It is a little late this week, but that is only because I was busy playing dad tonight. This week our guest for the enemy Q&A with Ross of Black Heart Gold Pants, the
propaganda rag SB Nation blog for the Hawkeyes:
T-Mill: Would say Iowa is a fourth quarter team or damn lucky to be 3-1?
Ross: Er... maybe both? It seems beyond comical to label Iowa a "fourth quarter team" -- under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has a truly dismal record of comebacks in the fourth quarter (or in the second half, period), but it's true that this year Iowa has come from behind to take the lead (or tie the game) in three of their four games this season (and while they never trailed in the fourth quarter against UNI, they did need a late TD to give themselves some much-needed breathing room), so they've certainly had some late game magic working in their favor. The defense has also been pretty strong in the fourth quarter -- they've conceded just 13 points all year in that quarter, and 10 of those points came in the debacle against Iowa State.
Anytime you play that many close games (and win 75% of them), it would be incredibly disingenuous to not credit the role the luck in those outcomes. So, yes, Iowa has definitely enjoyed some good fortune in that regard. But there are also things that Iowa has done very well in those close games that led to very well -- things that weren't simply "be lucky." The defense has done a very good job of maintaining their energy level and being effective late in games (which hasn't always been the case at Iowa), allowing them to get pressure on quarterbacks and force turnovers. Iowa got game-icing interceptions against both UNI and Pitt and recovered a game-icing fumble against Ball State. Offensively, both Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard have led key scoring drives in the fourth quarter. Rudock led a game-securing drive against UNI and two virtually flawless scoring drives against Ball State in Iowa's late comeback, and while he definitely struggled late against Iowa State, he pulled things together well enough to lead a game-tying field goal drive in the fourth quarter. Beathard was last week's hero, putting Iowa over the top against Pitt. Playing so many close games and relying on fourth quarter heroics is certainly liable to get Iowa burned at some point (and it already did against Iowa State), but there are reasons for me to feel optimistic about Iowa if the game is close in the fourth quarter.
T-Mill: Rudock vs. Bearthard: State your case for who you pick.
Ross: Rudock is dealing with a soft tissue injury (it sounds like a hip pointer), which kind of makes the decision easy -- go with the healthy, long-haired kid with the cannon for an arm (Beathard). As for what to do when both guys are healthy... I'm inclined to get a longer look at what Beathard can do as the main man at quarterback. He's impressed in spurts during his Iowa career, but his body of work is also very slender, so it's hard to know exactly what Iowa has in him. He has more athleticism and a stronger arm than Rudock, but he also might be a bit more mistake-prone. That side, his upside is intriguing enough that I'm happy to give him a longer look, to see if he can minimize his mistakes and if his physical gifts can continue to help Iowa's offense get out of the doldrums. I don't think Rudock is a bad quarterback at all and I wouldn't be tearing my hair out of if he did see the field, but it's hard to tell how much he's going to improve and if he can shake off some of the too-extreme risk aversion in his game that contributes to the stagnancy of Iowa's offense at times. Rudock is the washing machine -- solid, pretty dependable, and not terribly sexy. Beathard is the mystery prize behind door number two -- and who doesn't love a mystery?
T-Mill: Is Mark Weisman the cure for AIRBHG, or will he fall under the curse since Mikail McCall played at Ross-Ade last week?
Ross: AIRBHG wouldn't dare strike down one of the chosen people just days after Rosh Hashanah, right? ...right? Oh, hell. He's going to get hit by a rogue train in West Lafayette, isn't he? Dammit. Iowa's stayed shockingly healthy at RB (more or less) over the last few years, but the last decade has taught us to always be expecting the other shoe to drop at that position. I'm cautiously optimistic about Iowa's running game against Purdue, though. Weisman is coming off by far his best game of the season (22 carries, 88 yards, 2 TD) and Jordan Canzeri had an excellent performance against Purdue last year (20 carries, 165 yards). Iowa has struggled mightily to run the ball all year, so I'm not confident enough to expect a blowaway performance from Iowa on the ground, but I do think they'll perform well -- and I think either Canzeri or Weisman has an excellent shot to break 100 rushing yards on Saturday.
T-Mill: The Iowa secondary appears to be somewhat suspect. Has it sharpened up since the UNI game?
Ross: Yes -- to both of those points. Iowa's secondary is somewhat weak -- Iowa has two new starters this season (Jordan Lomax, moving from CB to FS, and Greg Mabin, moving from WR to CB) and communication and consistency have been definite problems for them at times. And compared to the very firm rush defense (95.5 ypg), the pass defense is certainly more vulnerable (253.5 ypg). But there have been sure signs of improvement, too. Desmond King is just a sophomore, but he's quickly become a very solid cornerback -- so much so that opposing quarterbacks aren't challenging him too much. Part of that is also the result of having someone as inexperienced as Mabin as the other starting cornerback, but Mabin has been steadily improving and he made two enormous deflections late in last week's game to kill a Pitt drive. Iowa's secondary is definitely somewhat vulnerable (and if you're going to target the Iowa defense, you're certainly better off attacking through the air than you are using the running game), but it's also improving -- and with Phil Parker (Iowa's defensive coordinator and long-time defensive backs coach) continuing to work with that unit, I expect it to continue to improve through the course of the season.
T-Mill: Are you encouraged or discouraged with the way the non-conference season played out?
Ross: Both, honestly. Before the season began, I hoped that Iowa would be 4-0 after the non-conference season, but I was mentally prepared for (and half-expecting) a 3-1 record after those first four games -- and that's exactly where Iowa sits right now. So their record is pretty much in line with my prediction, although I also thought that if Iowa was 3-1 that would mean a win over Iowa State and a loss at Pitt. It's strange: a win at Pitt feels better than a win over Iowa State would have... but a loss to Iowa State (at home) felt much, much, much worse than a loss at Pitt would have felt. And, record aside, Iowa's performances in all four games have been less than convincing. Iowa's had stretches of good play in all four games... but they've also had stretches of absolutely dire play in all four games. Against UNI, Iowa struggled to defend simple passes up the seam to RB David Johnson. Against Ball State, Iowa's offense ground to a halt in the red zone repeatedly until the final five minutes of the game. Against Iowa State, the second half was a pretty dire experience on both sides of the ball. And against Pitt, the defense got shoved all over the field in the first half.
That lack of consistency has been troubling to see and it's hard to know who the real Iowa is -- the team that flounders against sub-par competition, or the team that looks fairly sharp when it puts everything together? It seems weird (and a bit of a cheat) to say that we won't really have a good sense of this Iowa team until a few games into B1G play (since the season will be half over at that point)... but I think it's also true. It's simply going to take a while to figure out this team.
T-Mill: Finally, your prediction?
Ross: The most recent Iowa football memory in my brain is last week's triumphant comeback performance against Pitt, which gives me some optimism heading into this weekend's game in West Lafayette. I think Beathard connects with Damond Powell and Derrick Willies on a few deep passes and Weisman gets his first 100-yard game of the season. Iowa wins, 31-17.