10 Questions with Iowa Beat Writer Marc Morehouse
by Tony Gerdeman
This will be just the seventh meeting this century between Iowa and Ohio State, but when these two teams have played, some very interesting things generally happen. For instance, the Buckeyes were trailing 17-13 late in the fourth quarter at Iowa in 2010 when Terrelle Pryor scrambled for 14 yards on fourth and 10, keeping a drive and Big Ten Championship hopes alive. Ohio State eventually won that game 20-17 with a touchdown in the final minutes. The year before, Iowa backup quarterback James Vandenberg led Iowa back from a 24-10 deficit, sending the game into overtime, which the Buckeyes also eventually won. And those are just the two most recent examples.
Iowa comes into this game unranked for just the second time in the last seven meetings. That first meeting (2004) also represents the Hawkeyes' lone win against the Buckeyes since 2001. Given the magnitude of this week's game, as well as the infrequency with which Ohio State and Iowa play, we thought it would be a good idea to get you caught up on the Hawkeyes via a Q & A with Marc Morehouse (@marcmorehouse), who relentlessly covers Iowa for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Tony - Does Iowa throw the ball downfield much? Receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley's longest reception is just 18 yards. Is that a lack of opportunity or execution?
Marc - Iowa doesn't throw a lot of deep passes. It's in the "get to" and not "go to" part of the playbook. Iowa wants to lay down tracks for the train and let that do the wearing out. OC Greg Davis knows "shots" must be taken, but they're so inorganic for this offense, which is stuck on default of burly O-line, big RB and an inconsistent quick passing game. Iowa is No. 102 in the nation with 14 pass completions of 20-plus yards. Juco Damond Powell, a Toledo native, helps. He's high 4.3s, low 4.4s. He also arrived three days before camp and is still immersing. In three seasons of mostly heavy use, Martin-Manley's best yards per catch is 10.98. Deep isn't his game. He's good in traffic, on the edge and underneath.
Tony - Everybody on OSU's offense is aware of Iowa's no rushing TDs allowed. The offensive linemen were simply given a piece of paper with the stat on it, and the OL coach didn't have to say much else. There has only been one "goal to go" scenario for the Iowa defense so far. They are near the top of the B1G in lowest number of big plays given up. How in the world are they managing this? Is it "bend but don't break", "don't bend, don't break", "ain't got time to bleed"?
Marc - Iowa sells out to stop the run and the steam escapes in the form of big TD passes on the secondary. In its two losses, Iowa has allowed TD passes of 40, 21, 33, 46 and 37. One big improvement from the 4-8 clown dance last year is third down on both sides of the ball. Iowa's defense is getting off the field (26.67, No. 6 in the nation). Iowa's offense has converted enough third downs for 32:44 average time of possession, No. 16 in the nation. So, it's been a little column A and a little column B when it comes to this stat. Iowa's defense is at its best when the space closes (which probably says more about the overall team speed), yes, but the whole no rushing TD thing is an anomaly and not a point of pride. Maybe it is now this week after Ohio State made it a point of emphasis.
Tony - Other than bringing in the Michigan State defense, what's the most effective way to disrupt the Iowa running game?
Marc - Penetrate and scrape. Mark Weisman isn't fast, probably in the 4.6-7 range (Iowa is weird about its 40s, doesn't really do them). When he first made his splash -- and I'm assuming you know the whole Air Force Academy walk-on story -- Iowa strength staff released a video of Weisman doing speed squats. They didn't have these when I was a kid and it's a good thing. I would've left major organs flopping on the weight room mat. Now, Iowa doesn't release strength videos unless it knows it has something. Weisman has legs. If he gets three good full strides into a zone play, he's won. It's 5 to 19 yards. Weisman is a converted fullback, so the high-end running back skills -- instinctual cuts, turning to the backside -- aren't a huge part of his repertoire. He's not great at stop-start acceleration. He's not an east-west runner. Penetrate, scrape. OSU really impressed me with the hats to the ball against Northwestern. Weisman also suffered a foot injury and dropped out of the Michigan State game. He says he's good to go. He lost four games last season to an ankle and groin injuries.
Tony - We all remember the Iowa defensive lines of the past, with Mitch King and Matt Kroul, or Adrian Clayborn and Karl Klug, etc. The Buckeye players I talked to on Wednesday had nothing but respect for this Iowa defensive line. Where does it stack up to the supremely active lines of the past, particularly inside?
Marc - That 2009 DL was actually eaten alive at Ohio Stadium in '09, allowing 229 yards on 51 carries. It was full of future NFLers, but it was gutted with Terrelle Pryor at the controls. This year's edition is still in the tunnel waiting to get on the field with the others. But it's leagues above where the Hawkeyes were on the DL last season. The inside has come alive. I thought DT Carl Davis was headed to the glue factory. He suffered a pair of knee injuries, including a dislocated knee cap, and had 16 career tackles headed into the season. He set a new record for snaps in his first game. He's 6-5, 320. He's athletic and can hold the point of attack. DT Louis Trinca-Pasat came to Iowa a 240-pound TE/DE. He's now 290. He's shortish, maybe 6-2, but just maybe. His feet and hands move well together. He's quick and holds up at the point. They've been a bit of a revelation. End Dominic Alvis has quietly improved. Not the fastest, but great strength, athleticism. DE Drew Ott is a true sophomore and is active. His next step is finishing. It's better, improving, but doesn't stand with the great DLs Iowa has had.
Tony - Where do you think the Hawkeyes will have their best chance for success on Saturday? Personally, Braxton Miller talked about wanting to throw the ball over the middle of the field on crossing routes more this weekend. I see a linebacker (James Morris?) snagging at least one of those.
Marc - That could happen. Ohio State has two gears in the running game. Quarterback Braxton Miller has become great in the option. He's a weapon on the edge. RB Carlos Hyde is a big back and, correct me if I'm wrong, seems to be a player that the team rallies around. He's a senior who's had some success and one everyone would love to send off with a ring of some sort. Iowa has to control/limit one of those. I think the best chance might be the inside zone game. Iowa should be able to trade punches inside. I'm not sure it can keep leverage and chase on the outside. Free safety Tanner Miller is a smart player. He's had two picks in the red zone this year.
Tony - Where do you think the Buckeyes will have their best chance for success on Saturday?
Marc - I think the Buckeyes front seven will limit Iowa's run to below standard and probably not enough for the Hawkeyes to make a living off of. It's young, sure, but there's athleticism and power that kind of nullify mistakes. The inside of Iowa's OL is relatively new. Center Austin Blythe has played well, but he's in his first season at the position. Guards Conor Boffeli and Jordan Walsh are new starters. Walsh has been overwhelmed physically a few times. He's sometimes replaced by Monclova native Andrew Donnal. Iowa's OL is in the top half of the Big Ten. Where would you put Wisconsin's, top two or three? The Buckeyes stuffed the Badgers into a mailbox, holding them to 104 rushing yards. Iowa had a shot at one of the conference heavyweights and Michigan State's punter ended up out-rushing Iowa, 25-23.
Tony - I liked Jake Rudock coming out of high school. Even though he's just a redshirt sophomore and has never thrown a pass before this season, have you seen enough of him to think that he'll be the answer for the next three seasons? Have you seen anything special out of him yet?
Marc - One of the questions I most frequently get is what about C.J. Beathard? He's the backup, a redshirt freshman who went through camp and came out with fantastic reviews. Strong, accurate arm. Great feet, good enough to run a zone read capable of aggravating the defense. He's No. 2 behind a sophomore who hasn't given the staff any reason to pull him. Rudock's nuance is PhD level. He makes run checks and positions blockers in pre-snap like Google finds "define irony." For the way Iowa runs its offense, that's a deal maker. So, the special stuff is in his head. It's how he handles a bad play and moves on. It's how he shows calm under pressure. It's how he doesn't make the same mistake twice. The big special, game-winning plays, those haven't happened yet. And that leaves the "what about Beathard" question out there just enough to agitate the vocal minority.
Tony - Given the rough game that OSU cornerback Bradley Roby had when he was put on an island against Wisconsin's play-action, as well as a new starter at safety, Buckeye fans are a bit gun shy when it comes to the play-action pass. With that in mind, how has Rudock done in that area this season?
Marc - I would say a B. It's a big part of Iowa's game. Teams know this, recognize it easily and cover it pretty well. Iowa was driving for the "turn out the lights" TD against Minnesota when it ran play-action inside Minnesota's 20. Rudock made the fake, turned his back to the D and missed the moment the receiver was wide open. He threw late and it was picked off. On the rollout play-action, Rudock has shown enough athleticism to make something happen with his feet. It's not enough to make a living, but enough to keep negative plays away. I think this is something Iowa can do damage with, but I don't think it'll break Ohio State, not consistently.
Tony - Tell me about true freshman cornerback Desmond King and what got him into the starting lineup?
Marc - He's a little guy, 5-9, 180ish. He was a MAC-level recruit who got the big offer from Iowa and jumped (can't remember from who off the top of my head). Recruiting analysts said he wasn't fast, but played great football, sort of in the vein of former Hawkeye Micah Hyde, who's now with the Packers. King had 29 picks at Detroit Crockett, which plays in a run-oriented league. How is he starting? Sophomore corner Jordan Lomax went down with a hamstring pull in the first game and hasn't been the same. He has a chance to be back this week.
Tony - What is the one thing that must happen for Iowa to pull off the upset?
Marc - Iowa has to manage big plays, for and against. When the Hawkeyes got it going in the second quarter against MSU, Rudock found rhythm in the passing game and burned a couple of Spartans blitzes, including a 47-yard TD pass to RB Damon Bullock and a 38-yarder to emerging WR Tevaun Smith. Michigan State stopped blitzing, played coverage and kept everything Iowa tried in front of it. Those two big plays, though, were foundations for TDs. You saw the stat above. The door is open for big plays (20-plus) on Iowa's defense. It hasn't been shut yet this season. Doubt a button gets pushed this week.
Tony - What is the Iowa fanbase's current feeling regarding Kirk Ferentz? Are they understanding, or are they growing restless, weary, and possibly ready for a change?
Marc - Yes.
Dead serious. Yes. All the above. I think Ferentz's approval rating is above guys who wear sad circus clown makeup too long after the gig, but below the guy who brings the Busch Light. If I had to percentage it, I'd say 45 percent believe he deserves a chance to turn it around. He's done it twice before. I'd say 40 percent have embraced the reality of the contract Iowa signed him to prior to the 2010 season. The buyout now hovers around $16 million. The rest fall into snark-castic militant group who throttle Ferentz at every turn. My Twitter feed has a few. People want their complaints registered and I'm good with that. I can't say I blame them.
And I could be off on the percentages. Iowa hasn't had a sellout this season. That's mostly due to the student section not selling out, but they couldn't fill the place for homecoming. Come to think of it, my percentages might be way off.
Tony - Has the Iowa football program been investing its TV money back into itself, i.e. facilities, coaching staff, administrative staff, recruiting staff, etc?
Marc - Iowa feel asleep at the wheel in regard to facilities. Iowa is in the second phase of a $55 million facility upgrade. This included a new indoor facility. The old one was one of those blow-up bubbles, like the ones you see people play tennis in. The second phase will house the offices and the team facilities and weightlifting thingies and all that. Iowa also spent $9 million on video, sound and scoreboard upgrades this fall.
Ferentz makes the big coin, $3.7 million a year through the 2019 season. Iowa's coordinators are in the middle or bottom third of the Big Ten at $325K. There are no Greg Mattison deals on this staff, but it's competitive with the middle tier.
Iowa has put its money where its mouth is, but is just now evening up (can't even say "catching up") in facilities.
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