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What We Learned from the Iowa Hawkeyes’ Upset Loss to NDSU

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When North Dakota State kicker Cam Pedersen hit a game-winning field goal as time expired on Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, it continued a streak of 6 straight victories against Power-5 FBS teams. Furthermore, it crushed any chance Iowa had of rejoining the College Football Playoff conversation, a year after they fell one drive against MSU short of that result.

Don’t be surprised if the internal Big Ten Conference memo looks like this:

Rule number 1 from Jim Delany: don’t schedule FCS schools anymore. We’re better than that, and we need to increase the strength of schedule across the board for the playoff committee.

Rule number 2 from Jim Delany: really REALLY don’t schedule North Dakota State anymore. The Bison are good enough to beat half our teams or more on a good day, and it’s not a good look, no matter how many consecutive FCS national championships that program wins (currently at 5).

All joking aside, this is one of many good reasons to rid this conference of games like this, where there is little upside and all the downside in the world. That being said, all credit to the Bison, who would definitely fit in with a jump to the FBS, assuming there’s a good fit for them in the future. Who wouldn’t want November trips to Fargo, after all?

What did we learn from this upset of a top-15 team, and perhaps the biggest FCS upset since Appalachian State-Michigan a decade ago? Let’s take a look.

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1. Iowa is highly vulnerable to strong interior running games

Count me among one of many who thought NDSU replaced enough players from last season that the depth would be a concern against a seeming top-tier FBS program like Iowa. Particularly against a strong running attack and a Kirk Ferentz offensive line, it seemed like Iowa would be able to wear down the Bison and then leverage that to long drives and scores in the second half.

Well, all of that was correct, except the teams. It was the Hawkeye defensive line, particularly the interior linemen, who failed to clog up rushing lanes throughout the game. Thanks to a lack of time of possession for the Hawkeyes, the Iowa defense was largely gassed in the fourth quarter when it needed a stop against the NDSU rushing attack.

The end result: 239 rushing yards for the Bison on 49 attempts, and nearly 37 minutes of time of possession. Both King Frazier (99 yards) and Lance Dunn (61 yards) found plenty of open space to keep drives alive in the second half. That is not a formula for winning, unless you are scoring quickly and often, and that was not the case for Iowa in this game.

With many teams in the Big Ten built to work the same type of offense, this is highly troubling for a team many pegged to win the West Division. The defensive line depth and interior play has to get better, and in a hurry, if the Hawkeyes are going to avoid more losses by teams following the game plan of the Bison.

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2. Easton Stick is no Carson Wentz, but he doesn’t have to be

In probably the biggest game of the season for the Bison, at least before the post-season, new quarterback Easton Stick had a reasonable performance. His modest numbers passing were 11/19 passing for 124 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception, along with 35 yards rushing on 11 attempts.

Those are not earth-shattering numbers, nor are they anything like what now-NFL quarterback Carson Wentz was doing last year. However, on a day where the defense jammed up the Iowa running game and NDSU dominated the line of scrimmage on offense, those numbers and lack of mistakes were good enough to win.

Stick is capable as a game manager of leading a team like this to another FCS national championship. That’s little comfort for Iowa and Big Ten fans looking to the “big boy” playoffs, but it is good news for that little phenomenon team in Fargo, North Dakota.

This performance and solid quarterback play also means NDSU will remain at or near the top of the FCS division for the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see where Stick goes from this performance, considering the big shoes he is filling.

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3. Greg Davis will be under a lot of heat moving forward

Before the 12-0 season, offensive play calling was a sore spot for many in the Iowa fan base. On many weekends, the game plan did not seem to make sense, and adjustments were not made to correct for opposing game plans. Those issues cropped up again against the Bison.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes ran the ball 10 times on 29 offensive plays in the first half. That turned out to not be enough, as NDSU held the clock for long stretches of time and wore down the Iowa defensive front by the 4th quarter. Granted, NDSU was playing aggressive and cheating more men towards the line of scrimmage on a few plays, but the passes attempted by C.J. Beathard and company were not executed well to take advantage of this defensive scheme.

At some point, such as halftime, the decision should have been made to give a break to the defense and make adjustments to be more effective and possession-oriented on offense. However, Iowa fared much worse in the second half, outside one long touchdown drive that took only 3 plays and less than 2 minutes off the clock in the 3rd quarter.

The Hawkeyes ended with a sickly 34 yards rushing and less than 250 yards offense, total.

Put simply, NDSU looked like the deeper and better team late in the game. Regardless of whether that’s true (it is not), the fact that it looks that way is an indictment of the scheme and play calling.

In other words, it’s a good thing Kirk Ferentz worked out a new contract extension deal and has his assistant coaches protected for a couple years, because otherwise you’d have to think Greg Davis would be the first out the door after 2016 (assuming things do not get better). He still might be invited to take his talents elsewhere, if he can’t get this team which is better than the 2015 team on paper to similar results.

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4. Iowa has been eliminated from competing for this championship trophy, but all other goals are still achievable

A bonus what we learned – even with one loss, Iowa has been eliminated from the College Football Playoff.

Sure, we counsel our readers and listeners often to take it easy on over-reacting to September results and first losses, but not this time. It does not matter that NDSU is a five-time defending national championship, as the playoff committee will not be able to get over a home FCS loss.

Bottom line: the committee doesn’t like FCS games enough to punish teams noticeably for scheduling them, let alone losing them. So, sorry Hawkeye fans, you are officially eliminated from the playoffs by the Bison.

That being said, this loss does not mean anything more than that for the Iowa program. The Big Ten championship goal is still totally in this team’s hands, as well as the ability to return for a better Rose Bowl performance or another major bowl game. As long as this team does not let this shocking loss hang over and cause another upset, such as at Rutgers next week, Iowa does not lose anything other than having to be the butt of a few jokes.

Don’t worry, Michigan survived this type of loss, and Iowa, you will too. As long as the problems discussed above get corrected in the next couple weeks, anyway.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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Hawkeyes Football

Predicting the 2018 Iowa Hawkeyes season

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There’s nothing worse than pundits who put out season record predictions and then can never tell you other than in generalities how they got there. 

It’s why every season we go game-by-game with you through each and every one of the Big Ten teams. Up today are the Iowa Hawkeyes, who are looking to upend bitter rival Wisconsin for the second time in three years. 

How does that hope play out in reality? Well, here’s how our Publisher, Andrew Coppens, sees it happening: 

Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button on our YouTube page! You don’t want to miss the rest in this series and our video work all throughout the 2018 Big Ten football season. 

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Hawkeyes Football

An early look at the 2018 Iowa Hawkeyes defense

Iowa faces another big transition, but this time it is on the defensive side of the ball. What does 2018 look like for the Hawkeyes defense.

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Kirk Ferentz returns as the dean of Big Ten coaches heading in to 2018, and that means the well-oiled machine that is the Iowa Hawkeyes program won’t be changing it m.o. much.

But, coming off a second mediocre season after a Big Ten title game appearance, what will 2018 bring for the Hawkeyes? Will it be a rise to the top of the West division or will they struggle against rising rivals like Minnesota and Wisconsin again?

We began to dive in to the Hawkeyes with a look at the 2018 offense, next up is a look at the other side of the ball.

Biggest Question Mark:

Can Iowa replace all of its starting linebackers?

One look at the depth chart at the end of the 2017 season shows the easy answer to the biggest question — Iowa losses all three end of season starting linebackers. Ben Niemann, Josey Jewell and Bo Bower are all gone from a tough Iowa defense in 2017.

Not only is that trio gone, but they have been at the core of this defense for a few years now. The trio combined for 305 tackles, 23.0 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, while also being the team’s top three tacklers on the year. Talk about tough acts to follow?

More worrisome is that there wasn’t a lot of production from the understudies this season. Amani Jones is the leading returning tackler at linebacker, and he had all of eight of them this season, same for potential starter at middle linebacker Kristian Welch. Are those two capable of stepping up? It’s a serious question to ask this offseason. But, neither are guaranteed starting minutes either.

No matter who ends up filling their shoes, it is going to be a tough act to follow in 2018. Do the Hawkeyes have the parts to get the job done in a defense that needs its linebackers to be assignment sure and tough?

Reason to Be Optimistic:

A veteran defensive line

While the linebacking group got a lot of attention in 2017, the performance of Iowa’s d-line was equally impressive and almost all of it will be returning in 2018. Three of the top four players on the tackles for loss list were defensive linemen in 2017 and only Nathan Bazata and his 6.5 tackles for loss are gone.

Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson are great building blocks, but freshman A.J. Epenesa could be the real star of this group. He started off his career at Iowa with just 15 tackles in 13 games, but he also managed to rack up 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in that same time frame. He may have a hard time cracking the starting lineup with Hesse and Nelson entrenched at the end positions, but it is a nice problem to have compared to what is happening behind them.

There will be an interesting competition between former backup defensive tackles Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore in replacing Bazata as a starter in 2018. Both had good years in backup roles, again a nice problem to have.

When you are reloading or rebuilding at linebacker, it certainly helps to have the guys in front of them capable of picking up some slack, and that’s what Iowa has in its defensive line for 2018.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

No Josey Jewell

While the early loss of cornerback Joshua Jackson the NFL draft isn’t ideal, Iowa has shown it can overcome the loss of elite secondary players before. Desmond King was great, but Iowa hardly missed a beat once he graduated and Jackson had a lot to do with that. We’ve already talked about the loss of all three starting linebackers, but only one of them stands above the crowd and his name is Josey Jewell.

He was the heart and soul of the Hawkeyes defense for the past two seasons and the quintessential Hawkeye of this generation. Just how important was Jewell to the Iowa program? Try replacing 433 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 6 interceptions and 26 passes defensed for one’s career.

That alone would be enough, but Jewell was an invaluable leader too. Where the leadership comes from is almost as important as the raw production, and with all the transition happening at linebacker heading in to 2018 that loss of leadership is going to be huge. If the Hawkeyes don’t find the kind of leadership Jewell provided there could be trouble for the Hawkeyes in a suddenly improving West division.

Projected Starting Lineup:

DE: Anthony Nelson, Jr.
DT: Matt Nelson, Sr.
DT: Cedrick Lattimore, Jr.
DE: Parker Hesse, Sr.
OLB: Aaron Mends, Sr.
MLB: Kristian Welch, Jr.
OLB: Amani Jones, So.
CB: Michael Ojemudia, Jr.
FS: Jake Gervase, Sr.
SS: Amani Hooker, Jr.
CB: Matt Hankins, So.

Overall Outlook:

It will be very interesting to see how the Hawkeyes regroup from the loss of all three starting linebackers and half of its starting secondary. Luckily, Iowa has shown a history of being able to build talent behind the scenes and when it comes their turn they show up.

However, this season feels a bit different, especially at linebacker. The backups played sparingly and are very young overall. This offseason is going to be key to their development, but I’m not sold they have the immediate answers there and that has always been a bad sign during the Ferentz era.

We’ll see if the line can hold this group up while people are learning on the job behind them. But, keep a keen eye on the development at linebacker and safety this offseason. If there are questions still left following spring ball, this could be a classic case of the third year following a big season slide from Ferentz-led Hawkeye programs.

This offseason will test the plug-and-play mantra unlike just about any in the Ferentz era that I can personally remember.

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Hawkeyes Football

An early look at the 2018 Iowa Hawkeyes offense

Iowa’s offense loses a key piece to the puzzle in 2018, but can returning players pick up the slack and lead Hawkeyes back to top of West division?

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Kirk Ferentz returns as the dean of Big Ten coaches heading in to 2018, and that means the well-oiled machine that is the Iowa Hawkeyes program won’t be changing it m.o. much.

But, coming off a second mediocre season after a Big Ten title game appearance, what will 2018 bring for the Hawkeyes? Will it be a rise to the top of the West division or will they struggle against rising rivals like Minnesota and Wisconsin again?

We begin to dive in to the Hawkeyes with a look at the 2018 offense

Biggest Question Mark:

Where’s the star power?

Iowa may never be accused of being a sexy program, especially on offense, but that doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes haven’t had their fair share of stars in the past.

Maybe that person is Noah Fant? The Hawkeyes tight end did lead his position group in touchdown receptions with 11 on the season. But, he won’t sneak up on anyone in 2018 and he had 30 receptions for 494 yards to go with those 11 touchdowns. But, how sexy is the tight end position if you aren’t winning divisions and conference titles?

Maybe the answer is Nate Stanley? He did have 26 touchdown passes in 2017. On the flip side, the first-year starter also barely completed over 55 percent of his passes.

Maybe the answer is Ivory Kelly-Martin, who led the team in rushing average at 9.2 yards per carry? Then again, that was his freshman season and most of his 20 carries came in complete garbage time.

I think you get the point here. Where is the star that will take Iowa back to a division title and a trip to Indianapolis? Finding an answer or two to the star-power question will go a long way towards making that division title possible. I just don’t know who that person really is going to be.

Reason to Be Optimistic:

Nate Stanley has the tools to be great

Whenever you transition from a long-time starter to someone new, things can be difficult for an offense. The good news in 2017 was that first-time starter Nate Stanley didn’t show any signs of being overwhelmed by being the starting quarterback for the first time.

He did enough to nearly help his team upset Penn State and was the reason for Iowa dominating Ohio State in the biggest upset in the Big Ten in 2017. Stanley ended the year completing just 55.8 percent of his passes for 2,437 yards — which won’t jump off the page at you — but he had a healthy 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions.

That last part of the stat line is the good news. So is the fact that he completed 63.5 percent of his passes for an average of 256 yards per game and 12 touchdowns against zero interceptions versus Iowa State, Penn State and Ohio State.

Sure, there were inconsistencies too (see that horrible Wisconsin game). But, how much of that was on him and how much of that was on a group of receivers and tight ends that most diehard fans around the Big Ten couldn’t name? In the end, Stanley showed that he was up to the task of filling C.J. Beathard’s big shoes.

Take the lessons learned from 2017 and build on it in 2018 and Stanley has the potential to be the best quarterback in the West division. That should be a good place for the Hawkeyes of 2018 start.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

Akrum Wadley isn’t around anymore

Iowa, much like its counterparts at Nebraska and Wisconsin, is always at its best when it has a dynamic running back and a dominating offensive line. One could say the offensive line wasn’t up to par in 2017, but they did have that dynamic running back in Akrum Wadley.

He finished last season with 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns. That accounted for 61.2 percent of Iowa’s rushing total and 10 of the 17 rushing touchdowns this team had in 2017.

That’s a lot of production to lose, and then you add in the graduation of the second-leading rusher, James Butler, and you are left with a lot of question marks at a vital position group. Toren Young could be a good option, but as a redshirt freshman Young managed just 193 yards on 45 carries in seven games of action. There is fellow youngster Ivory Kelly-Martin to look at too, as he had 184 yards on just 20 carries.

I’m not saying there isn’t potential here, but there’s a big difference between beating up on the backups of non-conference opponents and the pounding of a Big Ten season. Can Young and Kelly-Martin parlay good experience in backup roles in to consistent production when they are the only ones that can be counted on?

Projected Starting Lineup:

QB: Nate Stanley, Jr.
RB: Toren Young, So.
FB: Brady Ross, Jr.
WR: Nick Easley, Sr.
WR: Brandon Smith, So.
TE: Noah Fant, Jr.
LT: Alaric Jackson, So.
LG: Keegan Render, Sr.
C: James Daniels, Sr.
RG: Levin Paulson, Jr.
RT: Tristan Wirfs, So.

Overall Outlook

The 2018 offense is hard to read for the Hawkeyes. On the one hand it has some really nice parts to it, on the other hand are those parts better than what the competition in the West division has? It’s hard to say that is the case in any meaningful way.

A lot of what happens for the Hawkeyes offense in 2018 is likely to hinge on the continued improvement of the offensive line. There is some hope there with names like James Daniels, Alaric Jackson and especially young tackle Tristan Wirfs. If this group makes the necessary steps in the offseason, Iowa’s offense may just be able to compete.

There are a lot of ifs and maybes associated with the Hawkeyes offense, and this offseason is going to be key to deciding the near and long-term direction of this side of the ball. Let’s see if young players can make the jumps needed to make this offense more competitive in a quickly changing West division.

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Boilers Football

Early Big Ten results remind us why bowl season matters

Don’t tell Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue that their bowl games and wins were meaningless, because they sure weren’t.

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Bowl season is usually a cruel, cruel mistress to the Big Ten. Let’s just say hopes always start high and results crash fans of the teams in the conference back down to earth quickly.

There are a myriad of reasons and excuses often given, and some of them are valid (or at least used to be). Examples usually include the fact that 90 percent of the games are played well outside of the Big Ten footprint and the old reliable of huge disparities in caliber of opponents (addressed a bit by the last change in bowl alignment).

So, as the 2017-18 bowl season got underway it was hard to expect much from the Big Ten. After all, the conference teams managed to go just 3-7 last year and only one of those three wins was very meaningful (Wisconsin over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl).

Then the games were played and we here in Big Ten country have been reminded just how meaningful bowl season really is.

Purdue not only got to a bowl game, but it won its bowl game against another offense-first team in Arizona. Sophomore quarterback Elijah Sindelar overcame injury and threw for nearly 400 yards (396 to be exact) and four touchdowns, while running back D.J. Knox had 101 yards on 11 carries.

If you believe bowl games don’t matter, just talk to anyone on the Purdue or Arizona sidelines following that game. Going 7-6 in season one under Jeff Brohm was huge, but most importantly it sets new expectations for the program’s floor going forward.

When is the last time there were anything but dreadful expectations surrounding the Purdue football program? If anything, that should tell you just how meaningful bowl games are.

But, it was just Purdue’s three-point win out in the Foster Farms Bowl that showcased the importance of winning so-called meaningless bowl games.

Michigan State not only rebounded from a 3-9 season to go 9-3, but it just beat a fellow top 25 program in Washington State. Sure, you can point to Luke Falk being out of the game, but the Spartans looked like the Spartans that climbed their way to the College Football Playoff just two years ago again.

Dantonio’s crew pounded the ball down the throat of Wazzu’s smaller defensive line and that led to LJ Scott putting up 110 yards on just 18 carries. Meanwhile, the Spartans defense held the Cougars high-scoring offense to just 17 points in the 42-17 win in the Holiday Bowl.

Think MSU will be overlooked by bowl games in the future again?

Even Iowa, who had the most maddening up and down season of any Big Ten team, pulled off a win in the opening game for a Big Ten team this bowl season.

It wasn’t always pretty, but in a matchup of two 7-5 teams, what else would you expect? Most importantly, the game showed that Iowa could win a close game against a quality defense. For a team full of young players at key positions, it’s a win that builds momentum heading in to the offseason.

All three wins set up increase expectations for next season and there’s nothing better than expecting quality football and increased competition within the Big Ten at all.

Of course, the rest of the Big Ten teams in bowl games have some huge matchups to play in.

It’s a nice start to reversing the trend of horrible bowl seasons for the conference, but there’s a lot of work still to be done for the rest of the conference. With three teams in New Year’s Six bowl games, winning them puts the conference at the forefront of the offseason discussion and as much as we hate to admit it — perception is reality these days in the college football world.

That was the lesson we were supposed to take away from the College Football Playoff committee’s selection of Alabama over an actual conference champion, right?

With a snub from the College Football Playoff committee this season, a huge turnaround in bowl game results would mean a whole lot to the reputation – fair or not – of the conference going forward.

Let’s see if the early momentum can be maintained by the big dogs of the B1G.

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