Even in victory worries about the “E” word abound

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”– Pogo

If shooting yourself in the foot was an Olympic sport, the Iowa Hawkeyes football team would be solidly in medal contention.

It feels much, much better to write that sentence after a victory in which it never really felt like the Hawks might lose, but it is just as true this week as it was after the dismal outing in Evanston the week prior.

Between the dropped passes, untimely penalties and crippling turnovers, the fact Iowa managed a more-comfortable-than-the-score-indicates victory over the Minnesota Golden Boat Rowers is a minor miracle.

I hate to parrot the head Hawk, especially when this particular mantra of his is so unpopular, but simple execution errors continue to plague this team. There has been some renewed grumbling about Iowa’s play calling and schemes, particularly on the offensively offensive side of the ball, but I don’t see it. If Iowa had held onto the dropped passes or not held Gopher defenders, this probably would have been a 28-7 laugher and we’d all be somewhat cautiously optimistic with the dreaded Buckeyes coming to town.

Instead, it’s hard to imagine how the Hawks can possibly score enough to keep up with Ohio State.

I also want to note, for the record, that saying play calling and scheme aren’t too blame is not the same as absolving coaches from all responsibility. While I feel youth and inexperience are pretty valid excuses for many of the miscues, we are halfway through the 2017 season and some of the basic mistakes are inexcusable. That is the type of sloppiness you’d like to see get cleaned up in practice, and I’m sure it will be hammered home inside the performance facility this week.

On a more optimistic note, I’m not so sure this wasn’t Nate Stanley’s best day throwing the ball, the drops notwithstanding. His long touchdown pass on play action to Noah Fant was a beauty of a bomb, but a play with a negative outcome may have been the best of the day.

Backed up at his own six yard line with a first and ten, Stanley drops back, pump fakes once, then unleashes a perfect throw that hits a streaking Ihmir Smith-Marsette in full stride sprinting down the sideline. Somehow, Smith-Marsette has the ball bounce off his hands and directly into the arms of a badly beaten Gopher defender for an interception. Make that catch, and Iowa is up 14-0, has a 94-yard passing touchdown in the stat book and no one is grumbling about the “boring” and “predictable” offense.

But that’s football. (Snort)

While we are thinking happy thoughts, let’s think about this Iowa defense. If you would have told me the Hawk D would be holding Big 10 opponents to 17.4 ppg after its first five conference game, I would have assumed the West Division record would be 5-0 or 4-1 at worst. Lost in the nail-biting of one-possession games has been a pretty impressive performance on that side of the ball.

Critics will gripe about allowing big plays and teams to move between the 20s, but at the end of the day, if you keep the opponent out of the end zone, you will win a lot more than you lose. I also think the pass rush has finally gotten on track the past two games and raised quite a bit of havoc with the opponent’s passing game.

The bad news is Iowa still has to play the #1 and #5 scoring offenses in the next two weeks, so it will be imperative that Iowa defenders ramp up their play even more, if possible.

As for the big picture, it’s not going to be easy for Iowa to hit my predicted 8-4 record, but it’s hardly impossible. To me, the key will be to split the next two games against the #3 and #4 teams in the country. Piece of cake, right!?

History says a win over a Top 10 Ohio State team is a virtual impossibility, and I’m afraid I have to agree. I’m in my mid 40s and I’ve only seen Iowa beat the Buckeyes four times and they were only ranked in the Top 10 once, in 1983. Of course, Iowa itself was a Top 10 team that year, coming in at #7.

It’s hard not to expect next week’s blackout game to be a case of “too big, too fast, too strong.” But I do think the Hawks can keep it relatively respectable.

That brings us to our old friend Bucky Badger.

Now, I got sick of everyone badmouthing Iowa’s 2015 schedule while the Hawkeyes were on their way to a perfect 12-0 regular season. So I’m not so much calling Wisconsin a fraud as wondering why they get a free pass when 2015 Iowa didn’t.

The Badgers have played only 1 team with a winning record to date and that is the decidedly mediocre Northwestern team that managed to take advantage of Iowa mistakes to beat the Hawks in overtime. The Badgers didn’t exactly blast them, either, eeking out a one-possession victory at home. In the Badgers’ only other game against a common opponent, Bucky slept-walk through a 24-10 victory over an Illini team Iowa dispatched 45-16.

Does this mean Iowa is sure to win their third-in-a-row at Camp Randall? Nope.

But I think they have more than a fighting chance – especially if they clean up that dreaded execution.

Growing frustrations

Iowa trips over its own miscues and hands Northwestern an overtime victory in Evanston.  With the West now out of reach, what does success look like for the 2017 Hawkeyes?

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Marching toward mediocrity? Iowa football is all close, but no cigar

Well at least we don’t have to worry about arguing with AP voters not placing Iowa in their Top 25 poll this week.

The Hawkeyes managed to fritter away any chance at rankings, relevance or redemption from last year’s narrow loss to Northwestern by repeatedly, mind-numbingly, ridiculously shooting itself in the foot over and over in a dispiriting overtime loss to the Wildcats in Evanston on Saturday.

As anyone who regularly reads this column knows, I often advocate for giving credit to the opponent and not just focusing on the mistakes of your own team. But for the third time in a loss this season, it was primarily Iowa miscues and basic execution errors that prevented the black and gold from winning.

Failing to catch a punt led to bad field position that resulted in Northwestern’s go-ahead touchdown. A ridiculous false start on fourth-and-less than one late made Iowa kick a tying field goal instead of likely getting a go-ahead touchdown. A blown backfield assignment led to the long run in overtime setting up the Wildcat’s winning score. Dropped passes, a missed field goal and a litany of other errors large and small conspired to prevent what looked like a better Iowa team taking advantage of a pesky (and less error-prone) foe.

This brings me to my other sore spot of the weekend. While I share in the collective angst over this loss, I am a bit perplexed why it has manifested itself in so much vitriolic rage aimed at the Iowa coaches from Iowa fans.

I’ve always believed that a coaching staff’s primary job was to put its team in position to win, and Iowa’s has done that every week. Saturday’s game was there for the taking. But again – just like in the Michigan State game – it was lack of consistency, untimely errors and general screw ups by players that led directly to the loss.

Now, I don’t absolve the staff from all blame. Indeed, it is their job to coach the players up so such errors are few and far between and not seemingly always happening at critical times. But I’m not sure that is a legitimate criticism this season. (People who call me a coaching apologist will call these excuses, but I believe they are objective reasons.)

The biggest one is that 2017 was always going to be a rebuilding year of sorts.

No one wanted the Greg Davis offense to be retired more than me, but adding a new coordinator and other new coaches is always going to result in some growing pains. Throw in the fact Iowa is breaking in a new starting quarterback, virtually all new receiving corps and is playing more true freshman than ever in the Ferentz era and it really isn’t surprising things look hinky and out-of-sorts on the offensive side of the ball.

The critical thing now is for this current crop of Iowa players – and the coaches in new positions – learn from their failures and excel in the future. I am currently reading a biography of Henry Ford, and America’s pre-eminent industrialist frequently talked about failure being the only sure way to eventual improvement. My favorite of his (numerous) quotes on the subject follows:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

This must be the mantra of every Iowa player and coach going forward for the rest of this season.

In addition, it should also be noted that thus far, Iowa has won every game it was favored in and lost every one in which it was an underdog.

While Kirk Ferentz has earned a reputation for slipping up against underdogs, that is not a fair disparagement to throw his way this season, no matter how badly many Hawkeye fans want to believe Northwestern is still the abject failure of a program it was in the 1980s when Hayden Fry routinely hung 50 or more points on them. Being mad that Ferentz doesn’t do the same is just not being very smart about the current landscape of college football or Big 10 history.

One slice of light in the gray cloud of the Northwestern loss is that once again, the game was there for the taking. Unlike last year – when Iowa was run off the field by Penn State and manhandled by Wisconsin – the team hasn’t once looked like it didn’t belong on the same field as its opponent.

Now, this could still happen in a couple weeks when the vaunted Buckeyes come to town, but I think this team – despite its warts and propensity for ill-timed gaffes – has enough raw talent, heart and grit to hang with anyone they play.

And as fans, is there really anything more we are owed?

Torbee puts the Big 10 media on blast for “disrespect”

Imagine, if you will, that you are an ink-stained sports scribe for the Toledo Blade, or the Fort Wayne Gazette or the Peoria Journal. Your assignment is to predict which Big 10 basketball teams will finish where in what is likely to be the best conference in college basketball.

It’s a tough job, requiring you to weigh previous results, exiting and incoming personnel, recruiting rankings, coaching history and many other factors. But it’s a required exercise, and now the sorting begins.

Here is Team A’s blind resume to consider:

  • · Previous year’s team finished tied for 4th in the conference race
  • · Four of five starters return, though the lone exit was 1st team All-Big 10
  • · Two of the returners were on the conference All-Freshman team
  • · Team returns conference’s 6th Man of the Year
  • · One of only 3 conference teams to post winning conference record each of past 5 seasons
  • · Starting point guard was 1 of 2 freshman in college basketball with 175 assists and 84 3-pointers
  • · Team returns 77.6 percent of its scoring

Hmmmmm.

Sounds pretty good. This team is predicted to finish ……………………….

EIGHTH?

If you are an Iowa fan, you know that Team A is your beloved Hawkeyes. And if you have been following the preseason college basketball news, you will know that eighth is exactly where the Big 10 media predicted Iowa to finish the 2016-17 conference season.

If this doesn’t put a Rodney Dangerfield-sized chip of disrespect on every Hawkeye player’s shoulder, I can’t imagine what will.

I will go on record right now (seriously, print and save this column) saying if Iowa indeed finishes eighth or lower I will attend Iowa’s last home game in Carver Arena in a Nebraska cheerleader uniform and let Tom Kakert post a pic of it on this webpage. If Nebraska cheerleader uniforms come in that small of a size, that is.

Now I’m not saying that Iowa is a Final Four caliber juggernaut poised to rampage through a very deep, very talented Big 10. But with what it has coming back – and a relatively soft unbalanced conference schedule – it is extremely difficult for me to see any possible way they don’t crack the top five or six at worst.

Add in some eye-opening and unusually optimistic insider rumblings about the elevation of Tyler Cook’s game, Jordan Bohannon’s growth at the point and two big-bodied, big time freshman and the Hype Train might be taking on passengers early and often.

I write this with the full disclosure that I have done next to zero research on Iowa’s conference opponents. I am way too invested in this year’s football season to waste time perusing Wisconsin’s roster or Illinois’ incoming recruits. But I know a good basketball team when I see it, and Iowa is going to have a good basketball team this season.

And while we are feeding coal into the aforementioned Hype Train’s boiler, how can any Iowa basketball fan not be super stoked about Fran McCaffery’s recruiting? Two of his 2017 recruits – Connor McCaffery and Luka Garza are four star recruits and they will be combing with four star, #40 nationally ranked Joe Wieskamp in 2018. After that, more four star, Top 100 types are either committed or in the pipeline, giving Iowa fans more hope for the hoops future than they’ve seen in ages.

So I tell you Mr. Chicago Tribune, Mr. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Ms. Columbus Post-Dispatch know-it-alls: Don’t eat too much at your post-game spreads this season. Because Iowa is going to be serving a huge, heaping pile of crow to you come March.

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.