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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Story

Last year Iowa was the only team in the conference that could give Michigan a run for its money when it came to snakebites. A 23-3 loss to ISU was a comedy of errors performed mostly with Tate on the bench; replacment Jason Manson went 10/31. The loss to Michigan -- suffered without Ed Hinkel -- was full of uncharacteristic drops, penalties, and execution errors. Iowa carried the balance of the play and likely would have won that game seven of ten times if given the opportunity. The Northwestern and Florida games made the word "onside" a guaranteed bar fight in Des Moines. Only a vengeful stomping at the hands of OSU stands out as a game Iowa really deserved to lose.

This was a reversion to the mean -- or possibly past it -- after Iowa's charmed 2004, which was full of fortituous bounces on turnovers of all kinds. As a result, Kirk Ferentz's inexorable march to godhood took a bit of a siesta last year as Iowa stumbled to a 7-5 record. Sportswriters, always projecting things to be just like they were last year, have noticed.

The general consensus is Iowa's 2005 was something more than a blip. The Hawkeyes are projected to return to their newly familiar stomping grounds in the top 25, but if Stewart Mandel represents conventional wisdom at its coventional-est it appears the sportswriters of America are focusing more on 7-5 than the Tates: he has them #18. Athlon says #16. Even all-seeing, all-gambling Argus Phil Steele places Iowa but #15. Last year I argued that Iowa was overrated at number eight as journos focused more on Iowa's record than the fortune it had taken to get them there. This year they've multiplied that mistake by negative one.

No headliners remain on the Iowa defense after two years in which graduation has taken Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Abdul Hodge, and Chad Greenway to the NFL, but the Hawkeyes have star power on the other side of the ball in Drew Tate (the flingingest quarterback this side of the Pecos), Albert Young, and Albert Young's cadaverous ACL. The offensive line is either experienced or OMG shirtless. The defensive line looks poised to resume the terror of the Roth-Babineaux days. The defensive back seven? Well, you can't have everything. There are indeed ominous holes at corner and linebacker.

Despite that, viewers should be prepared for a faceful of Tate this year.


Last Year: Like everyone else in the Big Ten, Iowa had an excellent offense: 22nd nationally, 27th in passing and 34th in rushing. Also like everyone else in the Big Ten, it's hard to tell whether or not this was more a product of the offense or the defenses they faced, especially because Iowa missed Penn State.


Rating: 5. Drew Tate is one of the best quarterbacks in the country no matter your preferred metric. He has the numbers: two straight years with around 2800 yards passing, a completion percentage hovering around 62 percent, and 22 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions last year. He has the accolades: two years on the All Big Ten teams. And for those who like talking in vague generalities, he is the very avatar of "heart" or "moxie" or whatever you people call it.

The UFR from last year's Iowa game is downright effusive:
Great galloping gravy! Remember the breakdown of positive/negative downfield plays I did for the PSU game? Henne had 14 positive to 16 negative. Take away two TE screens, two dumpoffs to Young on third and long, and four Solomon stop routes (to play this conservatively) and Tate had 23 positive to 7 negative, and that's being super harsh on the "Inaccurate" category, which holds two bombs and the third down comeback route in OT that glanced off Solomon's fingertips.

It's not fair to hold Henne to that standard--it probably isn't fair to hold Tate to that standard, that was one of the finest quarterbacked games I've seen, like, ever--but that's kind of mindboggling. Seriously, I think Tate made a total of three bad plays (holding the ball too long on one sack, fumbling a snap, and letting Woods bat a ball down on the waggle easily). That says a lot about Tate and a lot about how far away from him Henne has been this year.
It was only a series of tiny miracles (penalties, sacks, and Iowa receiving screwups) that prevented the Hawkeyes from running up 35 points on Michigan that day. That game perfectly encapsulates what will happen if you let Tate sit comfortably in the pocket: he will kill you on laser-accurate throws long, short, and in-between.

The backup situation is dire. Manson is a senior who Iowa will try to avoid at all costs and the next quarterback on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Jake Christensen. Christensen was a touted recruit a couple years ago but an awful showing in the Army All-American game had many wondering whether his presence there was less because of his talent and more due to the tendency of Tom Lemming (in his last year of picking the rosters for the game) to wildly overrate players from Illinois even more than players considering Notre Dame. He might be okay down the road, but if pressed into service this year throats will constrict across the state.

Running Backs

Rating: 4.
Albert Young emerged from the vast morass of Iowa running backs with torn ACLs to crush opponents on his way to 1334 yards and plenty of hype, but his two games against actual run defenses sound a caution: he totaled 23 carries and 59 yards against Ohio State and Florida. There are many great backs who would have struggled to do better against those defenses, but those numbers indicate that without a proper hole to burst into Young is not a Fred Russell capable of materializing yards from seemingly nothing.

However, he is capable of taking those holes and ruthlessly exploiting them. Against Michigan Young was impressive, slashing through the MasseyGap (TM) time and again with decisive cuts and bursting past Michigan's oft-befuddled outside linebackers en route to 153 yards. He should do very well again this year behind an ornery offensive line stocked with what seems like six different guards.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Rating: 3. Clinton Solomon, Ed Hinkel, and Matt Melloy depart. Left behind are junior Herb Grigbsy's 25 catches, Brobdingnagian tight end Scott Chandler, and nothing else resembling experience. Senior Calvin Davis is projected to join Grigsby in the starting lineup but has struggled with injuries over the past two years and had only eight catches in '05. In general, MGoBlog is skeptical of journeyman seniors, especially at positions that see a lot of rotation, so it would be wise to examine Iowa's other options. Redshirt freshman Trey Stross is distinctly Caucasian and thus is guaranteed to be Iowa's annual Inexplicably Great White Receiver at some point in his career. It also helps that Stross displayed velvet hands and great leaping ability in high school. Another player to keep an eye out for: freshman James Cleveland, an early enrollee who lit up the spring game.

Fee fi fo fum.
The inexperience at wide receiver will be offset by the talent at tight end. Iowa loves the one-back, two-tight end ace sets I can never get to work in NCAA and has the personnel to threaten run or pass out of them. Chandler is fairly ponderous but giant and a good receiver. His 47 catches led Iowa a year ago. Second-stringer Anthony Moeaki, a highly touted recruit, played in every game as a freshman, catching eight passes. He will see plenty of time and two or three dozen catches by the end of the year.

Offensive Line

Rating: 4. There's more instability here than one might initially assume there would be with three returning starters, as Iowa can't seem to decide where anyone should play on the line. Right tackle Marshall Yanda started all last season but started out at left guard. Right guard Mike Elgin had a full year of starting at that position in '05 but was the starting center the year before. But they have nothing on senior Mike Jones, who could release a hit single titled Where is Mike Jones? The answer last year was, variously, "left tackle," "right tackle," and "left guard." This year -- at least for now -- he's the right tackle.

So those guys have a ton of experience if a fairly uncertain notion of where, exactly, they're supposed to line up before each play. Jones is the most talented, having burst into the starting lineup as a true freshman. He finds himself a preseason All Big Ten pick by The Sporting News (TSN, understandably confused, named him the fifth best guard in the country), Lindy's, and Blue Ribbon. Yanda and Elgin are both somewhere between competent to good. But there is the niggling issue of center and, oh, left tackle.

Those positions will be filled by two touted members of Iowa's monster 2004 recruiting class. Redshirt freshman Rafael Eubanks, a consensus four-star ranked the #13 offensive lineman by Scout and the #5 guard by Rivals, emerged as the starting center in the spring. True sophomore Dace Richardson is projected to start at left tackle. Richardson was even more touted than Eubanks and was clearly being groomed for the role the instant he stepped on campus, as Iowa chose to forgo his redshirt year in favor of spot plays in most of their games. A large portion of the Hawkeye's success this year relies upon how effective last year's crash course as a collegiate lineman was.


Last Year: Excellent against the run, bad against the pass. Iowa finished 22nd nationally in run defense and had two standout performances against Minnesota, who managed 129 yards as a team, and Wisconsin, who got all of 12. Possibly because of Iowa's tendency to crush tailback like bug, teams went to the air against the Hawkeyes and more often than not found success: Iowa was but 77th in pass defense efficiency and 96th in terms of yardage.

Defensive Line

Rating: 4. This was supposed to be a disaster zone after the loss of the entire '04 line. Freshmen and sophomores were to be thrust into the uncaring maw of the Big Ten and swallowed whole. This did not so much happen. There was certainly a dropoff -- let us remember that messrs Roth and Babineaux combined for 40 TFL a year ago -- but all told the defensive line did more than just survive.

Junior defensive ends Ken Iwebema and Bryan Mattison were both disruptive forces as sophomores, combining for 19.5 TFL and 11 sacks. Iwebema found his way on the the media's selections for first team All Big Ten. While that may say more about the media than Iwebema in a year that featured Tamba Hali, Lamarr Woodley, and Mike Kudla, it does indicate his impressive talent.

The defensive tackles were also fairly competent despite being undersized. Then-freshmen Matt Kroul and Mitch King held down the starting jobs all year and were not utterly destroyed. King was even kind of good at times with 10 TFLs. One does not hold Minnesota and Wisconsin's run games down with linebackers alone. Kroul and King kept Hodge and Greenway free all year.

A repeat of last year's performance will not be enough for the defensive line, however. Minus Hodge and Greenway and with shaky cornerbacks the line will have get more pressure on the quarterback against tough opponents than the did a year ago, when Iowa had one three yard sack against OSU and none against Michigan. If that happens again this year games against good opponents will dissolve into shootouts that Iowa would like to avoid.


Rating: 3. The Big Ten wishes Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway all the luck in the world in the NFL and encourages them to never, ever return. Replacing the two departed stars are EDSBS/SMQB All-Name Team candidates Mike Klinkenborg ("Der resistance is der futile, jah") and Mike Humpel (hur hur hur), both juniors who saw sporadic action a year ago. The functional Edmond Miles returns to start alongside the newcomers.

My flimsy excuse for posting this picture: Edmond Miles is the Hawkeye on the
right. Hey,
blame Google.

Much like last year's defensive line, there must be a dropoff from Hodge and Greenway to Klinkenborg and Humpel. The n00bs are unlikely to average thirteen tackles a game and even more unlikely to cause Pavlovian salivation amongst NFL GMs, but unlike last year's defensive line the new linebackers have cut their teeth against the Big Ten and shown themselves at least decent. Both players are getting raves from the coaches for being intelligent players ready to step in and not screw things up entirely, and I believe them since this is Kirk Ferentz we're talking about.

Not screwing stuff up is a good baseline, but it does shift more pressure onto Miles and the defensive line to make the plays that stop drives. Miles was no wallflower a year ago, hitting double digits in TFLs, and is a candidate to break out now that Iowa is clearly in need of another thumping badass. The linebackers won't be a liability.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 2. Iowa may not miss longtime starters Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson as much as you might expect. Iowa's pass defense wasn't that good with them: 96th in the country in yardage terms and 77th in efficiency. Some of that is probably attributable to a lack of quarterback pressure -- 2.1 sacks per game placed Iowa 68th nationally -- but most of the blame has to rest with the secondary.

In retrospect Johnson's placement on the All Big Ten first team seems to be more a product of longevity than quality: you started for three years on one of the Big Ten's better teams, so we assume you're good. For further reference see Lentz, Matt. Allen was only afforded honorable mention status and neither was drafted. So the dropoff from the duo to juniors Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey may not be great, but given the secondary's performance a year ago Iowa will want to shoot higher than mere maintenance.

I'm from Nebraska.
Better than maintenance may be hard to achieve, however. Adam Shada... well... is from Nebraska, if you know what I mean. He would have to buck an awful lot of history for a guy from Nebraska to become a standout corner on the collegiate level, especially as an unheralded recruit. Many cite his three interceptions from a year ago as reason to believe in his ability, but interceptions are usually fluky events and should not be relied upon for projection. Meanwhile, Godfrey was bouncing to and from safety as recently as last year and seems to have moved to corner because Iowa has no alternatives. It is always, always, always a bad sign when a player goes from backup safety to starting corner over the course of one offseason. Mediocrity here would be great.

Safety is more secure. Miguel Merrick and Marcus Paschal are both experienced seniors able in run support. Neither has the sort of range or playmaking ability you'd like in the ideal safety, but they're safe players who don't miss many tackles or assignments.

Special Teams

Kickers & Coverage

Rating: 5. Iowa and Ohio State must have a factory somewhere: Kaeding-replacment Kyle Schlicher was 17 of 21 a year ago and is one of the favorites for the Groza award this year. He's the best in the league.

Punter Andy Fenstermaker is an analogue of Michigan's Ross Ryan: the punts he gets off are often ugly, short ducks (84th in gross average), but they're difficult to return and thus the team's net numbers are acceptable (50th).

Since kickers are so much more important than punters and Fenstermaker is okay in net punting, the precious five is bestowed.


Non-Conference: I-AA snackycake Montana, a decent MAC foe in Northern Illinois, and two low-level BCS teams in Syracuse and Iowa State. Respectable-ish, though the biggest threat may well be Garrett Wolfe and company the week after the Hawkeyes' trip to Michigan.

Conference: Michigan State and Penn State are absent from the schedule, which is a small net benefit. More important is the timing of the Ohio State game, which is a night game at home immediately after a virtual bye against Illinois. OSU, meanwhile, will be coming off the Penn State grudge match. That game's homefield advantage may be worth five or six points.

Compounding the scheduling goodness is this fierce slate of away games:
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
The trip to Ann Arbor is the only thing resembling an actual crowd Iowa will face all year, and Michigan Stadium is only mildly intimidating minus the winged helmets that dwell within.

We're Sure About

Tate. He's the closest thing to Drew Brees since Drew Brees.

We Have An Idea About

The Defensive Line. What should have been a painful year of learning was instead fairly competent all around. All four starters return; Ferentz and Norm Parker have a proven track record of building terrifying linemen out of whole cloth; watch the eff out.

The Offensive Line Aside From Dace Richardson. A ton of experience save for center Eubanks, but he should be okay as a VHT in a position that's not all that demanding. Everyone else is going to be good.

We Have No Clue About

Dace Richardson. We do have some idea: VHT recruit under the Ferentz regime, but Richardson's performance very well could mean the difference between Drew Tate, Iowa Legend and Drew Tate, Damn Good But Frustrating. If Richardson is wobbly at some point and costs Iowa a game it could cost Iowa much more than that.

Cornerback. Even though it's been theorized that Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen weren't really all that good, Iowa isn't exactly bursting at the seams with candidates to replace them.

An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

Given the schedule and the talent the Hawkeyes have, a run to the national championship game is not out of the question. There's not a team on the schedule obviously better than Iowa and everyone remotely dangerous save Michigan must travel to Kinnick. 12-0 could happen. It wouldn't even be that surprising.

Worst Case

Maybe the run defense disintegrates without Greenway and Hodge, but I doubt it. If it does then some wonky corners could make the Iowa defense eminently perforable again. Throw in a lot of drops from the wide receivers, the complete implosion of Richardson, and a lot of bad luck... and Iowa's still very good with a favorable schedule. 9-3.

Final Verdict

Iowa was better than its record a year ago and returns the building blocks of a potentially great team in Tate, Young, and the defensive line. Replacing the wide receivers and linebackers will be a chore and some corners must turn up, but the tight ends should reduce the WR burden, the safeties should to likewise for the LBs, and the corners will probably get help from a ravenous defensive line.

As previously discussed, the schedule is a dream. Visits to Syracuse, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota all promise to feature more Iowa fans than opposition ones. The nonconference schedule is managable without being embarassing. The Hawkeyes miss two potentially dangerous teams in MSU and PSU. The only downers are a trip to Michigan and the shame that the national championship game is in Arizona instead of New Orleans, which prevents what would have been a beautiful joke about Tates and beads.

Wins: Montana, @ Syracuse, @ Illinois, @Indiana, Northwestern
Probable Wins: Iowa State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, @ Minnesota, OSU
Tossups: @ Michigan
Probable Losses: None
No Chance: None

Iowa gets OSU in the most favorable spot possible and catches the Buckeyes early in the season when their defense still figures to be breast-feeding. Iowa wins that game, loses to either Michigan or one of the "probable wins" category, and coasts to the Rose Bowl at 11-1.