I love the smell of bacon in the morning. It’s a lovely aroma. It permeates the entire house as the sound of the crackling oil wakes you from your slumber. It’s the perfect compliment to a glorious breakfast, which we all know is the most important meal of the day. Frankly, I don’t know what I’d do without a lovely side o’ bacon. Maybe throw in some delicious pork sausage, I suppose.
But what if that wasn’t an option either? What if there was NO pork option? None at all for, say, 4 whole years? Why, that might drive a man insane. Not only would it mean no bacon or sausage or pork chops or any of myriad other delicious treats, but it would mean I was a Minnesota Golden Gopher. And that would just be sad.
Instead, on this glorious Monday morning, I’m enjoying my bacon and basking in the glory of the 4th consecutive Hawkeye victory over Minnesota. And this one may have been unlike any other I’ve witnessed.
The game had it all. Not necessarily in a good way, but also not necessarily in a bad way. Just in a really, really weird way.
With a top-5 defense nationally coming in, we saw three new starters on defense, a mid-game change at MLB due to injury, 3 interceptions by true freshmen, 6 total turnovers, 740 total yards, a fake punt that failed miserably, a fake field goal that worked to perfection and 79 points scored. Phew! Catch your breath.
When things were going well on Saturday, they were going REALLY well. There’s perhaps no better example than the glorious, wacky, throwback trick play the Hawkeyes ran on 4th and goal from the 4 with 6 minutes to go in the first half. Up a touchdown (it was 14-7 at the time), it was a pretty gutsy call.
Much like the now infamous polecat call against Ohio State a year ago, this one is sort of “so crazy it just might work.” Rather than relying on the in-play design to catch the defense sleeping, it relies on completely confusing the defense at the outset to render them defenseless.
This one starts off like something out of a high school playbook where you’re just counting defensive players and if they line up in a way to potentially stop you, you just shift and kick the ball. Instead, Minnesota plays dumb. They adeptly put a man on Nate Weiting at the bottom of the screen, but for some reason they use 5 defenders to line up with the long snapper, punter and holder. That leaves only 5 defenders across from 7 Hawkeyes at the top of the screen.
Easy money, as the kids say.
Nearly as glorious as that fine play, was the performance we saw from the offense for much of this game. Well, not all the offense, but specifically the passing game. There were, of course, some low moments, but on the whole I think we saw what could have been a step forward for the Iowa passing game on Saturday.
Nate Stanley completed 23 of 39 passes for 314 yards. He hit 6 different receivers with Toren Young being the only one to get a target without a catch. Perhaps more importantly, three different wide receivers caught 14 passes for a combined 198 yards and 2 touchdowns.
But the biggest thing was the step forward we may have seen Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette take. Both have physical tools that Iowa has lacked on the edge over the years, but neither has had the consistency to make a significant impact.
We saw ISM flash against Iowa State a season ago, but he’s also had some drops this year and last. Brandon Smith appears to be everything you could want out of a receiver physically and has proven himself to be Iowa’s best blocking wideout, but has had his own problems coming down with catches.
All that seemed to end Saturday as Smith made one of the most spectacular catches I’ve ever seen.
I mean seriously, this kid has all the physical tools to be a serious weapon for Iowa, and if he can start gaining some confidence to assert himself like that and attack the ball, he’s going to be a force. Marvin McNutt is a legitimate comparison.
Pair that with the speed and athleticism ISM brings, and Iowa could really have something. We saw that in action Saturday as Stanley found a way to take advantage of that speed on a scramble play. Smith-Marsette did the rest.
I know, it’s one game, but if Saturday was a glimpse into what could be, I like what I see. With Fant and Hockenson at tight end, the trio of talented RBs, and Nick Easley running the slot with Smith and ISM on the outside, the toolbox is full. The question is whether we get good Nate and bad Nate.
Saturday we saw both. Good Nate, as already discussed, hit 6 different receivers. He threw for 314 yards and 4 TDs. Good Nate is damn near great Nate. But bad Nate had a fumble and a terrible interception. He missed some open throws that could have been points and his turnovers led directly to Minnesota points.
Put simply, if Iowa is going to reach its full potential this year, we need bad Nate to a long vacation and good Nate to reign supreme. I’m hopeful.
Where I have my concerns, and this would have been blasphemous to say a couple weeks ago, is with the defense.
Now, hear me out. This defensive line is one of the best pass rushing lines I can remember at Iowa. We saw them get after Minnesota and starting QB Zack Annexstad all day on Saturday. They got home for 5 sacks on Saturday, taking their season total to 18. I really don’t know how you block Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse and AJ Epenesa.
BUT, beyond the pass rush, I have some concerns. The rush defense has been great on the year, allowing less than 85 yards a game, but we saw the middle of that defensive front get exposed a bit by Wisconsin. Granted, nobody left on the schedule will have an offensive line as bruising or a back as talented as Wisconsin did, but if you’re attacking Iowa, the middle is a decent place to start.
However, I don’t expect Indiana to test the Hawkeyes up the middle, because that’s just not how they’re built. They are, however, built to attack Iowa through the air. And that also gives me some pause heading into next week.
We know Phil Parker loves to keep Iowa in their base defense as much as possible. The problem against a team like Indiana is that base 4-3 defense going against a base offense that’s run out of the shotgun with 3-4 wide receivers on the field. One of the linebackers, and sometimes two, are going to be asked to run with a receiver.
Most weeks that’s a tough ask. That’s especially tough without Nick Niemann, who will be sidelined for a couple more weeks. Making it even tougher is the apparent loss of middle linebacker Jack Hockaday, who departed Saturday’s game and spent the remainder on the sideline on crutches. Oh, and his backup and season opener starter Amani Jones will be out for the first half thanks to a targeting call with less than a minute to go in Saturday’s win.
So we’re looking at three starters this week who did not start opening week, or have never played the position they’ll be asked to play.
And that’s just the linebackers. We already saw Iowa play this week without both starting cornerbacks and we don’t know for certain they’ll be back next week. In the absence of Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins, it was an up and down day for freshmen Riley Moss and Julius Brents.
Each came down with an interception, and Moss hauled in two, but they also took their lumps. Moss certainly took more than Brents as Minnesota identified him early and seemed to pick on him for long stretches. It seemed like it might be time for a change when he redeemed himself with his first interception. The second half came with some additional lumps and another pick.
For Brents, he looked better to my untrained eye. He brings some physical attributes that Moss lacks (though Moss has legitimate track speed) with his length and that allowed him to make some very good plays, even if he had some of the freshman struggles you’d expect. He finished with a pair of passes broken up, as well as the interception.
I think each of these young guys is going to have a solid career at Iowa, but going up against an offense like Indiana’s has me worried that Iowa may be forced to rely on them so heavily again. Don’t get me wrong, getting reps this week will be tremendous for them, but I’m still nervous. Especially with the injury woes at linebacker.
The Hawkeyes are going to need that pass rush to get home early and often. They’ll need to throw Peyton Ramsey off his rhythm, force him to dink and dunk, and hold up in the red zone. Classic Iowa bend, don’t break defense. I have hope, but I need to see more to have faith.
If Iowa can’t keep the Hoosiers off the scoreboard, they’re going to have to put up points of their own. That’s where I do have some faith. We’ve seen Brian Ferentz make some calls we don’t exactly agree with, but all-in-all I remain more optimistic than most.
All the tools are there. The playcalling doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be competent. The Hoosiers are giving up 26 points a game (Iowa is scoring 30). If good Nate shows up, I have no doubts the Hawkeyes can get on the scoreboard early and often.
One thing I’d like to see is Iowa getting Toren Young more work in the second half. He’s the one-cut bruiser this offense needs down the stretch and a team like Indiana is perfect to wear down late. I love what Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent bring with their speed and quickness, but both seem to try stretching horizontally a bit much for my liking. The zone scheme is built on pushing the edge and then getting upfield when a crease presents itself. That’s where I think Young can be a battering ram late in the game.
Here’s hoping Iowa is able to overcome the injury woes on defense to hold the Hoosiers around 3 scores. I don’t think the offense will have a problem getting into the mid-20s. From there, give me a healthy dose of Toren Young to close the door, please.
Frankly, that seems like a recipe for success the rest of the way to me. There are only a couple of teams with anything resembling a defense remaining on the schedule. If Iowa can put points on the board early, let the defensive line pin their ears back and continue to rack up sacks and then put in the closer to milk the clock, I still think this team has a very good shot at winning 10+ games.
In the meantime, I’m going to be eating my pork and congratulating this senior class on going 4 years without losing to Iowa State or Minnesota. Who hates the team out east? Who cares?
Happy Monday. Go Hawks. Enjoy the pig for another year. Beat the Hoosiers.