BHGP is less college football blog than insane asylum for the most deranged and fanatical group of fans on the internet. Comment threads routinely go into the hundreds and things get so wildly off topic that the site had to start a semi-daily open thread (called Hamsterdam, which is so totally awesome) so that the commenters could stay on topic when it came to comment threads attached to articles.
Needless to say, this kind of devotion and discussion is what every blog manager anywhere wants to see.
Anyway, as part of Iowa week I talked with the warden of the nuthouse, Patrick Vint, and asked him a few questions about Iowa football. His responses were nothing short of amazing.
If you don't regularly stop by BHGPs to get a taste of the madness you are doing yourself a major disservice. That site encapsulates the very best of college sports fanaticism, and produces some of the best writing on the network.
Iowa's 2010 season saw the Hawkeyes lose five games by one score or less and the 2011 season was marked by a few closely contested, disappointing losses (and one frustrating victory over Michigan that we will never mention again). These late game struggles stand in stark contrast to the 2008 and 2009 squads which thrived on closing out tight games. Why has Iowa had more struggles the past couple years when the game is on the line late? Is it offense or defense that has been the bigger issue, or does Kirk Ferentz have too much of that NFL "play not to lose" in him?
Play not to lose doesn't begin to describe it. We talked about it last year, after Ferentz played for overtime in a tie game on the road against ISU with the ball, 1:15 to play, two timeouts, and a defense that hadn't made a stop in three quarters. Ferentz's record in one-possession games since 2005 has been atrocious, matched only by Clemson among the nation's 20 best teams over the past five years. We've identified a couple of reasons why. First, he's been here so long that his "fool me once" mentality can paralyze him when something bold is needed; many of his interviews have become discussions of things he screwed up in the past, almost all of them because he took a risk and it didn't pay off (his newest tendency, to have our punt returner fair catch almost everything, is from a fumbled punt late in the first half of a 2010 game). Second, he's a really bad clock manager. Lots of delays in getting plays called, lots of inexplicable playcalling. His two great late-game moments were the bomb to beat LSU at the 2005 Capital One Bowl, which only happened because he forgot to call timeout after a false start penalty and left Drew Tate with no choice but to chuck it deep, and the 2009 Michigan State win, where they had to draw up a slant play on the back of a napkin because McNutt told them MSU would not cover it.
The other thing to remember is that the 2008 and 2009 teams really didn't play that many close games. What those teams played, for the most part, were two-possession games where the opponent got a late score to make it close. Iowa is deadly in those situations; Ferentz has only lost two games in thirteen years where he had a two-possession lead with 8:00 to play. Give Iowa a chance to make you drive the field, milk some clock between the tackles, and then make you drive the field again, and Ferentz will beat you. But put him in a situation where he has to tactically beat you for 8:00 and Iowa loses nearly 2 of 3 (since 2005).
How successful do you think the Iowa passing attack will be this season. James Vandenberg's most sought after target, Marvin McNutt, is gone and leaves a large hole to fill in the offense. Vandenberg is back and should improve as a decisionmaker -- he was a solid but unspectacular fifth in the conference in PE rating, and 41st nationally -- but will Iowa's other receivers be able to step up and fill the void left by McNutt? Can Vandenberg improve enough to raise the passing game from average (234 ypg, 59th in the nation in 2011) to a top-25ish unit?
Iowa's passing attack should improve this season, more as a result of a new coordinator and another year of wide receiver development than from anything else. Iowa's old passing game made it difficult for a quarterback to post high efficiency ratings: Lots of short passes as third or fourth options, but largely into spots where the player (1) was a tight end incapable of breaking it big, and (2) was placed in a position where the ability to make a play was minimized. Receivers ran long routes, meaning long passes, meaning a lot of breakups. Vandenberg's numbers as a first-year starter were better than Stanzi, better than Jake Christensen, better than every Ferentz quarterback not named Drew Tate or Brad Banks. I would expect Vandenberg's completion percentage to jump 8-10 points just by virtue of the new offense and another few points just from experience. Throw in another year of development for guys like Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley under former Michigan receiver coach Soup Campbell and a big new safety blanket in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, and the passing game should be fine.
The exploits of AIRBHG are well known all over the conference at this point, but what has his (her?) off season meddling done to the Iowa backfield going into 2012? How does Iowa replace Marcus Coker, who accounted for almost all of the offense's rushing yards in 2011 (115 ypg for Coker, 137 ypg for Iowa as a team), when even with Coker singlehandedly carrying the rushing load the Hawkeyes were last in the conference in ypg? Are you breaking out in hives just thinking about the cold, black nothingness that exists where the RB depth chart once stood? Are you numb from years of this kind of misfortune being normal around Iowa City? How does Iowa move forward? I mean that literally: how does Iowa move the ball with no one to hand it off to?
I honestly have no idea.
Let's start here: It's not quite as bad as it looks. Yes, Coker is probably the worst transfer of the Ferentz era, both in terms of player importance and the circumstances surrounding his departure, but a deep look at his production from last season shows he wasn't exactly the most dynamic running back Iowa's ever had. Bill Callahan's work on running backs at Football Study Hall shows it nicely. He examined the expected points by an average running back with a given number of carries, then compared that to the actual results of practically everyone. Monte Ball and Denard killed it; Monte added nearly 10 touchdowns of value over a replacement halfback. Marcus Coker, with his 1384 yards on 280 carries, added a whopping 4.8 points. He was a workhorse, yes, but not a particularly productive one.
Nevertheless, his departure leaves a huge hole in the backfield again (this is the fifth year in a row that Iowa will enter August camp with a different starting halfback). Ferentz used to hesitate to use freshmen at halfback, mostly because they didn't yet know how to pick up a blitz, but those concerns went out the window a few years ago and have never returned. Greg Davis has also openly stated that the running back will be used as a receiver in the passing game, an idea completely rejected by Ken O'Keefe in the last half-decade. There will be the annual game of footsie with a rarely-used walk-on or long-forgotten upperclassman project (the name DeAndre Johnson will be thrown around a lot), but by Big Ten season, I fully expect Iowa to be using true freshman Barkley Hill at running back and sophomore Damon Bullock as a third-down back and receiver from the backfield. And they'll somehow get 1200 yards on the ground, because they always do.Okay, so you've had a few months to talk yourself into Greg Davis as a viable option at offensive coordinator, tell me why I should believe his tenure at Iowa will go any better than the end of his tenure leading the Texas offense. Is James Vandenberg a good enough quarterback to run Davis's offense (as it seems Davis is dependent on better than average quarterback play, and his offenses struggle when that isn't there -- i.e. are led by Garrett Gilbert)?
We had our own Garrett Gilbert once, a four-star U.S. Army All-American named Jake Christensen who played one season and got replaced by Ricky Stanzi. He wasn't average, and if you watch the Garrett Gilbert season, you'd clearly see Gilbert wasn't average either. That 2007 Iowa offense was awful despite having a couple of four-year contributors at halfback and a decent defense backing them up. I'm not sure Davis -- or O'Keefe, or Chip Kelly, or fucking Batman -- can really make an offense work when the quarterback play is awful. It's the most important position in sports other than "NHL Playoff goalkeeper" and when it goes bad, it takes everything with it.
So if Garrett Gilbert walks through the door, then no, we're not expecting Davis to make it work. The good news, at least for this year, is that we know Vandenberg is beyond that level of incompetence based solely on his previous performance. His understudy, Jake Rudock, has a decent pedigree and good early returns on his limited performance to date. Iowa stocked up on quarterbacks in February, too, adding a JUCO transfer and a true freshman with NFL bloodlines. Could we survive Jake Christensen 2: Electric Boogaloo? No, but fortunately, I don't think we will have to. If we merely get "2010 Vandenberg" we'll be OK.
On the other side of the ball Iowa has to replace the leadership of Norm Parker, who successfully created an impressive defensive identity and continually built very good defenses that were exceptional in their fundamental soundness. Does the philosophy change with Norm's son Phil taking over? Will Iowa finally line up in something other than a standard 4-3 from time to time? What can we expect the future to look like in Iowa City?
I'm not going to spoiler my post for Thursday at BHGP (tune in at noon for the exciting conclusion!) on what I'm beginning to expect we'll see, but I fully expect Iowa to spread its wings on defense with Norm gone. Norm (and, let's face it, Kirk Ferentz) had adopted the 4-3 cover 2/quarters set with a zeal usually reserved for religious converts, and it worked well for Iowa when the defensive line could generate a pass rush and the safeties showed some ability to play against the run and jump at passes in the seam and down the sideline. Kirk's not going to allow the defense to get too far away from the base 4-3 of the Norm era -- the day that Iowa runs a 3-3-5 against an offense that needs less than 15 yards for a first down is the day we send Kirk to the farm -- but he has shown some inclination to open things up this year, so long as they match his pro-style mentality. Phil Parker (who actually isn't Norm's son, though we all thought it at one point or another) (Ed note: My bad, I guess letting your research consist of "I thought I heard someone say that one time" is a FAIL) started his coaching career with Nick Saban before joining the Iowa staff, and I would expect him to draw as heavily from that experience as he will from his time with Norm. As much as Saban's defenses are typical four-man front, run-destroying, pro-style juggernauts, they are not the base zone coverage schemes we're used to seeing. They are aggressive. They get after the quarterback without conceding the run or leaving the secondary out of position to defend the deep ball. They should be exactly what Ferentz wants. Iowa's still going to run virtually everything out of a four-man front, and they will still rely heavily on the cover 2, but don't be surprised to see some cover 2 man, some cover 1, a bit of press coverage, and yes, believe it or not, the zone blitz from time to time.
It wasn't long ago that Iowa featured one of the best defensive lines in the conference (and arguably the country). Now, all those stars have graduated and Iowa is left with a bunch of who-dat seniors and green freshmen. Is there enough talent along the defensive line to field an average run defense, and will the back seven be able to take the added pressure of covering up the line's youth and inexperience? Know that your rationalizing will help me talk myself into Michigan's similarly bleak situation along the defensive line going into 2012.
At the beginning of the year, the answer is a pretty resounding "no". The upperclassmen listed in the depth chart were guys who couldn't break through on last year's sad sack defensive line, and the idea that a fifth-year senior is suddenly going to find his way is more fairytale that proven event. Nevertheless, Ferentz always defaults to the upperclassmen until an underclassman's play in practice forces his hand. That doesn't usually happen in August, and so I'd expect the first couple of weeks to be rough. Eventually, though, the talent of youngsters like Darian Cooper, Dominic Alvis (who should be starting with the old guys in week one if he's healthy), Bud Spears, and Riley McMinn should win out. Iowa's also adding a couple of mammoth freshmen at defensive tackle who could factor immediately, depending on how that mass is situated when they get here.
There's talent here, but it's young talent that needs to be harnessed. It's why Ferentz took his best "good job, good effort" guy, offensive line coach Reese Morgan, and moved him to defensive line to replace the notoriously foulmouthed Rick Kaczenski (who left to join soul mate Bo Pelini in Lincoln). One of the interesting developments of this offseason has been the story of former Iowa commit John Raymon. Raymon had been brought in as a defensive lineman from the Philadelphia area and had more than a little positive chatter around him during August camp. He then abruptly left the program. Raymon said it was homesickness and family obligations (his girlfriend had their first child in December), but when Kaczenski left and Morgan moved to defensive line, Raymon quietly enrolled at Iowa Western Community College, an Iowa transfer factory that's conspicuously far from Philadelphia. The unorthodox move (and moving an 11-year offensive line coach to defense is certainly that) was made for this group, the young guys who needed some positive reinforcement. If it pays off, Iowa could be starting three or four underclassmen on the defensive line by October 1.
Iowa pulled in a solid recruiting class for 2012 with some high level talent. What players do you think will see the field early? Do you expect some to be forced into action, or earn the time over established players? Is Greg Garmon going to hit any snags getting to campus because of his recent run in with the law?
Because of AIRBHG, any incoming Iowa halfback has to be ready to play on Day One, and I expect nothing less from this year's two big-name halfback recruits, Garmon and Barkley Hill (more on Garmon's current troubles below), as well as former scholarship halfback and now-walk-on Michael Malloy. A receiver could bust into the rotation with a good August camp, but there isn't much room for freshmen at quarterback, offensive line, or tight end. On the defensive side, a properly-proportioned defensive lineman (like Chicago product and Twitter drama queen Jaleel Johnson) could get into the mix early. Also, Iowa's pool of linebackers is awfully shallow, so a freshman could get in if the injury bug hits (likely Cass Tech product Laron Taylor). Some guys will get some work on kick coverage and kickoff duty, but as is so often the case with Iowa, at least half will redshirt.
Garmon's situation is difficult to read at the moment (he was picked up for possession of marijuana a couple of weeks ago). Two years ago, I would say that he'd be back in good standing by mid-September, but the Iowa administration (not Ferentz, not even the athletic director Gary Barta, but school president Sally Mason) has not been kind to athletes in trouble in recent years. A prized wrestling transfer (who many Iowa fans believe could have won the Hawkeyes another national championship last year) committed to Iowa, only to be denied admission because of an incident where he allegedly spit on a policeman. Marcus Coker was effectively shown the door for being accused of sexual assault, even though there was not enough evidence to charge him with any crime. And these are only the instances where the stories are public; there are many more that have not been publicized. Early in her tenure as Iowa president, Mason nearly lost her job when the athletic department and her subordinates botched the investigation of an alleged sexual assault involving football players, and Mason's not about to go through that again. It would be extremely harsh, but I wouldn't be stunned if Garmon never makes it to Iowa City by presidential fiat.
Iowa, even back in the latter days of Hayden Fry, has been a team of peaks and valleys. While the bad times usually don't see Iowa bottom out -- Iowa has only finished the regular season under .500 five times in the last 30 years -- The Hawkeyes have also struggled to string double-digit win seasons together for more than two or three years at a time. Is Iowa maxed out as a program, only capable of putting together two or three year runs where everything goes right, or is there another level that Iowa can reach where it consistently competes for conference titles without the regular backslides? Is Kirk Ferentz capable of taking Iowa up to that next step?
Iowa hit its peak from 2002 through 2004, and for good reason: Fry had been effectively unable to recruit for a couple of seasons prior to his 1998 departure, and Ferentz arrived to find the cupboard as bare as it had been in 20 years. Ferentz signed a couple of classes and threw them to the wolves, and by 2002, those grossly overmatched freshmen and sophomores were grizzled veterans like Eric Steinbach, Robert Gallery, Abdul Hodge, and Chad Greenway. It was a team built on experience and development, and it won 32 games in three years. Iowa faded for a couple of years while another class got situated, and by the middle of 2008, the guys who had been getting pounded through 2007 were doing the pounding, leading to a ridiculous streak where Iowa won thirteen games in a row and fifteen out of sixteen through 2008-2009. That team didn't perform as expected in 2010 for a number of reasons, but we're now in the third act. THis year could be rough for the Hawkeyes; there's a lot of youth in both lines, and Iowa's built on the play of both lines. But 2012's pain is going to lead to 2014's pleasure. There is no next step for Iowa, because the talent level of incoming players is never going to be where Ohio State or Michigan sit, but those peaks every three or four years are just as high as any other program would hope to achieve, and it's all that Iowa fans can really hope for.