IOWA CITY, Ia. – The Iowa coaching staff split this football season into three segments: 1. The non-conference (four games); 2. Pre-bye week in the Big Ten (three games) and 3. The regular-season home stretch (five games).
But things have been going so well for the Hawkeyes, there’s a good chance this season is only at the halfway mark. Iowa is 7-0 and ranked 10th nationally, but if it continues to find success, this season will have at least 14 games – something that has never happened in Hawkeye history. That’s because Iowa would reach its first Big Ten championship game (now in Year 5) and either a bowl game or (why not dream big?) a College Football Playoff semifinal.
So, with Segment 3 of the schedule starting at 2:30 p.m. Saturday vs. Maryland at Kinnick Stadium, it seems like an appropriate time to hand out Mid-season Awards in 10 categories:
Offensive MVP: C.J. Beathard
Pretty easy call here. More impressive than the statistics (1,609 total yards, 12 touchdowns, four turnovers) has been the junior quarterback’s leadership and ability to get the Hawkeyes into the correct plays. It was his audible that facilitated Jordan Canzeri’s game-changing 75-yard touchdown run against Illinois. Beathard also became a locker-room leader after being named starting quarterback Jan. 8 over Jake Rudock, now the Michigan starter. Don’t discount the impact he’s had behind the scenes in Iowa’s positive culture change. Teammates believe in Beathard, who is 8-0 as a starter. The Hawkeyes are 4-0 in games decided in the fourth quarter (Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin and Illinois).
Defensive MVP: Desmond King
Last week when coordinators met the media, Phil Parker had a tough time picking an MVP. But the impact of King, Iowa’s junior cornerback, is indisputable. He has the MVP edge over defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and linebacker Josey Jewell because of his ball-hawking secondary skills. King’s six interceptions rank second in FBS (one behind Northern Illinois’ Shawun Lurry) and are twice as many as anyone else in the Big Ten. Plus, King has been a difference-maker in the return game. His late returns assisted the wins over Iowa State and Pitt. Quarterbacks are now mostly avoiding King, who Monday was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award, given to college football's top defensive back.
Special Teams MVP: Dillon Kidd
It’s hard not to reward placekicker Marshall Koehn for his game-winning, 57-yard field goal against Pittsburgh alone. But Kidd’s steadiness was sorely needed in Iowa’s punting game after an unacceptable collective unit in 2014 (117th in FBS in net yardage). Kidd, a senior, has increased his punting average by 16.4 percent over last year, from 38.5 per kick to 44.8.
Most Improved: Cole Fisher
When the guy with nine career tackles in four years has 61 in the first seven games of his fifth season, that’s eye-popping. Fisher was moved to starting weak-side linebacker, replacing Bo Bower, just before the season opener. The Omaha, Neb., native doesn’t play like a first-year starter. His dependability has epitomized a bend-don’t-break defense that has allowed just two rushes of 20-plus yards all year and ranks 12th nationally. The civil engineering major’s academic workload is light (five credit hours), giving him more time than ever to study football. It's paying off.
Iowa’s Outland Trophy (top interior lineman): Jordan Walsh
This was a tight race between Walsh, center Austin Blythe and defensive tackle Johnson. Blythe’s reliability has been paramount to the offense, but look no further than the Illinois game to recognize Walsh’s impact. The fifth-year senior missed the second quarter with a shoulder injury. After his second-half return, running back Jordan Canzeri ran for 180 yards on 23 carries – when the Illini knew Iowa was going to run – in a 29-20 win. More often than not, when Iowa breaks off a sizable run, you'll also see Walsh punishing some poor defender.
Mr. Clutch: Matt VandeBerg
Beathard has completed 68 passes to wide receivers this season – 41 of them (60.3 percent) have gone to the junior from Brandon, S.D. Typically working out of the slot, VandeBerg has been, by far, the team’s most reliable target – not to mention his heady scoop of a Henry Krieger Coble fumble for a touchdown at Iowa State to start the Hawkeyes’ 21-0 second-half finish. VandeBerg’s downfield motions after first-down receptions have become energizing and emblematic of an offense that’s always looking forward. He has six or more catches in five games this season after entering the season with a single-game-high of five.
“Twelfth Man” Award (top bench player): Cole Croston
Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s iPad was filled with offseason stories about new starting offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger. Questions swirled about their readiness for the big-time. But Croston’s name was barely mentioned, and it hasn’t been lately, either – that’s because the junior former walk-on is doing an admirable job filling in for injured Myers at left tackle. Croston has taken every meaningful snap of Big Ten play and, despite a challenging indoctrination vs. Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert in his first career start, Croston’s solid, unnoticed play has held the re-tooled offensive line together.
Senior Appreciation Award: (tie) Jordan Canzeri, Nate Meier
The Hawkeyes wouldn’t have won back-to-back games over Wisconsin and Illinois without Canzeri, who set a school record for carries (43) against the Illini. A significant ankle injury suffered Oct. 17 against Northwestern could keep him out for a while, but the 192-pounder's every-down production at running back (153 touches, 10 touchdowns) with season starter LeShun Daniels Jr. injured has been just short of heroic.
Meier, meanwhile, is a tenacious force on the defensive line that has wreaked surprising havoc for opposing offenses. The undersized defensive end (6-2, 252) has six sacks this fall to double his previous career total of three. His importance is magnified with Drew Ott (torn ACL) out for the year.
Top Newcomer: James Daniels
This award is open to any first-year player. The rapid development of the just-turned-18 offensive lineman from Warren, Ohio, has been one of the neatest stories on this 2015 team. Against Northwestern, Daniels became the first true freshman since Bryan Bulaga in 2007 to start on Iowa’s offensive line. Daniels has been more effective in run-blocking, and his presence at left guard helped the Hawkeyes roll up a season-high 294 rushing yards at Northwestern. Runner-up in this category: Ott's replacement at right defensive end, Parker Hesse.
Top Assistant Coach: Phil Parker
Excellent cases could be made for Brian Ferentz (offensive line/run-game coordinator) and Chris White (running backs) – two guys that have won national weekly coaching awards this season. The same could be said for Reese Morgan (defensive line), who recruited the guts of this character-filled roster and led a surprisingly smooth transition from defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. But Parker has engineered an amazing defensive turnaround on multiple levels. The Hawkeyes are setting the edge against the run (2.46 yards per attempt, vs. 4.42 in 2014) and creating turnovers (plus-7 margin, vs. minus-6 in 2014). Those numbers have birthed winning football and the FBS' third-ranked defense against the run. Parker's got guys in the right places and has forced opposing offenses to become one-dimensional.
UP NEXT FOR HAWKEYES
Matchup: No. 10 Iowa (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. Maryland (2-5, 0-3)
When, where: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TV: ABC (regional), ESPN2 (outer-market)
The line: Iowa is favored by 17
Tickets: $65. Available at hawkeyesports.com, at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena ticket office or by calling 1-800-IA-HAWKS.