"It has a hard time in short-yardage situations. Against Michigan last week, the Hawkeyes saw 12 situations in which they faced a second- or third-and-6 yards or less. They cashed in on just four
of those. Now, that’s probably industry standard, but in the fourth quarter, when Iowa could’ve turned out the Wolverines’ lights, it blew two third-and-1 chances, thus leaving the door open for Michigan and a goal-line stand. Iowa’s O-line isn’t a knock-out O-line, as in what MSU saw against Wisconsin. If you had to classify Iowa’s OL, it’s probably closer to the technically sound zone blockers that had the Broncos winning Super Bowls in the late ‘90s.
"Beyond that, QB James Vandenberg still is a first year starter. Seems like you’ve been hearing about him for six or so years, doesn’t it? He has a lot of the same glitches every first-year starter has. That mostly manifests in field vision. He can get in trouble locking on a single receiver and has struggled with the internal clock that allows blitzes to get home. Of course, when he has time to allow routes to develop, he can be an assassin. "
* Is the defense about what you expected this season, considering all the personnel losses from a year ago? Did the Michigan game signify a step forward for that unit?
"Injuries have unplugged any optimistic outlook this defense could’ve allowed itself, but the numbers are about what you’d expect with the D-line replacing three NFL draft picks, including first-rounder Adrian Clayborn and Karl Klug, who has started for the Tennessee Titans this season. The bill came due there. Iowa asked a lot
of players to do things on the field they’ve never done and so a top 25 defense the last three seasons has been on red alert.
"The linebackers were decimated at one point, but might’ve found the best combination it can possibly have this season with senior Tyler Nielsen in the middle, sophomore James Morris on the weakside and sophomore Christian Kirksey on the strongside. The D-line lost promising sophomore D-end Dominic Alvis to a torn ACL against Michigan. He’ll be replaced by fifth-year senior Lebron Daniel, who struggles with contain. Iowa secondary has been solid, with perhaps its best pair of corners during Kirk Ferentz’s 13 years in senior Shaun Prater and junior Micah Hyde. Iowa has played more man coverage than it has in several years, showing trust in these two but also trying to help a vulnerable front seven.
"The Michigan game was a tie as far as steps go. The Hawkeyes showed it could be disciplined on the edge and keep leverage against a dynamic running quarterback. It also was a step back for Denard Robinson, who still doesn’t have the touch a Big Ten quarterback needs. Still, that was a four-play goal-line stand from its 3 to win it. This D has been great in small spaces all season, sitting second in the conference in red zone defense."
* Why is it that Iowa seems to have a mental block against certain teams (I'm thinking of Iowa State, Northwestern and Minnesota)?
"The Iowa staff doesn’t seem to account for the “go for broke” decision making that allows these upsets to happen. The onside kick against in the 22-21 loss at Minnesota punctuates this. The common thread here, for the most part, has been Iowa’s lack of energy and aggressive thinking against double-digit underdogs. That could also be played off as execution, and that has been missing in these games, too, but Iowa’s energy level doesn’t match the nerdy, spunky energy that a double-digit underdog is free to have.
"That’s preparation and that goes to coaching. Kirk Ferentz’s approach is to allow the players to generate their own energy. Sometimes, especially against an underdog, they need a nudge. There’s an air of NFL stoicism in Ferentz’s management that sometimes just doesn’t account for the unpredictability of collegial enthusiasm. "
* When I watch Marcus Coker, I think Shonn Greene. Am I off base on that? How good is Coker?
"Coker has a little bit more of a longer stride than Greene. He’s taller and not quite as powerful in the short area, but when he builds a head of steam in the second level, the first safety to take the shot will have a neck that’s about a half inch shorter. He’s devastating. He said this week his idols were Earl Campbell and Walter Payton, which is why he wears No. 34. He’s not anywhere near those two, but he is no fun to tackle. Plus, he has way better hands than Greene. He is a factor in the passing game.
"How good is he? I think he compares to the last few big backs at Wisconsin, I’m thinking P.J. Hill and John Clay (except not overweight). Ferentz has preached decisiveness and aggressiveness to Coker all season. Coker has admitted to overthinking the game, which kind of goes along with his double major of astronomy and physics. The last four weeks show he’s over that. He’s first-team all-Big Ten good and stands with UW’s Montee Ball and Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead."
* Iowa looked like toast two weeks ago after the loss at Minnesota, but things don't look so bad now -- especially considering Nebraska's apparent vulnerability. Do you think these Hawkeyes can get a sweep and get to Indy?
"No. Iowa hasn’t had two strong quarters of consistency on offense. The defense can slug it out, but it’s a hobby stock car that is wobbling to the finish. This goes to your first question, why hasn’t this offense blown the roof off the place? Consistency is the poison dart. I believe if Iowa pulls off 3-0, it’s going to have to outscore opponents. Coker has become a go-to and that could be the foundation for Vandenberg to find the consistency for a stellar finish. If Iowa can say that after facing Michigan State, which is, I believe, the strongest defense in the conference, then it comes down to 50-50 (at Purdue and at Nebraska) for a trip to Indy. Oh yeah, Iowa is 0-for-5 in its last five road trips (taking out the Insight Bowl victory), so there’s that, too. Iowa is a longshot. If I had to rank the Legends, I’d go MSU, Nebraska, Iowa."
* Your keys to the MSU-Iowa game and a prediction if you care to give one.
"Iowa offense – Success in short yardage will help Iowa sustain drives. I think that’s a mega key. Iowa’s offense is going to help the defense with sustained drives. Also, Iowa’s inexperience at receiver and QB has shown up in blitz/hot reads. That simply has to be clean, because I think Michigan State will be able to pressure Vandenberg, and probably without taking too many risks. One number maybe, Vandenberg’s pass efficiency. The one time it dipped to less than 100, it was at Penn State and it was an anemic performance that amounted to spinning wheels.
"Iowa defense – Stop the run, win more than lose on the outside. Penn State’s offensive line isn’t a naut of jugger, but it put 231 rushing yards on Iowa’s defense, most since 2007 Penn State. Iowa’s biggest fear in this game has to be if MSU establishes will and carries a banner with the running game. Then, hey, there’s play-action and there’s balance and there’s a whole bunch of yards and time of possession piling up. Now, this puts as much pressure on the corners as it does on the front seven. Iowa is going to have to take chances. I don’t see it coming with the blitz. I see it with a fortified front and that means Cunningham and Martin matched with Hyde (yes, brother of former Spartan Micah Hyde) and Prater.
"I’m picking Michigan State 28-24. I think the Spartans are the more proven commodity. Plus, there’s all that built up aggression for the last two seasons, including the thud in Iowa City that sent an 11-1 MSU team to the Capital One Bowl. If the Spartans don’t let that dance in their heads and keep this to blocking and tackling, they have the firepower to win at Kinnick for the first time since 1989."
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