This is it. After weeks and months of waiting and over-analyzing and yes, overreacting, we are finally here. It’s game week. College football officially returned over the weekend (don’t tell me you missed the 4 games on Saturday!?!) and now we’re staring down the barrel of a full slate of games spanning from Thursday through Monday of next week. Right smack in the middle of it all is the glorious return of Hawkeye football in Kinnick Stadium.
I’m ready to see just how good Noah Fant can be.
I’m ready to see if the linebackers are up to the task of filling in for those three seniors who departed.
I’m ready to see if we finally have answers at wide receiver.
I’m ready to run through a brick wall.
I’m ready to finally have something to actually overreact to again!
I’m ready for Hawkeye football.
To get me into the spirit of actually overreacting again, I think I’m going to test my hand at it, preemptively. Because you see, dear reader, I am completely torn on this game. On the one hand, I have high hopes for this team. I have (probably) unrealistic expectations for how good this offense can be. I’m setting myself up for disappointment. But at the same time, I have some MAJOR question marks and in week 1 in particular, I’m nervous about the bottom falling out of this season before we even get beyond Labor Day.
Those two things seem mutually exclusive, but I’ve got a propensity for word vomit, 4 cups of coffee in me and Chris Ruth camp videos blaring in the background. So saddle up partner, this could be bumpy.
The numbers we saw from Nate Stanley a season ago were ridiculous. 26 touchdowns from a true sophomore in his first season as starter is incredible, especially when you consider his lackluster completion percentage (55.8%) and his penchant for whiffing on the long ball.
That dude’s back. So are Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson. And Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Nick Easley. This passing game could be very good. Very, very good.
This is perhaps the part of this particular team I’m most excited to watch. We all know how special Noah Fant is and now the rest of the country knows as well. I’m interested to see how effective he’ll be when he’s getting bracket coverage or pulling cornerbacks instead of linebackers or safeties.
And when he does get that kind of attention, I’m interested to see how Brian Ferentz adjusts. Will he dial up the mismatches created with another talented TE in TJ Hockenson or the opportunity to get Ihmir Smith-Marsette in man coverage on the outside? If he dials that up, does Stanley connect this year? I think so. And that has me HYPED.
Especially because I expect this running game to be solid. Hawkeye fans know by now that Iowa is as good as its running game (2004 is the exception to the rule). As solid as last year was, it wasn’t great and a big part of that was the running game.
Don’t get me wrong, Akrum Wadley was a star and I doubt we see a playmaker like that agin for quite some time. But the ability of last year’s Iowa team to pound the rock when they needed to wasn’t stellar. I expect that to be different this year. None of the three RBs I expect to see will break tackles the way Wadley did, but all can run between the tackles and all have OK to good speed in open space.
I expect the offensive line to be much better in the run game and any of Ivory Kelly-Martin, Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent has what it takes to grind on an opponent or break one off on your standard stretch into the boundary. That’s a staple of good Iowa football under KF. And when that happens, I expect to see Brian, under the tutelage of KOK, take advantage over the top with play-action to guys like Fant and ISM.
I HAVE CONCERNS. Especially week one.
As much as I expect the offensive line to be fine, they still weren’t great a season ago in the run game. And where, exactly did we see turnover on the line? In the middle. You know, the guys most responsible for the run game.
Sure, that could mean we have new blood and a chance for improvement. It could also mean what experience we had on the interior of the line walked out the door and we’re going to be breaking in new starters up front while also replacing the most dynamic running back I’ve watched in an Iowa uniform in person*. That doesn’t sound like a swell recipe for improving the running game.
What’s worse, the strength of this line took a massive blow for week one when we learned about both Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson spending the week on the sidelines. While that might be insignificant against some no-name week one opponent, this year’s generic MAC filler game could be a good one.
That’s right, NIU is poised to make a run at the MAC title this season. And they’ve got an all-world defensive end in Sutton Smith.
Yeah, my warm and fuzzies about the passing game this week are kind of gone.
Sure, I think Noah Fant is a star. I think TJ Hockenson is a star-in-waiting. Those guys are going to be matchup nightmares for a LOT of teams this year. But getting the ball to them could be difficult if Stanley is peeling field turf pebbles off his teeth all afternoon.
With both tackles out and Smith’s propensity to wreak havoc in backfields, I’m legitimately concerned about the passing game. I’m excited about the potential of the receiving group. Easley is solid and I love the complementary skills ISM and Smith have, but they aren’t doing much good in a game where Stanley has no time to look for them.
Add that to the concerns about breaking in a new interior on the line and I’m worried about moving the ball and finishing drives.
Defensively, I like the potential of this unit. The safeties look good. But we’re still talking three new linebackers and this is week one. I don’t have quite the concerns about NIU’s offense as their defense, but I also expect it to take some time to build up these linebackers. That isn’t happening week one and the thought of having them forced into action in a game where the offense may struggle has me... anxious.
These things, if taken in isolation, maybe wouldn’t be such a huge deal. Sure, they might be cause for some concern, but not enough to truly make you worry about the outcome of this one. But then there’s the whole mantra of the Kirk Ferentz era, playing games close regardless of opponent.
We all remember the numerous close calls (and losses - cough, NDSU, cough cough). And they hit especially close to home with Northern Illinois. The Huskies, you’ll recall, won the last time they walked into Kinnick Stadium.
In fact, Iowa hasn’t beaten NIU by more than two touchdowns since Kirk Fereentz’s first win as head coach of the Hawkeyes in 1999.
Let that sink in a moment.
Now, granted, there have only been four meetings since 1999 (the Hawkeyes won by 10 in ‘06, 13 in ‘07 and only 1 in 2012), but to not be able to put away a MAC opponent with regularity is beyond frustrating. And given the circumstances surrounding this matchup, it’s a little more than concerning.
When it comes down to it, I still think the Hawkeyes get out of this one with a W. There’s a talent gap at a number of positions. Sutton Smith is definitely going to be a problem, but I think it’s one that can be contained.
Kirk Ferentz has played a style of football over the years that’s gotten Iowa more wins against top competition than they should’ve, but it’s also cost them games they had no business losing. But with Brian calling the offense, I have some faith this won’t be one of those times.
I like the idea of him running right at Smith, who is a bit undersized on the edge, over and over. And then throwing screens at him and quick hits underneath to the tight ends and Easley. Smith can be slowed and even neutralized if he’s attacked. The rest of that defense doesn’t scare anyone.
Defensively, those worries about new linebackers aren’t a huge concern given the advantage I expect to see along the line. I expect the Nelsons, Hesse and Maui to have a field day. And those safeties add a safety blanket in the back to bring some added pressure if needed.
Most importantly, I predict a hell of a lot of excited Iowa fans to have Hawkeye football back in their lives - myself included.
Hawks 34, NIU 13
Damn it feels good to be back!
Happy Monday. Happy game week. Go Hawks! Five short days!
*Before you yell at me in the comments, I’ll preface by saying that while I’m the resident old guy/dad, I’m not an actual old timer and my real viewing days only date back into the mid-90s.