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Iowa 45, Louisiana-Monroe 17: Now That's More Like It

I'll be honest: I wasn't sure what to expect out of this game. I don't typically get too nervous about games with $1 million victims, but (a) Louisiana-Monroe wasn't your average bodybag opponent -- they'd kept things from getting out of hand against Florida State in Week One and traded punches with TCU for a while last week -- and (b) through three weeks, Iowa remained an enigma. If you worked at it, you might be able to scrap together four quarters' worth of good play from the first three games -- the second quarter against Tennessee Tech here, the fourth quarter against Pitt there, etc. -- but the fact that you'd struggle to do so indicates the roller coaster ride this season has been so far. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes putrid, never predictable: that's Iowa football 2k11 in a nutshell.

So I didn't know what we would see from Iowa yesterday. Would they pick up where they left off in shredding the Pitt defense and engineering the biggest comeback in school history? Or that would comeback prove to be a mirage, a harbinger of nothing but false hope? Happily, the answer seems to be the former: Iowa came out guns firing on Monroe and buried them early, leading to that rarest of occurences: the comfortable, stress-free Iowa victory. What does this tell us about the rest of the season? Probably not a lot: Monroe may be a scrappier-than-usual Sun Belt squad, but they're still a Sun Belt squad. It would be unwise to expect Iowa to be able to manhandle Big Ten opponents they way handled the Warhawks. But it's still encouraging to actually see Iowa playing well.

* Pass to win. The question all week was "would Iowa use more no huddle on offense after the smashing success they had running it against Pitt last week?" Survey says... oh hell yes. Iowa broke out some no huddle on the opening drive of the game... and promptly scored a touchdown. As expected, the no huddle didn't became the default look for the offensive, but it was a very potent tool and one that helped Iowa find an early offensive rhythm against ULM. Vandenberg looked at ease from the opening kickoff and he and Iowa's trio of talented receivers, Marvin McNutt, Keenan Davis, and Kevonte Martin-Manley, dissected ULM. Vandenberg's first-half stats: 15-25, 198 yards, 2 TD/0 INT. Not too shabby. McNutt was the star of the show, hauling in two beautiful fade routes for touchdowns (bringing him within one of the school record held by Danan Hughes and Tim Dwight, as BTN incessantly reminded us) and leading the way with 7 catches for 100 yards. Just Marvin doin' Marvin things. Kevonte Martin-Manley was his more accomplished sidekick yesterday, catching 6 passes for 82 yards and making hay in the middle of the field. Keenan had a quieter day -- just 2 catches for 32 yards and a handful of drops -- but overall, the Iowa receivers still look like the most explosive and productive unit on the Iowa offense, which is a strange (but exciting) change. FUN FACTS: through four games, Vandenberg is second to only Russell Wilson in passing yards (1136 to 1095) and touchdowns (11 to 10) and is tied with Edwin Wright-Baker for most attempts (129). He's currently on pace to throw for 3285 yards, 30 TD, and 3 INT. That would, um, be a pretty good season.

* MISSING: Iowa tight ends. If found, please return to Kinnick Stadium. The strangest thing about the explosion in the Iowa passing game is that it's come with basically zero help from the tight end position. For a school that's consistently sent tight ends to the NFL for the last decade, this is a bizarre development. It's even stranger when you consider the apparent talent level of the position -- in Ed Brad Herman, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ray Hamilton, etc. Iowa appeared to have a host of options with impressive size and speed. Going into the season, tight end appeared to be the skill position with the most talent and the most depth. Yesterday, the combined production from the tight end position was... 2 catches for 17 yards. On the season, the three-headed "monster" of Herman, Fiedorowicz, and Zach Derby has totaled 10 receptions for 138 yards and 0 touchdowns. So long as the troika of McNutt, Davis, and Martin-Manley continues to produce at such a high level for Iowa, the lack of production from the tight end spot is more of an odd curiosity than a flashing warning sign. But... it would be nice to get the tight ends more involved, no? There is definite talent in that unit and they have the ability to create the sort of match-up nightmares that could make Iowa's passing attack even deadlier. Right now the only thing the Iowa tight ends are leading the team in is best nicknames. Hopefully the coaches use the bye week to rediscover the potential of the tight end in this offense. (And, to be fair, hopefully the tight ends themselves start playing at a higher level -- their numbers would be better now if not for a half-dozen drops.)

* Desperately seeking RB2. Once upon a time this season, Iowa had a RB2, and a very exciting one at that in hard-running Mika'il McCall. Of course, that set-up barely lasted a quarter before AIRBHG sent McCall to the sidelines with a broken ankle and sent Iowa back to the drawing board to find a new RB2. With the more established options (RS FR DeAndre Johnson and JR Jason White) appearing to be permanently out of favor, the job fell to the two remaining true freshmen running backs: Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. Bullock tantalized in a cameo appearance last week, but sputtered with more carries this week: 21 yards on 7 carries (and a lost fumble). He looked promising, but also indecisive -- he spent too much time dancing behind Iowa's offensive line. Canzeri seemed destined for a redshirt this year, but the lack of other viable options at RB seems to have forced Ferentz's hand here. He ran for 30 yards on 5 carries and looked quick and decisive with good vision and pretty good burst. His three best carries went for gains of 6, 12, and 12 (he also had two carries inside the ULM 5-yard line that went for zero yards; suffice to say, he's probably not a top option around the goalline at this point). He had an even better run called back on a holding penalty. If you wanted to draw a comparison between Canzeri and a former Iowa running back, I'd go with a young Damian Sims: small, but quick and slippery. Obviously, five carries at the end of a game against ULM isn't enough evidence to definitively declare him RB2 or a future star-- but he certainly flashed enough potential to earn some more carries in the upcoming weeks. He looks well-suited to run in Iowa's zone blocking schemes and like a potentially perfect complement to Coker. (And hopefully Bullock will get more touches as well: he struggled some this week, but there's definite promise there.)

* About the defense. It was a rockier day for the defense than the offense, especially in conceding 14-second half points and allowing the Warhawks to move the ball down the field fairly consistently. But in general the trend is still positive: they tightened the screws on ULM's running game and held them to 59 yards on 30 carries, the first time all year they'd held an opponent under 100 yards rushing. As Morehouse noted in his write-up, after allowing five pass plays of 20+ yards last week, they only gave up one pass play of 20+ yards this week. That development is, of course, crucial for Iowa's bend-but-don't-break defense to work: giving up 20+ yard pass plays is the definition of "breaking" and that leads to losses (or near-losses, like last week). There's still a lot of work to be done -- ULM's QB tandem went 29/44 for 293 yards and looked poised and accurate, especially in the second half -- but they don't look hopeless. Tanner Miller and Jordan Bernstine were laying the lumber at the safety position and the much-maligned defensive line played better as well. Iowa's very own Nard Dog (Thomas Nardo) had a team-high 12 tackles, including 2.0 TFL. Whipping boy Lebron Daniel also had a nice game, with 1.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks, which was nice to see. There were still some breakdowns in contain, but fewer than we'd seen against Iowa State and Pitt. It should be abundantly obvious that this unit isn't going to be a vintage Iowa unit by any means, but they're at least moving back into the ranks of respectability and edging towards being a decent unit.

* Oh yeah, special teams. The good news: Mike Meyer went 1/1 on field goals yesterday and even booted a kickoff for a touchback. Eric Guthrie continued to have a quietly solid season punting the ball: he didn't have much to do yesterday (thank god), but his two punts went for an average of 48 yards per kick and he pinned ULM inside their own 20 twice. Jordan Bernstine got a few solid kick returns and Micah Hyde had an excellent 30-yard punt return (aided by a crushing block from -- who else? -- Bernstine). Even kickoff coverage was improved at the start of the game, consistently preventing ULM from getting any big returns or getting good starting field position. The bad news: they weren't consistent and the bad old kickoff coverage reared its ugly head later in the game, most notably on one return where ULM had a 40-yard runback (although the damage was mitigated by a penalty on ULM). Definitely still work to be done on the special teams front.