Let's face it, if we're going to be the team we are expected to be on paper we have to win the first four games against Toledo, Eastern Illinois, Central Michigan, and Minnesota. A loss in those four games probably diminishes our chances of getting a win in the next three against Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan. Any loss in those four would therefore likely mean a 3-4 record coming into the Iowa game.
Winning all four though sets the stage for taking this year from average to special. I don't think there is any serious chance of us being 7-0 going into the game, but 6-1 is certainly possible with 5-2 being more likely. If the program itself is going to take a step forward from the struggles of the past few seasons then we have to demand at least one win in the three game stretch before Iowa, and we need to be at least competitive in the other two games if not grab another one of them. Going 0-3 in that stretch will tell me that we still cannot play up in weight class, and that maybe it will be time to move another direction.
I admit we have been spoiled a bit under Tiller by comparison to the Akers and Colletto years, but the time has come to move forward. You don't play the game to be average and make mid-tier bowl games every year. You play to compete for championships. I appreciate what Tiller has done in West Lafayette, and if he can turn the corner this season hat is fantastic, but we have to stop wondering what would have happened if Kyle Orton had held on to that ball against Iowa and start turning things around now. If we're 4-3 or worse coming into this Iowa game we're fighting just to make a bowl again this year. If we're better, then we can start thinking about playing on New Year's Day again possibly with a win.
Last season for the Hawkeyes:
I think Iowa as a program is reaching a point that we did a few years ago. They have had some great success under Kirk Ferentz in sharing a conference championship twice and going to a BCS bowl (in 2002), playing in a few other New Year's Day bowls like the Outback and Capitol One, but have stepped back into the middle tier of bowls lately. They are only 13-12 the last two years, but two of those wins have been over us. In reality, their stretch from 2002-2006 isn't much different from our 1999-2004 stretch.
I expected Iowa to win the Big Ten last year and probably drank a little too much of the Drew Tate Kool-Aid. The Hawkeyes started 4-0 with wins over Montana, Syracuse, Iowa State, and Illinois, but fans had to be concerned with beating Syracuse in overtime. Iowa struggled mightily in that game, and it was a precursor for the rest of the year. From that point forward Iowa went 2-7, beating only us and Northern Illinois to barely qualify for a bowl game. The turning point was a 38-17 loss to Ohio State at home in a highly hyped game that many Iowa fans felt would be the statement of a big year. Iowa recovered to kill us the next week, but then lost games to Indiana, Northwestern, and Minnesota. A team as strong as they were had no business losing these games. How else do you explain them beating us by 30 points, then turning around and losing three games to teams we handled without too much trouble?
Last year's 47-17 loss in Iowa City was probably the worst we had played all season long. It's disappointing to know that we played solid teams like Wisconsin, Penn State, and Notre Dame better than we did Iowa with the way the Hawkeyes finished the season. We gave up 539, 47 points, and we were pushed around all day.
Iowa should be about 5-2 coming into our game with wins over Northern Illinois, Syracuse, Iowa State, Indiana, and Illinois, but losses at Penn State and Wisconsin. They also get the break we've recently had with now Michigan or Ohio State. We'll be in about the same position as them in the Big Ten standings come October 20th, so this one will likely be for bowl positioning.
One big advantage we seem to have on our schedule this year no one seems to be mentioning is the number of teams we are facing with new quarterbacks. Some, like Notre Dame, are strong recruits, while others, like Minnesota, are less heralded. For the fourth time in five games we'll face a green QB as Jake Christiensen will be given the reigns of the Iowa offense full time this year. Of the new quarterbacks we will face however, he probably has the most experience. Christiensen started a game last year in place of the injured Tate, and completed 23 of 35 passes for 285 yards and a pair of TD's to go with a pair of interceptions in five more games. He's a good guy, but Iowa will miss Tate's leadership for a little while. In what may be a welcome relief for us Christiensen is not a running quarterback, so that element of danger is taken away a bit.
The strength of Iowa will be its running game, and once again our front seven needs to be ready after getting pushed around in Iowa City last year. Of all the poor showings against the run last season Iowa may have been the worst, as we were never able to get any kind of a push against their offensive line. This year the line is a bit of a question mark early, and may be a tad undersized. Dace Richardson at left tackle is the best performer at 6'6" 305 pounds, and the other side looks to be anchored by 6'7" 305 pound Kyle Calloway. Rafael Eubanks controls things in the middle as one of the top centers in the Big Ten. The other two positions are a bit of question mark right now and will get settled as the season progresses. As many as 10 guys are competing for starting spots along the line, so the lineup in game one could be vastly different than the one we see in West Lafayette.
Running behind that line will be Albert Young and Damian Sims, who split time last year for more than 1,400 yards. Young is a proven talent who had a 1,334 yard season in 2005, but has struggled with injuries since. We didn't see him last year, but Sims ran for 155 yards and 2 TD's against us. Sims is the home run hitter who has the speed to break off a big run from time to time. Paving their way will be fullback Tom Busch, who has primarily been used as a bulldozer in his career but has been known to catch a pass or two in goal line situations, as he did last year in our game.
Probably the biggest reason Iowa struggled last year was its passing game on the receiving end. Dominique Douglas led all true freshmen in the country last year with 49 catches and totaled 654 yards. Andy Brodell appears to be the other top returning pass catcher, who had 159 yards receiving in each of the final two games last year against Minnesota and Texas. Look for Iowa to use its passing game more to compliment the running game rather than throwing the ball all over the field. The receiving options are dangerous though and cannot be ignored.
Iowa's defense is one that is not flashy, but very rarely makes mistakes and because of that keeps the team in games. This year's unit appears to be no exception, and should look a lot like last year's unit. Eight starters return from a unit that was good, but not great last year. Much like our own unit, they will look to improve by forcing more turnovers and getting more pressure in the backfield.
Generating that pressure up front will be a defensive line that has everyone back, but didn't do a whole lot. Still, they should be improved this year. Ken Iwebema has the size at 6'4" 267 pounds to be a great rushing end, and Mitch King generated 5.5 sacks from one of the defensive tackle position last year. Redshirt Freshman Adrian Clayborn is also a highly-touted recruit who will get into the rotation as an end this year. What the line has in experience it lacks in overall size, and if our big line can handle them we should be able to move the ball.
Iowa has produced some quality linebackers of late, and middle linebacker Mike Klinkenberg appears to be next in line. Klinkenberg had a whopping 129 stops last year and seemed to be in on almost every play. He will make the defense go and is a great run-stopper. A.J. Edds (a local kid from Greenwood that got away) and Mike Humpal are the other two starters as of right now, and are both good playmakers. There isn't a ton of athleticism here and if we can use the speed of Bryant and Taylor against them we can have a successful day.
One huge advantage we will have though comes in the secondary. Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey are good tackling corners, but will struggle to contain Orton and Lymon on the outside. We might remember Shada from his 98-yard interception return late in last year's game. Brett Greenwood and Harold Dalton will be the starting safeties and they also tackle well, but against pass coverage is a weakness. The defensive unit as a whole is good about not giving up yards after the catch, but we should be able to generate plenty of yards against them. It will be up to us to turn those yards into points though.
Iowa Special Teams:
Austin Signor will be back as the kicker, and he saw some duty last year hitting both of his field goal attempts and all five extra points. He also has a leg as one field goal was from 41 yards. Ryan Donohue will be the new punter and he is reported to have a strong leg, but still hasn't seen any game action yet as a redshirt freshman.
Iowa struggled last year in both aspects of the kickoff game, managing barely more than 17 yards per return while giving up over 23. We were one of the best kickoff coverage teams in the nation last year and I like having Bryant and Sheets back there against their coverage unit.
We're about even in this department and it seems like the recent history of the series has heavily favored the home team. Iowa's win in West Lafayette two years ago has been the only time of late that the visiting team has pulled off the win. The question of experience on the offense comes up as well since the line will be in flux all season long and Christiensen is still getting his feet wet.
As far as overall team experience I would give us the edge with the number of starters we have returning on both sides of the ball, but how we finish the three game stretch before this will be critical. Hopefully we will have some confidence after a win or two instead of being in desperate need of a win to save a season. If we've lost three in a row (or more) before this game it could easily turn into another long losing streak.
This game should be easier for us match up wise than the previous three games. Many are expecting the Hawkeyes to have a big season because they miss Ohio State and Michigan, and they very well could have a successful season, but they aren't an overwhelming team on either side of the ball. They are certainly a good team, but I see them as competing with as competing with us to be the top of the next tier of teams behind Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State.
Our offense should be able to move the ball well against their defense, but it will be critical to finish drives with points, since yards don't win ballgames. Defensively this will be a welcome game for what could be a worn out defense at this point. We know they are going to run the ball and we need to be ready for it. Last year we got manhandled and this year we need to turn the tables. A solid defensive effort in this game should mean a big win for us.
This is a statement game and a turning point game all in one. It may well be the most important game of the season regardless of our record coming into it. Iowa is a team that, on paper, we should be able to beat, but I can see us struggling against them. A win in this game should qualify us for a bowl game if we haven't qualified already, and will go a long way toward saying what bowl game that will be. Purdue 31, Iowa 21.