle shotgun passing attack as the base offense. The situation with the running game isn't quite as dire as it was in 2004 (Marcus Coker is still better than Sam Brownlee, after all), so abandoning the run game altogether would be a mistake. But one hopes that there will be some shift in the offensive approach. Running to set up the pass game has been the plan all season (and for most of the Ferentz Era), but it hasn't been terribly effective for three games. Shockingly, Marcus Coker can't run through 8-9 man defensive fronts. So why not pass to set up the run? We can debate how much of the comeback was due to Vandenberg suddenly throwing strikes and how much was due to the receivers bailing him out with clutch catch after clutch catch (the real answer? a little of both), but there's no denying that Vandenberg looked a lot more comfortable throwing out of the shotgun. So why wouldn't you integrate more of those looks into the offense? Vandenberg, for all his inconsistency, is still one of the strengths of the offense and the receivers are an undeniable strength -- so let's utilize them. Of course, we've said that before -- as recently as last year, for instance -- to little avail. We'll see if things are any different this week.

* Wide Receiver U? As noted above, the wide receivers have emerged as an undeniable strength of the team and their performance yesterday was the best from an Iowa receiving unit in years. For the second straight week, Keenan Davis was the lead dog (10-129-1), but he had ample assistance this week from Marvin McNutt (8-112-0) and Kevonte Martin-Manley (4-76-2) as well. Martin-Manley in particular was sensational, especially on his two touchdown grabs. DJK had been effusive in his praise about KMM in the past and yesterday was the clearest indication yet that there was a basis behind all that hype. We need to see it in more than one game, of course, but there's reason to believe that this is arguably the deepest and most talented wide receiver unit Iowa has fielded under Ferentz. Iowa's had excellent wide receiver tandems in the past (McNutt and DJK in '09 and '10, Hinkel and Solomon in '04 and '05, Jones and Brown in '02), but the emergence of KMM could send this unit to another level. If he and Davis can maintain a high level of production (and this is two weeks in a row of strong performances from Davis), then this unit could be something quite special. Hopefully the coaches realize that, too.

* Defensive musical chairs. After getting gashed for 44 points and roughly a zillion yards by Steele Jantz and friends a week ago, it wasn't exactly a shock to see the defense get a personnel overhaul yesterday. Dominic Alvis moved outside to replace Lebron Daniel at defensive end while Thomas Nardo took his spot at defensive tackle and Anthony Hitchens ended up playing extensively at linebacker when Tyler Nielsen's ankle (injured last week against Iowa State) proved too gimpy to allow him to play effectively. But the most notable changes were in the secondary, where Micah Hyde moved from free safety back to his familiar role at cornerback, while Jordan Bernstine replaced Collin Sleeper at strong safety and Tanner Miller replaced Hyde at free safety. The results were... mixed, but largely positive.

It's hard to say that a defense that gave up 400+ yards, 27 points, and multiple big plays really played all that well... but it did seem better than what we'd seen the week before. Hyde was (shock!) a big upgrade over Castillo at cornerback, coming up with two big interceptions (including the game-clincher) and looking more assured in coverage. Bernstine was also a definite upgrade at strong safety, particularly in run support where he crashed the line with speed and ferocity and delivered some memorable hits to Ray Graham. It wasn't all sunshine and puppy dogs, though, as the secondary gave up multiple big plays and looked out of position at times (Miller seemed particularly guilty of this a few times). More than anything, it reminded me (yet again) of the 2007 defense, which was similarly shaky and prone to breakdowns ("EPIC GREENWOOD" wasn't a meme for nothing). But Greenwood improved and Dalton was replaced by Tyler Sash and we had three years of very strong play in the secondary. We aren't going to get that in 2011 -- but the unit that played Saturday at least looked capable of making more than its share of big plays, rather than just conceding big plays. That might have to do for now.

The most encouraging thing about the defensive line play may have been the fact that we genuinely did see a stream of bodies in there all game: Alvis, Nardo, Mike Daniels, and Broderick Binns started, but Lebron Daniel, Joe Forgy, Carl Davis, and Darian Cooper were also rotated in there, which may be the recipe for success in 2011. This defensive line doesn't have studs like Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, or Karl Klug that it can rely on series after series, so throwing wave after wave of fresh bodies at the problem may be the best solution. They did get better pressure (including three sacks) than they had in weeks past, which was encouraging.

* WANTED: Marcus Coker's speed. Last seen in the 2010 Insight Bowl. There are a lot of factors at work in Marcus Coker's underwhelming start to the 2011 season. Ferentz noted after the game that Coker missed considerable time during training camp due to injury (You Know Who strikes again!). Defenses loaded up to stop the run (and an offensive gameplan that's most common response has been simply to keep running into that brick wall and hope it crumbled). And the offensive line has been inconsistent as well. But part of the blame also falls on Coker, who bears only a passing resemblance to the running back who terrorized the Missouri defense in the 2010 Insight Bowl and had Iowa fans dreaming of Big Ten rushing titles. He's looked slow and indecisive, spending entirely too much trying to change direction or thinking about his run rather than, well, running. We don't need Coker to make the perfect run every single carry -- we just need him to make good runs and those have been in painfully short supply so far. Which, frankly, is yet another reason why it makes so little sense to continue to cling to a run-first offensive gameplan. Hopefully the things Marcus can't control will get fixed -- the offensive gameplans improve and the offensive line will play more consistently -- and he'll fix the elements he can control (the indecision, the overthinking, etc.).

* Special teams: still a mixed bag. A week after going 4/4 on field goals (including a 50-yard bomb), Mike Meyer had a far less impressive day Saturday, going 1/3 on field goals. He bonked a 40-yard field goal attempt off the post (which really ought to be worth a point, no? It's hard to hit a target that narrow!) and pulled a 50-yard attempt wide right. Missing a 50-yard field goal is hardly something to begrudge him for (most college kickers aren't going to make 50-yarders consistently), but Iowa can ill afford to have him miss many 40-yard attempts. On the bright side, Eric Guthrie wound up having a strong game -- he had six punts for 273 yards (an average of almost 46 yards per punt) and until the offense woke up from its slumber late in the third quarter, he seemed like the runaway pick for man of the match. The coverage units were more of a mixed bag: the coverage generally wasn't as egregiously awful as they were against Iowa State, but until the final two kickoffs in the fourth quarter (where the coverage was excellent) it still wasn't exactly good, per se. So, baby steps?