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Harty: Don’t read too much into Iowa’s performance against UNI

[ 0 ] August 31, 2014 |

Kirk Ferentz reminded us what the Iowa football program is all about under his watch while meeting with reporters after Saturday’s 31-23 season-opening victory over Northern Iowa.

It wasn’t necessarily his intention to do that. It just sort of happened, as Ferentz responded to a question about how Saturday’s game was different than playing a Big Ten opponent or Pittsburgh on the road, which Iowa will do on Sept. 20.

Ferentz didn’t really answer the question, but he made a prediction about the remaining 11 games on Iowa’s schedule. Up next is a matchup with Ball State on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

“I’ll tell you at the end of the season, I guess,” Ferentz said. “But the bottom line is it was a tough game, and that’s what we expected. And my guess is we’ve got about 11 more of them on our schedule. I don’t see many easy ones. The good thing is to come out of it on the right end of it, and the most important thing from this point on is learning from it.”

That’s probably a fair and safe prediction. Close games are as much a part of the Iowa football program under Ferentz as running between the tackles. Iowa won a share of the Big Ten title in 2004 by winning six games by 10 or fewer points and three by just two points. That team also looked overmatched during a 44-7 loss at Arizona State in the third game.

That’s why you can’t read too much into what transpired on the field Saturday. So what, if the game was closer than what some Iowa fans expected or thought it should be?

If those fans don’t understand how things operate under Ferentz by now, they probably never will. You just don’t assume anything good or bad. It would be the same way if the Hawkeyes had rolled to a lopsided victory Saturday, or even if they had lost.

A loss would’ve been embarrassing and difficult for fans to accept, given Northern Iowa’s status as an FCS team. But it wouldn’t have been reason to panic or reason to assume the worst about Iowa.

The line between winning and losing is razor thin in college football. And sometimes the line seems even thinner with Iowa.

The perception is that Ferentz’s teams fly better under the radar. They do more when less is expected.

In other words, Iowa is unpredictable under Ferentz and always has been. Can you really think of one season in which the Hawkeyes were picked to thrive and actually did so?

The 2009 squad, which finished 11-2, had a talented cast of players, but also had to replace all-America running back Shonn Greene from the previous season, along with starting defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul, tight end Brandon Myers, offensive lineman Seth Olson and cornerback Bradley Fletcher, among others.

So there were questions and concerns heading into the 2009 season. And they only intensified after Iowa needed a miracle, as Ferentz puts it, to defeat Northern Iowa 17-16 in the 2009 season opener, blocking back-to-back field-goal attempts in the closing seconds.

You always can expect Ferentz’s teams to be fundamentally sound and physical during the course of a season. But rarely will they wow you. Although junior receiver Tevaun Smith made two highlight-reel plays in Saturday’s game, including a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab that ESPN keeps showing over and over and over.

Redshirt freshman receiver Derrick Willies also showed why he was the talk of spring practice by making a diving catch that gained 46 yards in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jake Rudock appeared to have overthrown the 6-foot-4 Willies, who made up a lot of ground in a short time in order to make the catch. Willies showed the kind of burst that’s been missing around here for a while.

Combine him with Smith and speedy senior Damond Powell, and Iowa would seem to have, for a change, multiple options at receiver to stretch defenses.

The running game was sort of a disappointment Saturday. How else could you describe a situation in which a receiver, in this case Smith, leads your team in rushing with 35 yards on one carry?

It was hard to tell Saturday who Iowa’s starting running back is because of all the substituting that occurred. That’s not a criticism because I assumed offensive coordinator Greg Davis — with a lot of encouragement from Ferentz — would’ve ridden 240-pound senior Mark Weisman throughout a close game.

But instead Davis used five running backs, and four of them had at least three rushing attempts, led by Weisman with 10.

Sophomore LeShun Daniels was thought to be the fourth running back in Iowa’s rotation, and yet he scored the first touchdown on Saturday, a 13-yard run on Iowa’s opening possession of the game.

“We like to use a good rotation. It helps to keep us all fresh,” Daniels said.

Daniels said he wasn’t entirely sure how the rotation is designed to work. He also wasn’t surprised that his number was called so early in the game.

“You always have to be ready to go,” Daniels said. “And I was.”

You could argue that none of the running backs were allowed to get into a rhythm Saturday. But then don’t complain about using Weisman too much, because you can’t have it both ways.

Of all the running backs who played for Iowa on Saturday, redshirt freshman Jonathan Parker was perhaps the most intriguing. The St. Louis native carried only once, but he gained 21 yards on a sweep play and looked fast doing it.

Parker isn’t big, at 5-8 and 180 pounds, but he is slippery in space and sort of a new look for Iowa at running back. It’ll be interesting to see how Davis uses him in a crowded backfield.

The running game ultimately should be fine because it defines the Iowa offense more than anything else and because there are three returning starters on the offensive line, including all-America candidate Brandon Scherff at left tackle.

The defense stiffened when it had to in the fourth quarter. But you don’t lose three all-Big Ten-caliber linebackers and two starting defensive backs, as is the case with Iowa, without having some growing pains.

My advice to Iowa fans after one game is the same as always: Don’t read too much into anything, good or bad. Your team showed Saturday that it’s a work in progress, but with an upside.

You were naïve to think it would show anything else.

 

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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