Tuesdays With Torbee: Rainy days and Lovie can’t get me down

To paraphrase one of my favorite comic strips, the underrated Jim’s Journal:

I went to the Iowa-Illinois game Saturday. It was OK.

It seems churlish to call a 45-16 victory over a border rival underwhelming, but there it is. All-in-all, it was one of those days where nothing was terrible but nothing was particularly great, either.

The weather was spotty, with rain dampening the tailgate, but staying dry and warm for the game. Decent, not great.

It was a ho-hum 11 a.m. start on Big Ten Network, not the bright lights and excitement of national television and a night game. Decent, not great.

Iowa’s offense got things going in the second half, after Nate Stanley shook off a late second quarter interception and another pretty bad series right after. Decent, not great.

The run game found life again, with Toren Young acting as thunder to Akrum Wadley’s lightning, but a few too many rushes were still blown up at or behind the line of scrimmage. Decent, not great.

The defense gave up a big handful of giant “chunk” plays, but the bend-but-don’t-break didn’t break, holding Illinois to field goals on three critical drives. Decent, not great.

The crowd was mostly full, and got loud a few times at key points in the game. The band’s Beatles-themed halftime show was boring-as-usual, but the wave formation was neat. Decent, not great.

Special teams unleashed a couple of successful trick plays and Miguel Recinos remains locked in, but the punt game is still a work-in progress. Decent, not great.

I don’t mean for this to come across as complaining or that I didn’t enjoy the eventual dismantling of Lovie Smith’s Illini. I had a blast tailgating with friends as usual and outside of a few anxious moments in the first half, was never worried Iowa was going to deliver a clunker to a bad team.

It’s just that between Illinois being the shadow of a competitive program, a bye week on the horizon, and a couple Big 10 losses already on the books, the stakes just didn’t feel high enough to justify a lot of intensity. Thank goodness the Iowa players didn’t show that same level of apathy.

Much has already been written about the items on the weekly Ferentzian “clean up” list: picking up run blitzes, ball security, wrapping up on one-on-one tackles and other areas of minor concern. But one gigantic positive that I haven’t seen talked about much, but is a harbinger of better things to come (perhaps even yet this season, but definitely in the longer term) is that the only thing that seems to hold this team back at times is simple consistency.

I just don’t see any glaring holes in talent or scheme. And that’s a pretty big change from the past, including as recently as last season.

In 2016, Iowa didn’t look like it belonged on the same field as Penn State and barely was able to keep up with Wisconsin. That was from both a talent side and a scheme side. Those teams looked like they were playing a better, different form of football than Iowa.

Flash-forward to this season, and the only thing holding Iowa back is itself. Both the Penn State and Michigan State games were there for the taking, if only Iowa could have avoided some self-inflicted disasters.

Perhaps the best example of this is the signal caller, sophomore Nate Stanley. Yes, he still has a tendency to overthrow open receivers (hey, OPEN receivers, that’s a new one!). And he can get a little antsy-pantsy handling the ball (maybe one reason the coaches seem loathe to run sneaks with him?) But the dude stands tall in the pocket and absolutely rifles the ball. He also seems to never get rattled or let a screw up linger and cause him to lose confidence.

Like the rest of the team, all Stanley is missing is a bit more consistency.

If Iowa can harness that consistency and put together 60 minutes of football with the offense, defense and special teams all humming at full capacity in each of its remaining games, this can be a team that rises above decency and approaches greatness.

Oh so close…

Barkley was a Superman, but Iowa brought the kryptonite on Defense and nearly pulled off another prime time upset. We pick up the pieces of Saturday’s heartbreak with Tom Kakert of HawkeyeReport.com, and look ahead to a road date with the Spartans.

Follow us on Twitter, at @12Saturdays, and Tom Kakaert at @HawkeyeReport

Tuesdays With Torbee: Good duels gone bad

The Tweet said it all.

Walking out of a performance of Hamilton in Chicago on my anniversary weekend, where I diligently set my phone on do not disturb while Iowa took on #4 ranked Penn State some 200 miles away, my wife read this Tweet from my son:

“I want to die.”

Now (spoiler alert), we’d just seen Alexander Hamilton mourn his hot-headed young son who was gunned down in a foolish duel, so Mrs. Torbee was justifiably a bit concerned.

But I had seen the score of the Iowa game on a quick peek at my phone during the standing ovation, and knew by the score it must have been a heartbreaker. I told her the Tweet had to be referencing the game and there was nothing to worry about, other than a kid bummed seeing his favorite college football team get its soul ripped out on national television.

It wasn’t until I watched the replay Sunday afternoon that the full extent of the horror was revealed. Even via DVR, the emotional scars will stick with me awhile.

Hayden Fry once famously threatened to “bust the first guy in the mouth I saw smiling” for treating a narrow loss to a great Oklahoma team as a moral victory. Like Fry, I’m no fan of moral victories either But while Saturday was certainly a loss for the 2017 Iowa team, it’s hard not to view the performance on the big stage as a victory for the program overall.

First of all, Kinnick, Iowa City and Iowa fans all showed amazingly well. The touching stories from the children’s hospital wave, the striking striped stands packed with passionate fans, the new field with the giant Tigerhawk all looked glorious on ESPN in front of a national audience. And then the Hawkeyes themselves nearly lived up to their well-earned reputation as giant killers who back down to no team in college football.

Though the final outcome was painful, it is impossible not to be impressed and excited about Iowa’s ability to fight tooth and nail literally to the final gun. Someone should write a song about that or something.

Looking at the big picture, I think Iowa gained a lot of respect nationally and reminded college football fans across the country that the program Fry resurrected and Ferentz sustained remains a force to be reckoned with. It may not garner all the accolades and sign all the five star guys it wants, but it will back down to no one and after you play them, you’re going to feel it. That certainly wasn’t the case after last year’s debacle in Happy Valley, so that alone is a plus.

I also think one must keep in mind this was always going to be a rebuilding year of sorts. A first-year starting quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, a bunch of freshman starting all over the field – it might even be argued by Iowa’s performance thus far this season that the Hawkeyes are a bit ahead of schedule.

One thing that watching on replay knowing how the game ends affords you is the ability to focus on performance and process without fixating on the outcome. And Iowa looked like it belonged on the field with the Nittany Lions. Sure, poor field position and a few blown O-line assignments dealing with run blitzing early on made the offense look sluggish and bad early, but as the game wore on and the Hawkeyes gained confidence, they were able to trade blows evenly with a Penn State team I think everyone can agree is a legitimate top five squad.

My only real complaint was Brian Ferentz not letting Stanley stand in the pocket and sling it more on first downs, but again, field position and Stanley being a young guy make that decision at least understandable. Despite the issues, I think the Iowa offense looked more dynamic and threatening than any other over the past five years or so. The schemes for the most part were good and plays were there to be made, but the execution was lacking.

I did see quite a few folks lamenting “bad tackling” by defenders not named Josey Jewell, but I think that is not giving Saquon Barkley enough credit. The dude is legit. To my eyes, he has the shiftiness of a guy like Barry Sanders combined with the tackle breaking ability of a guy like Walter Payton. I’m not going to badmouth any defense that struggles to bring a guy like that down.

Now the big question is where do the Hawkeyes go from here?

While they showed they can go toe-to-toe with a great team, will there be an emotional hangover from losing on a walk off touchdown pass?

This will be a challenging week for the Iowa coaches, I think. They need to convince these guys to flush the Penn State game and realize that if they want to get that bad taste out of their mouths, they need to win and keep winning. The West Division is ripe for the picking. Nebraska is reeling, Northwestern appears overrated, Purdue crashed back to earth and Minnesota looks solid-but-not-spectacular. The West title might be decided in Madison later this autumn, but Iowa can’t afford many more stumbles along the way.

If they want a rematch with Saquon and the Lions in Indianapolis, it starts this Saturday in East Lansing.

High Steppin’ to Conference Play

Wadley scores! Er, wait….

Iowa dispatches the North Texas Green Beans in ugly fashion, as it prepares for a visit from Penn State.  Former Iowa LB RJ Meyer tells us about the dawn of Ferentz’s tenure at Iowa, and we look ahead to the B1G opener.

Tuesdays With Torbee: Deconstructing the Mean Green Menace

By Tory Brecht

Family fights can be extremely physically and mentally draining.

So I guess it should come as no surprise that Iowa looked a bit hungover after its last-second, overtime dispatching of its little brother from Ames the week prior in the first half of its game against the Mean Green of North Texas.

Much as they did in week three last season, the Hawkeyes found themselves in a bare knuckled street fight with an ostensibly overmatched foe wearing green and white uniforms at halftime.

Fortunately for Iowa, NTSU doesn’t have the pedigree or grit of the North Dakota State Bison team that stole a win in Kinnick in 2016. In my Tuesdays With Torbee column after the Bison debacle, I criticized the Iowa coaching staff for abandoning the pass in favor of trying to milk the clock and leaning on the run game. I still think that was a bad call against the Bison, but it sure worked well against the Mean Green.

If Kirk Ferentz were a boxer, I’m not sure the man would ever throw a head shot. It would just be jab after jab after jab to the body until the opponent wilts. It ain’t pretty, but it’s effective.

Brian Ferentz, on the other hand, appears to be more willing to sling the pigskin around a bit. My favorite call of the game was actually the play action pass he dialed up with about 5:40 left in the fourth quarter, coming right after a change of possession, despite it resulting in an incompletion. The throw was on target, as well, and only a stellar play by the Mean Green defensive back prevented a touchdown.

What I love best about the younger Ferentz’s offensive attack is he seems to have inherited some of Hayden Fry’s old “scratch where it itches” philosophy. Whereas the elder coach often seems stubborn to a fault, Brian is going to take what the defense is giving and exploit mismatches. (Hello tight ends, my lord did we miss you!).

The sluggish first half and relatively close score has some Iowa fans worried and certainly didn’t impress poll voters, who have a full six 1-loss teams ranked ahead of the Hawkeyes. I get that, but I don’t think it’s fair to discount the abject awfulness of the officiating crew from Saturday. They managed to suck any semblance of flow or common sense from the game.

I’m not one to bemoan officiating often, and I’d definitely not go there after a loss or even a narrow win. But I feel entitled, as a fan of a team that managed to overcome egregiously pitiful officiating to win comfortably, to point out how awful it was.

Let’s start with the most talked-about controversial call of the game, which ironically is one of the few the officials got right by the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. Yes, Akrum Wadley high-stepped and showboated a bit on his way into the end zone on Iowa’s first touchdown drive. Despite the fact he himself has done this any number of times without getting dinged, and I saw similar displays in roughly a dozen other games just this last Saturday, it was a penalty.

But such a stupid, pointless one to call. Wadley didn’t show anyone up or taunt his opponent. He made the unforgivable football purist sin of showing genuine joy. The horror! I’m not one to thump the “pay college players” drum – though I understand clearly why many do – but these kids give their blood, sweat and sometimes future health to play this game for our amusement. Let the damn kids cut loose a little.

As for the called back touchdown by Nick Easley, maybe he fumbled prior to breaking the plane of the end zone and maybe he didn’t. But it sure as hell couldn’t be seen via any camera angle shared on the television broadcast. And the call on the field was touchdown.

Finally, NTSU’s scoring drive just prior to halftime – the one that made 70,000 stomachs queasy inside Kinnick – only happened because of two of the most horrendous personal foul flags I’ve ever seen thrown. On the first, A.J. Epenesa was literally crawling on the ground when he was blocked into Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine’s leg prior to him flinging a pass. Somehow, that was deemed a personal foul, giving NTSU 15 yards and a first down rather than a third and 10 with time running out.

The next personal foul, though, was even worse! Manny Rugamba was running stride-for-stride down the sideline with a Mean Green receiver, who started stumbling out of bounds during a pass break up. Seeing the receiver off balance and heading right for a practice kicking net, Rugamba appeared to reach out his hand to HELP the receiver NOT fall down. But he fell, and for his good Samaritan effort, Rugamba was flagged. Another 15 yards, and another first down leading to an NTSU score and an undeserved four point halftime lead.

A conspiracy theorist might believe these zebras were on the take, but from my seats, they just looked comically inept.

What is remarkable, though, is despite the shenanigans and weirdness, Iowa managed to stay cool, calm and collected, retool its game plan on the fly, and dominate the entire second half. Past Iowa teams, I think it’s safe to say, may not have had the resolve and confidence to overcome the bad mojo. That’s why I am really starting to like this team; just like in the Iowa State game, they don’t appear to let the moment get too big. We shall see if that pays off as conference play kicks off with the very scary looking Penn State Nittany Lions coming to Iowa City next week.

Bottom line, no matter how ugly last Saturday’s game was, the Hawkeyes sit at 3-0 and undefeated in the non-conference slate for only the fifth time under Coach Ferentz. The last team to start that hot ended the regular season with a spotless 12-0 record and a date in the Big 10 Championship game in Indianapolis.

I think the youth of the 2017 squad and it’s much-tougher schedule will prevent that fantastic outcome from repeating itself, but it should be noted that three of those five teams that got through the non-con unscathed went on to double-digit win seasons.

That seems like a very worthy and attainable goal for this squad.

Follow me on Twitter @ToryBrecht and @12Saturdays.

¡El Assico Fantastico!

Nate Stanley emerges, Wadley dazzles, the youngsters shine and Iowa overcomes a swooning defense to escape Ames with a win.  We break it all down in this episode, with guest Matt Randazzo (@MattRandazzo), sports director at WQAD.

 

Follow us on Twitter @12Saturdays and on Facebook.

Rustlin’ Cowpokes

Not much giddy-up from these Cowboys, as the Hawkeye defense smothers Wyoming and their first round QB.  On the other sideline, Iowa QB Nate Stanley finds his sea legs after feeling a bit Fant.  Marc Morehouse joins the crew to talk Iowa football and beer  Yeehaw!

 

Follow us on Twitter:  @12 Saturdays and @marcmorehouse

Tuesdays With Torbee: Mama said don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys

By Tory Brecht

As far as home openers go, Iowa’s relentless and workmanlike choke out of a pretty game Wyoming squad was solidly satisfying.

Super exciting plays were in short supply, but anytime you can overcome four turnovers and cruise to a comfortable 21-point victory, you’re doing something right.

I also think if Coach Kirk Ferentz could draw up his ideal opening game, this one would be pretty close to perfection. As I’ve noted before, I think Ferentz views out-of-conference games as analogous to NFL pre-season games and really stresses the “learning” aspect.

On Saturday, there were plenty of lessons to be learned and mistakes to clean up, but the Hawkeyes still managed to physically dominate their opponent on both sides of the line-of-scrimmage for much of the game.

The biggest lesson will certainly be Nathan Stanley and ball security. As Coach Ferentz said in his remarks after the game, you could tell Stanley hadn’t been hit during fall practice and he found out pretty quickly the intensity of such hits is ramped up when you aren’t in the game during mop up time against an already beat up opponent. Of course the good news is this is an eminently teachable skill, and I’d much rather see Stanley get it out of his system in a win than, say, on the road in Ames.

As for the rest of the post Greg Davis offensive era debut, I think Brian Ferentz’s game calling was a shot of adrenaline for fans lulled into a stupor by two yard outs and off tackle dives. Sure, the Iowa offense will never resemble an air raid juggernaut under Ferentzian direction, but there were enough new wrinkles and enough downfield shots to intrigue. And that was with what is always a pretty vanilla game plan against an out-gunned foe early in the season.

If they clean up the miscues and continue to hit deeper passes while limiting drops, this offense can be more than serviceable. Akrum Wadley is going to continue to break off jaw-dropping runs where he leaves multiple defenders dazed and confused, James Butler is going to pound and wiggle for more yards and Stanley will just keep learning and improving. Mark me down as seriously optimistic.

And that defense. Wow. I really can’t remember the last time I couldn’t point to a handful of missed tackles or blown assignments off the top of my head. I thought all 11 defenders knew their assignments, moved to the ball with purpose and brought the boom when making clean tackles.

When Ferentz has a defense like this, watching his game theory approach to football is a thing of beauty. He knows his offense can just chip, chip away without taking risks and the defense can keep everything in front of them until a big play puts the opponent off schedule and then Iowa brings more pressure. It’s like watching a boa constrictor slowly asphyxiate its prey by tightening harder and harder. It may not be that aesthetically pleasing to all, but I find the brutal dominance quite enjoyable.

Speaking of brutal dominance, it’s Iowa State week again and while I’d enjoy to see dominance on par with last year’s 42-3 shellacking at Kinnick, I can’t in good faith predict that outcome.

That isn’t to say I think the Cyclones suddenly have a particularly good team, but I do think they’ve got some talent and built some identity since the early going of the 2016 season. I also know that Iowa all-too frequently has weird things happen to it in the Jack Trice Experimental Wind Tunnel at Ames.

These concerned caveats aside, if the Hawkeyes are going to hit the 8-4 record I predicted, they really can’t lose this game. The rest of the schedule is just too daunting.

I have faith that Brian Ferentz’s saltiness and pride is going to add some much-needed juice to the Iowa attitude going into this blood rivalry and Iowa’s size and strength on both lines will eventually grind the Cyclones down in a similar fashion to the way Wyoming was worn down.

This may be trite and cliché to say, but it’s undeniably true: if Iowa just holds on to the ball, this game is a win.

It is time for Iowa to string multiple wins over Iowa State together for a few years and to finally bump the elder Ferentz’s all-time record versus the Cyclones to over .500.

After all, this is the Hawkeye state.

Follow me on Twitter @ToryBrecht and @12Saturdays.