By Sam Kienzle
The Dr. Jekyll (the good but flawed realities of Iowa’s game): Iowa has a kicking game. Mike Meyer went 3-for-3 on field goals, and 4-for-4 on extra points, with long bombs of 42 and 50 yards. Meyer excelled at field goals last year as a freshman, hitting 14 of 17, but missed (or had blocked) some foreboding extra points (Arizona, Wisconsin). One of Meyers’ missed field goals last year happened to be during the Hawkeyes’ 20-17 loss to Ohio State. This year, walk-on Meyer is proving to be reliable on standard special teams duties and could prove to be an asset in close games.
The loony highlights and narrative ESPN presented Saturday night might have convinced the outside world that Iowa State put up points and yards at will on Iowa, showing all Iowa State scores in the frenzied, final portions of the game and not a single Iowa play. The Clones certainly burned Iowa in 1st downs (26), total yards (473), and scorched the Hawks on 3rd down conversions (13-for-20). Iowa held Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz to 40 yards on 16 carries, but I couldn’t convince you with a straight face that he actually ran for two yards a carry like a lanky pre-pubescent in a sandlot game. When he needed to, he ran like a bigger Drew Tate for significant chunks. He threw crisp, accurate passes with solid protection for most of the day. I frankly admit Iowa’s defense needs work, tape analysis, and conditioning for quickness. Norm Parker needs to better communicate the defensive positioning essential to slowing quarterbacks like Jantz, Pitt’s Tino Sunseri, Dan Persa, Kain Colter, Denard Robinson, and Taylor Martinez. But looking at Iowa defenses, the pride rests in scoring defense over the past decade, and Iowa held Iowa State to 17 points until 1:17 left in the game on Saturday. A few of Parker’s best defenses have given up yards but not points. Overtime defense, however, is another concern. I just hope the Hawkeyes settle their games in regulation for a while. It’s tough how to figure out whether a 3.7 overall ypc game average (52 total rushes, 194 yards)—but a 4.3 ypc clip to ISU’s other running backs—is damning or fixable.
Another staple of Norm’s defenses are turnovers (see: national rank, interceptions, 2008-2010), as Iowa recovered three fumbles. The best Iowa teams score touchdowns on their manufactured opportunities (’03 comes to mind), but Iowa only mustered 10 points off those turnovers (it could have been 21). Last, consider that the physical, veteran, and competent Jordan Bernstine missed the game with a fever. Fill-in Greg Castillo got bullied. So, it is my thought that Bernstine will need to play cornerback and will do it better than Castillo.
Ok, take a deep breath. Rub your eyes and blink heavily. Let’s look at Iowa’s offense now. It is evident Marcus Coker requires a Damien Sims reliever. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri, Jason White, or De’Andre Johnson. Coker eventually forced his way to 140 yards, though his yards per carry are down from last year and his efficacy as a bigger back will shrink if he is constantly anticipated to be the ball carrier by the opponent’s defense. Overall, my gut feeling on Coker and James Vandenberg is that not only will they be fine (I’m not concerned about Coker’s fumbles), but they will be relied upon to save games. Isn’t that a novel idea? This could be a year when volatility on defense forces Ken O’Keefe and the offense to win games. And Ken, I saw the end-around pass from Marvin McNutt and appreciated it very much. Just try to pull it off next time.
Vandenberg went 57% passing on the day (207 yards) for a 12 yard-per-completion clip and two touchdowns. He has not thrown an interception yet in two games. Keenan Davis—despite dropping a potential 3rd down conversion in the 3rd overtime that hit him squarely on the hands—had a nice, confidence-boosting game with 95 yards receiving, a touchdown, and a two-point conversion. Marvin McNutt averaged 15 yards a reception, but more catches are critical if Iowa wants to get touchdowns instead of settling for long Meyer field goals. Kevonte Martin-Manley got initiated into the contributor’s club, catching the Hawkeye’s opening touchdown. He looks like a quick receiving option but is still very green.
Sizing up the offensive line: I can forgive the one bad sack deep in Iowa territory, because for the most of the game, Vandenberg had decent protection. As the game wore on, they played better and gave Coker more room to power forward. Vandenberg showed that with time, he can be accurate and smooth. My buddy and fellow football thinker/tinker, Josh Cook, texted me during one of Vandenberg’s low points—probably an errant pass on a third down. He said something like, “Nice pass Vandenberg. J.C. version 2.0.” He likened James to inaccurate and untimely passer Jake Christensen, who eventually lost his job at Iowa in 2008. I rolled my eyes at Josh’s salty, humorous criticism—as I don’t accept the comparison to Christensen. Vandenberg has already shown promise and will continue to develop after only his fourth start. Drooling over the “what if?” game will only make you bitter and dehydrated, but consider that things could have possibly turned out different if Vandenberg passed more, Coker ran less, and the offense actually tried to take advantage of the 4th quarter’s last 1:17 instead of running once then kneeling for overtime.