Four Factor Friday is back. This week, the keys to the game are more about Iowa working in the new faces and establishing an identity for the 2016 Hawkeyes, than it is about how they match up with the Miami RedHawks.
Figure out who can catch the ball
Iowa lost four of its top six receivers from last year, and while the two that remain, Matt VandeBerg and George Kittle, look poised to both have big years, they won’t be able to carry the entire load. The Hawkeyes need to establish some other receiving threats.
The first place to look is at wide receivers, where Iowa has a large group of guys that haven’t done a whole lot. While Greg Davis will likely rotate through 5-6 guys throughout the year, Iowa usually zones in on the top three guys getting most of the snaps on passing downs. So which two receivers can distance themselves from the pack and join VandeBerg at the top?
We’ve seen the senior bump before, where players that have underachieved a bit their whole career jump into the starting role and have a big year as a senior. Just look at what Cole Fisher did last year. He had a grand total of 18 tackles in his career before breaking out as a senior and finished second on the team with 116. Can Riley McCarron have a similar story? He has just 11 career receptions, but seems to have locked down the “B” receiver spot…which is like the third receiver (Jacob Hillyer was the B last year).
McCarron will have to hold off true freshman Devonte Young, who has had coaches singing his praises all of camp. I would expect that Young primarily sees the field on obvious run plays just to get him some experience while the game is still close. But it’ll be interesting to see how the two split time.
At the other receiver position (the “X”), Jay Scheel looks like he has overtaken Jerminic Smith. This will be another interesting battle to see who becomes the main option. Smith got the nod last year when Tevaun Smith was out. He had a heck of a game against Illinois, but didn’t do a lot otherwise. Still, it is somewhat surprising that Scheel was able to pass him.
Tight end number 2 is another spot where someone needs to emerge. Peter Pekar is currently sitting in that spot, though I think it is still pretty open. He’s only played in one game and has no stats to his name. If he’s the furthest along as a blocker, he’ll be the primary guy on the field in 2-TE sets. But as a receiver, it sounds like the true freshmen have a chance to break through here. Noah Fant has been getting some buzz and I would expect him to play.
Finally, with inexperience abounding at WR and TE, the running backs could see more targets. Derrick Mitchell will likely continue to play as the third down/shotgun formation back. He lined up out wide a few times last year as well and you can tell he was once a receiver. He had 15 receptions last year and looked good on screens and coming out of the backfield. Akrum Wadley was hardly used in the passing game and didn’t have a catch during the regular season. But they seemed to find something there in the last two games (the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl). He caught three passes in each and even scored on one in the bowl game. I expect him to build on that and take over Jordan Canzeri’s targets from last year (Canzeri had 20 catches).
Miami runs a pretty similar defense to Iowa. They stick in the 4-3 ( even against 3-wide…they will walk a linebacker out over the slot receiver, which is good news for VandeBerg) and generally keep their two safeties back. C.J. Beathard should have the opportunity to find open receivers, so let’s see who are the ones getting open.
Form continuity on the offensive line
While those receiver positions will be all about throwing in different guys to battle it out and find out who emerges, the offensive line needs to do the opposite and let the starting five guys gel. While that is about as cliche as it gets, it is going to be important for this line in particular. Though there is a lot of experience across the line, they’ve been repeatedly shuffled around. Last season, the same starting five (playing in the same positions) was hard to find as the season wore on. While the rushing stats remained good, pass protection suffered and the O-line gave up 30 sacks.
Hopefully the shuffling will be done. After spending nearly all of last season at left tackle, Boone Meyer is now at guard. Sean Welsh and James Daniels have been swapping back and forth between center and right guard all off season and both have missed some practice time with injury. Welsh mainly played at left guard last season (though he saw some time at tackle as well). Right guard will be new for him. Cole Croston wasn’t a starter at the beginning of last year, but filled in at both left and right tackle. And Ike Boettger started at right tackle for the first half of the year, but then missed most of the B1G schedule with an injury.
The RedHawks will be a good enough initial test for this line as well. While Miami’s front seven as a whole isn’t too intimidating, they do have experience along the D-line and have a pretty good DE in JT Jones. He had 10 sacks and another 12 QB hurries last year.
I still expect Iowa’s offensive line to wear down Miami’s defense and allow the running backs to get their yards and allow C.J. Beathard to stay upright. But it will still be important for the unit to get in sync and establish themselves as a whole.
Find a pass rush
Miami runs a very standard spread offense. They run a lot of inside zones from shotgun and like the pre-Beathard Iowa version of the read option, the QB keeping the ball isn’t really much of an option. They keep things pretty basic…they mostly go 3-wide and show a variety of intermediate and deep routes. I expect the offense to be a little bit more open now that quarterback Billy Bahl is no longer a true freshman, but it should still be one that Iowa can attack.
How long will Phil Parker try to generate a pass rush from the front four before he starts sending blitzes? While this linebacker group isn’t where it was in 2013, it is still an experienced group that could provide some help. Both Josey Jewell and Ben Neimann were successful getting to the QB the few times they blitzed last year.
Or maybe the line will provide enough pressure on its own. Parker Hesse was put in a difficult position last year, but filled in admirably for Drew Ott. Anthony Nelson looked destined to be a backup this year, but has worked his way up the depth chart and is now listed as a co-starter with Matt Nelson. I take that as a promising development as Matt Nelson played quite a bit last year and looked okay. It seems like Iowa has three good guys they can rotate at DE and hopefully one of them will come through as a threat as a pass rusher.
The pass rush could come from inside as well. Jaleel Johnson had 3.5 sacks last season and was really effective when playing next to Ott. If Hesse can garner some attention, look for Johnson to take advantage.
If Iowa is able to get pressure, it could be a big day for the secondary. Bahl threw 13 interceptions last year and has a habit of throwing up jump balls on any route longer than 10 yards or so. He’s got a decent arm and some zip on his shorter passes, but really struggled going downfield.
Fake a punt
One of the biggest question marks going into the season has been who will win the kicking and punting jobs. I don’t think anyone could after predicted in January that Keith Duncan and Ron Coluzzi would be the two. From the sounds of it, they have pretty solidly earned their spots as starters. Duncan is a true freshman walk-on from North Carolina and beat out Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis, both of whom have playing experience (albeit very little). His high school stats and accolades are impressive, as Marc Morehouse has laid out. As a senior, he made all of his field goal attempts from inside 50 yards.
Coluzzi is a grad transfer from Central Michigan and has come in an won the kickoff and punting jobs. His numbers from last year don’t jump off the paper, but he is consistent and has great hang time on his kicks. Ferentz has said he has brought some needed leadership to a position group that has a lot of young players.
The big question, though… do they have a rugby punter? Last year Marshall Koehn was used early in the season to put a rugby-style punt on tape. Iowa used him pretty sparingly throughout the year (he had just eight punts). But they used it to set up a fake punt. Of course a fake was never actually attempted, but it was called. You could see multiple times Koehn was ready to run, but didn’t get the look they wanted for him to get the green light.
To keep the New Kirk thing going, running a fake punt would be in character. It would get it on film and keep opponents honest the rest of the year. Last year it was a fake field goal in the opener. This year…why not a fake punt?
Miami’s coach, Chuck Martin, said it himself…this is not a great match-up. The RedHawks want to be a physical team and establish the line of scrimmage. That sounds like a good idea in the open-styled MAC, but they aren’t going to be able to pull that off against Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes.
Don’t be too worried if the score stays close for the first half as Iowa grind away wearing down the RedHawks. We saw it frequently last year, as Iowa steadily maintained a small lead throughout the game before taking over near the end having worn out their opponent. Expect Iowa to pull away earlier than usual though, as Miami doesn’t have enough weapons to keep up.
Final Score: Iowa 37 - Miami (OH) 13