(I'm playing substitute teacher today and filling in for PV on Here's The Thing. Be nice. -- RB)
Saturday is about adaptability in every sense. Louisiana-Monroe will test Iowa on their ability to adapt from minute to minute, game to game, and season to season like no other opponent this year. Nowhere will this be more evident than in the passing game. ULM runs a base 3-3-5 formation, on its face similar to the "formation" that Michigan ran out for three years under Rich Rodriguez. On its face, it looks to be tailor-made for the Iowa power running game; keep it between the tackles, blow up linebackers and safeties in the second and third level, and watch Coker run wild. It was certainly interesting, then, when Ferentz was asked about the potential effectiveness of the running game on Tuesday and responded like so:
Q. How difficult is it to run against this week? Is that a goal, get that running game back on track?
COACH FERENTZ: Probably bad week to set that one as a goal just based on the way they line up. Don't want to be set up for failure. We're going to have to get them to get out of there a little bit, otherwise we're going to average two a carry, be punting.
To repeat, when asked whether running against ULM's 3-3-5 defense would give Iowa a shot to get the running offense started up after three weeks of sputtering and stalling, Ferentz said such a move would set Iowa up for failure. There's some precedent there, too: Florida State managed only 92 rushing yards on 28 carries (a middling 3.3 ypc) against ULM in week one. On the other hand, TCU ripped off 207 yards on 45 carries (a more robust 4.6 ypc) against ULM last week. 100 of those yards came in the first half, too, so it wasn't as though they racked up a lot of rushing yards on a gassed Warhawk defense. On the other hand, they were able to throw a steady stream of running backs at ULM -- three running backs carried the ball at least 11 times and each gained 60+ yards -- while Iowa has Marcus Coker and the Pips. And just like the real Pips never got solos, Iowa's Pips never get carries.
Then again, that might all have to change this week: Marcus Coker hasn't looked much like Marcus Coker this year (267 yards on an absurd 69 carries, for a measly 3.9 ypc average). The reasons for that range from overloaded defenses to inconsistent blocking up front to injuries to Coker, but the end result is that Ferentz has been openly acknowledging that true freshman Damon Bullock will be getting carries this week. (To be fair, he got one last week and nearly scored a touchdown with it, which -- FUN FACT ALERT -- would have made him the second freshman this season whose first touch resulted in a touchdown after Kevonte Martin-Manley's first career catch went for a score against Iowa State.)
Despite last week's fourth quarter offensive eruption at the hands of James Vandenberg and the receivers, you can bet that ULM is going to load up to stop the run. They're going to line up in their 3-3-5 variant and bring pressure from odd angles and do everything they can to keep Iowa's running game from getting on track. If Iowa can pound away with the ground game, work in a little play-action passing, and tire them out, it's likely game over for the Warhawks. So they're probably going to force Vandenberg to prove that the fourth quarter last week wasn't a fluke. Which is an open question, to be fair: he looked stellar at the end of the game last week, but quarters like that have been few and far between in his tenure as a starter so far at Iowa.
ULM's blitz-happy defense is also going to try to exploit an obvious weakness in the passing game, which is Vandenberg's ability to recognize and respond to blitzes. He froze like a statue against Minnesota in 2009 and while he's gotten better since then, it's still a concern. If he truly has improved his skills in that area, the opportunity for multiple big plays should be there in the passing game and this could turn into a laugher. So, ultimately, this game could serve as an early referendum on Vandenberg: was the Vandenberg who torched Pitt last week the "real" JVB or is the "real" JVB the quarterback who struggled with accuracy and pressure against Iowa State and Pitt for the better part of seven quarters?
Adaptability is also the name of the game on defense. ULM will be fourth straight team this season to come at Iowa with a spread offense. Against Tennessee Tech, the Iowa defense broke their spirit with a pair of big play interceptions in the second quarter and largely kept the Tech offense under wraps. On the other hand, Steele Jantz cut them apart like it was SAW VII: THE JANTZENING out there. That horrific display prompted a host of in-season personnel moves for the Pitt game, highlighted by Micah Hyde returning to his roots at cornerback, Jordan Bernstine bringing some much-needed sturm und drang to the strong safety position, and Dominic Alvis taking his hunka hunka burning
love pass rush to defensive end (which meant that Lebron Daniel no longer got to play freeze tag out at defensive end so much last week). The results were generally positive: despite a few busted coverages that led to big plays for the Pitt offense, the defense did a better job of forcing stops and getting Pitt off the field (particularly during The Comeback).
ULM, of course, doesn't have the same level of talent that Pitt has. Nor do they have the same level of talent as Iowa State, for the matter. Mind you, that doesn't mean their talent is bad because it's not. They jumped out to a 17-14 lead on TCU last week and gained almost 200 yards in the first quarter (unfortunately for their upset bid took a serious hit when they could only manage about 100 more yards the rest of the game). And, as noted above, schematically, they're precisely the sort of team that's given Iowa fits in recent history. Can Iowa's defense be adaptable in terms of scheme or is adaptability strictly limited to personnel? In other words, if the base 4-3 isn't working, might we see more nickel or dime defenses? (Haha, I know, I know. I forgot to take my meds this morning.)
But, most importantly, what kind of adaptability will we see out of the coaches in this game? It seemed like it took a 24-3 deficit, a potential 1-2 record, and a season swirling down the drain for them to throw out the gameplan a week ago, which played into the "Ferentz is outrageously stubborn" meme. Of course, as Horace pointed out earlier this week, the offense didn't entirely change its shape at the end of the game -- the execution just got a lot better (although the increased tempo was also a big factor in Iowa's success). So what sort of gameplan will we see this week? Will Iowa bring their lunchpail to Kinnick and simply try to run it down ULM's throat, fancy blitzes be damned? Will Iowa incorporate more of the shotgun (and/or no huddle) looks that were so wildly effective last week? How much freedom will Vandenberg have to audible out of plays? (Earlier this week, he said that he called many of the plays during the offense's surge against Pitt.) And, if the gameplan's not working, will Iowa make actual in-game adjustments or just keep plugging away with the initial plan in the hope that it will eventually bear fruit? Only one man knows -- and he's stocking up on Trident as we speak.
This game feels like it could be one of those uncomfortably close games that's still in doubt at the start of the fourth quarter and leads to lots of swearing and hand-wringing. The best way to avoid that is to bury the Warhawks early. Iowa put the Tennessee Tech game out of reach with a huge second quarter (thanks to a trio of big plays) but failed to do so after hopping out to a 10-0 lead against Iowa State in Ames. Turnovers, poor execution, and excess conservatism let Iowa State back in that game... we all know how that turned out. If Iowa can get things clicking early and (crucially) not let up, this could be over by halftime, which would be nice after all the drama of the last two weeks. If they aren't able to do that, get ready for another ride on the roller coaster.