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IOWA FOOTBALL IN 2017: THE STATE OF THE UNION

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WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED HALFWAY THROUGH THIS SEASON?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa
Wow this picture is awesome
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The following is an attempt to place my hand on the pulse of the Iowa football program in the year 2017. I will do so in two ways: 1. I will compare this season to campaigns of recent past and 2. Use my own eyes to assess the season and program. These are both flawed because it’s not totally fair to compare the present to the past, and I am a near-unemployable idiot with a keyboard who barely graduated Iowa. Let’s do this.

My fellow Hawkeye fans:

I hope you’ve been enjoying our coverage of the football season so far, even if you may not exactly be happy with the actual season itself.

Iowa football has played six games this year and is 4-2 in those contests. We’re halfway through the season so we figure this is as good a time as any to address the state of Iowa football.

Iowa is in the midst of replacing an offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, quarterbacks coach and a wide receiver coach. That’s quite a lot, and it really hasn’t occurred to me all the moving parts the Hawkeyes were working with on the offensive side of the ball this offseason. I know there’s been some growing pains, but all things considered I’ve been pretty happy with the way Iowa’s offense has been performing this season.

Stan the man

Ones assessment of an offense usually starts and ends with the play of the quarterback. Actually I don’t know how true that is since I’m in no position to assess my own financial situation, let alone the offense of a power-5 football team, but here we are.

Through his first six starts, Nathan Stanley is 97-168 with 1290 yards, 15 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions for a passer rating of 149.33. This is where I say Stanley has been absolutely nothing short of sensational. As a 20 year-old Stanley has been able to navigate a new OC, a re-shuffled offensive line and a largely green receiving corps. His favorite targets have been a guy who was playing JUCO ball a year ago, and a tight end who saw limited action for Iowa in 2016. He has been thriving in this early iteration of Brian Ferentz’s offense.

For comparison, through his first six starts, CJ Beathard was 101-168 for 1,284 yards, 8 touchdowns and 2 picks. The fact they both attempted 168 attempts in their first six starts is uncanny. There’s also a 78% chance I fudged the math there.

ANYWAY, CJ and Stanley were right on track in terms of attempts/completions/yards, it’s just that Stanley is able to find guys who can find the end zone. And think about how Stanley’s numbers would look if he could just complete a friggin’ deep ball.

Take a breath, though. We all know he’s going to connect on those long balls on a consistent basis someday. The bye week is the perfect time to work on that.

To those of us who were in our mentions this past week saying Tyler Wiegers needed to get his chance at the QB job… well, you got your wish in the Illinois game!

Nathan Stanley has been a revelation for the Hawkeyes this year, and we look forward to him quarterbacking this team for the next 2.5 seasons.

For whom the bell cow tolls

I think everyone is a little bit concerned with the way Iowa’s running game has played out so far. HOWEVAH, I’ll have you know, through its first six games last year, Iowa had a total of 895 yards rushing. This year, Iowa has rushed for 832 yards and that’s been without LeShun Daniels, who’s currently on the practice squad for the LA Chargers. I know expectations were sky-high for Akrum Wadley going into the season, but take into account we’re breaking in a new OC, a new-ish offensive line and the fact he’s been the first, second and third option at running back for the past three games, for some reason.

Annnnnnd it looks like we might not see James Butler back in an Iowa uniform anytime soon:

In the meantime, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin have gotten extremely limited carries when Wadley has needed a breather. This has perhaps been the most head-scratching aspect of Iowa’s gameplan so far. wWhen those two have been on the field, they’ve each moved the chains. Wadley isn’t an every-down back to some, and Toren Young seems to provide the change-of-pace that LeShun Daniels filled last season. I really can’t speculate a good reason as to why Young has seen so few snaps. (IKM fumbled against Illinois, so see you later maybe?)

In any case, we saw a reshuffled offensive line against Illinois (more on that shortly) and something tells me that unit is going to gel, gain momentum and pave the way for a downright nasty rushing attack as the season comes to a close.

The pass-catchers

At this point of the season I’d argue Nick Easley has been the breakout player of this team, even more than Stanley. Easley has 27 catches for 281 yards and 4 touchdowns. That’s over 10 yards a catch, and I honestly don’t remember him ever dropping a ball. He’s been Stanley’s favorite target, and I look forward to them honing their connection as the two become more comfortable with one-another.

Easley is … easley leading Iowa’s receivers targets as well with 39 looks. Noah Fant is second with 33 targets, and Matt VandeBerg is third with 29. Wadley seems to be Stanley’s No. 4 option in passing situations with 19 targets.

VandeBerg hasn’t been the 2015 version of Meerkat, but he’s been really solid, and I expect him to become a larger role in the offense over the final seven games. His catch and run on the slant against Illinois was Ken O’Keefe pornography, and I bet we’ll see more of that.

Noah Fant’s production had quieted down a little since his first three games where he scored 3 touchdowns, but he’s coming off a season-high 78 yards against Illinois and is averaging 15 yards a catch. His tight end counterpart TJ Hockenson is becoming a favorite of Stanley’s, and is proving to be a very solid No. 2.

I’d like to know where Ihmir Smith-Marsette has been these past few games. He was a hero in the Iowa State game, and has kind of disappeared since. He has 8 catches on the year, half those coming against the Cyclones. His only two scores on the year came in Ames, too. I hope he gets more looks during this bye, since he flashed rare talent in the Iowa State game.

Brandon Smith … he’s a work in progress, but I’m confident he’ll get there. We’re just gonna have to wait it out.

In sum, I would say this receiving corps has greatly outperformed expectations. This was my biggest concern going into the season, and they’ve been a really pleasant surprise. Part of that has to do with Stan the man, but the two complement each other and we get to reap the benefits!

The big uglies

While the receivers have probably been the nicest surprise for this team, the offensive line could be the biggest disappointment. Four returning starters on a line that won something called the Joe Moore Award last year meant great things for a potential NFL running back and a fresh young QB with on a learning curve.

Well, it turns out run-blocking for a supremely talented back has proved difficult for this squad, while pass-blocking has emerged as its strength. This unit allowed just 9 sacks on the year, while it gave up 30 all of last season. I’ll admit a large part of that number was due to CJ Beathard’s happy feet, but one of Stanley’s biggest knocks so far has been a lack of pocket awareness at times, and that’s led to a few sacks and a fumble or two.

The Illinois game saw Iowa burn the redshirt on true fresh-manchild Tristan Wirfs to throw him at right tackle. Sean Welsh then slid to his natural right guard position and it looked like some things opened up in the passing and running game. Granted this was against Illinois, but I think this will be a good thing for what has been at times a beleaguered unit.

We normally see the offensive line improve as the season goes on, and I’m looking forward to watching this unit finish the year strong. My only knock here so far is that no single player is dominating like we usually see out of our O-linemen. I expect Sean Welsh to make some grown men cry as he fills into form at guard, but gun to my head I’d have to pick James Daniels as its MVP, simply because I think he’s been helping Stanley make adjustments and reads when he gets to the line.

Trenchmen

Expectations were through the roof for this defensive line. Phil Parker said it’s the best he’s seen since he took over coordinator duties back in spring ball, and we’ve seen some absolute flashes of brilliance from the front four.

We’ve also seen some really average play for a unit that boasts Anthony Nelson and the best recruit of the KF era. Nelson leads the team with 5 sacks (he had 6 all of last year) and AJ Epenesa is tied with Josey Jewell for second with 2.5, but I can’t help but feel that number should be higher since the general consensus is he’s been under-utilized.

When people gripe about the lack of Epenesa’s snaps, though, you have to look at what Parker Hesse has done for this team opposite Nelson. Hesse was the savior of the Iowa State game with an interception late in the fourth quarter that gave Iowa the chance to send that to overtime. He’s second on the team with 6.5 tackles for a loss to go with a sack. He also has 2 forced fumbles. We can bitch about AJE’s snaps all we want, but we have to respect what Hesse has done at the same time.

The interior line is a little disappointing. Nathan Bazata has been solid with 20 tackles, (3 TFL) but his counterpart Matt Nelson is seeing some growing pains as he adjusts to the inside. Cedrick Lattimore has been the usual starter alongside Bazata, and his recent play is unimpressive as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing Epenesa rotate inside once or twice, but the coaching staff could just be worried about getting him to learn one position for now.

This unit is still a bit of a question mark to me, and I’m concerned at the lack of a pass rush when we send just four guys, but I think this is also something that can be given extra attention in the bye week.

Those who back the line

Josey. Jewell. You don’t need me to tell you what a special player Iowa has on its hands with the senior linebacker. Jewell is third in the nation in total tackles with 70. That includes 9.5 TFL to go along with an interception, a forced fumble and 4 passes broken up. And an elite interception celebration in Trace McSorley’s eyes.

Abdul Hodge holds the record for most tackles in a Big Ten season with 158. It’s not crazy to think Jewell could get there. Jewell is also No. 7 for all-time tackles in the B1G with 369. Greg Jones is the leader with 465. Jewell won’t get there, but he could surpass James Morris at No. 3 with 399 total tackles.

What I’m trying to say is Josey Jewell is a damn special player, and I hope we can finish the season strong for no other reason than to give him a proper send-off.

In the shadow of Jewell you’ll find Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, who each have been decent to good to great in their own rights, but just meh when compared to their captain. The two combined still have fewer tackles, pass breakups, TFL and sacks than Jewell. We’ve seen them both woefully out of position in pass coverage at times, but overall each prove to be solid open-field tacklers and run-stoppers.

Those three seniors have been getting the lion’s share of snaps at linebacker, so much so I can’t even really comment on anyone else besides the above trio. Amani Jones and Kevin Ward have played some? Jack Hockaday went in for Jewell when he missed a series against Illinois. What the heck is going on with Aaron Mends? We’re being spoiled by this linebacking corps, and I’m afraid of how the cupboard is going to look when they leave campus.

Overall, I think this group is covering up a lot of mistakes made by the defensive line and backfield. As those two units progress, we’ll see even more great things out of the backers.

Backing up the backers

And this defensive backfield. I dunno. Manny Rugamba was pegged to be Desmond King 2.0 going into the season and has done nothing but disappoint really. Michael Ojemudia has even taken the starting spot away from Rugamba, telling me he’s either hurt, just not progressing or both. Ojemudia hasn’t been anything special himself and is often the most picked-on corner when he’s in. Phil Parker admitted yesterday that Rugamba hasn’t been healthy, so that makes sense.

His counterpart Josh Jackson, however, has been really impressive. JJ leads the team with 8 pass breakups and 2 picks with 26 tackles to boot. When he gets targeted in the end zone he seems to make other teams pay, and is pretty decent as a punt returner as well.

Matt Hankins is getting there, slowly but surely.

The safeties up until the Illinois game were between bad and disastrous. I wasn’t expecting the addition of Brandon Snyder to the lineup to be a cure-all, but well here we are coming of a career performance from Snyder. Snyder alongside Amani Hooker, who should have been starting all season long, are replacing the bad taste left in the mouth by Jake Gervase and Miles Taylor.

I think making Snyder and Hooker full-time starters for this defense will do wonders for the unit from here on out, and I look forward to this defense becoming just downright salty.

Goofy boots

Miguel Recinos really has been the man at kicker. On kickoffs, over half his boots are going for touchbacks, (along with a successful onside kick against Illinois) while going 5-6 on field goals. He hasn’t missed an extra point either, which is just great. He’s a weapon for this Iowa team, and I feel we haven’t even taken full advantage of his abilities yet.

Punting, on the other hand. Uh. Ryan Gersonde seemed to be an improvement over Colten Rastetter at least. Gersonde’s sample size is too small to make a fair assessment, so we’ll just have to hope the punting game vastly improves over the bye.

In conclusion

Las Vegas had the over/under for this Iowa team at 6.5 wins. That slowly moved to 7.5 as people took the over, and I think that adjustment is more fair to the team we’re looking at. Obviously expectations were low going into the season with a new QB and all the other moving parts, but a piece of me can’t help but feel this team has slightly underperformed given how its losses to Penn State and Michigan State shook out.

To me, the offensive and defensive lines along have been the biggest disappointments, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything that can’t be corrected there. Same goes for the defensive backfield and the running game. I expect Stanley to gain momentum and become a general for this team, while the three-four known playmakers on this defense elevate it to a new level as the season closes out.

Left on the schedule we have the following:

@Northwestern

Minnesota

Ohio State

@Wisconsin

Purdue

@Nebraska

Ohio State and Wisconsin are obviously the biggest worries, while Purdue looms. I’d feel a lot worse about that game against the Boilers if it wasn’t in Kinnick. Ohio State is gaining strong momentum, but Wisconsin certainly looks beatable. The odds say we’re looking at another 8-win season for these Hawkeyes, with 9 wins an overachievement and 10 a downright miracle.

It’s easy to look back and think what could have been if we win those close ones, but it’s better to look ahead and anticipate the good things to come. This season is lacking a signature win (sorry Iowa State) and I’m licking my literal and metaphorical chops for that Ohio State game in Kinnick. This is the kind of team that can ruin seasons for its opponents while turning heads in the process, and that should be enough to put a smile on your face.

I must say to you, Hawkeye fans, that the state of the union, is optimistic.