Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown and Cyclone columnist Randy Peterson discuss this week's games.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – More than a month ago, Drew Ott delivered one of the Iowa football season’s most memorable quotes when he shared the simplistic defensive strategy that produced a 10-6 win at Wisconsin: “If they don’t score, they don’t win.”
Saturday at Indiana, as the now 8-0 Hawkeyes look to validate and improve upon their No. 9 College Football Playoff ranking before a curious national audience (2:30 p.m., ESPN), that approach could be reversed to this: “If they don’t stop us, we don’t lose.”
As much attention as Indiana’s high-powered offense has received – and it’s been tremendous when dart-throwing quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back transfer Jordan Howard are healthy, as they are this week – the Hawkeye offense has a golden opportunity to blend muscle with finesse and outscore the Hoosiers.
“We know what kind of offense they have,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. “They have a fast-tempo, fast-paced offense that can score a lot of points. We want to score more points than they score.”
And there you have it – the straightforward strategy is already simmering in the minds of Iowa’s offense, which is facing the worst pass defense in the country. Indiana is allowing 342.1 yards a game through the air, 127th out of 127 in the FBS.
Indiana has used four true freshmen in its secondary this season. Two of them – right cornerback Andre Brown Jr. and strong safety Jonathan Crawford – are starters.
In the Hoosiers’ last two games, they’ve given up 55 points (Rutgers) and 52 (Michigan State). They’ve also yielded 47 to FCS Southern Illinois, 35 to Western Kentucky and 34 to Ohio State.
Iowa players and coaches are more focused on their upcoming game in Bloomington than the College Football Playoff rankings.
“Indiana scores a lot of points,” Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith said. “So if we have to do the same, we should be capable to do that.”
Maybe this is the Saturday that Beathard, whose mobility has been limited since injuring his right groin Oct. 10 vs. Illinois, showcases his big arm and tops 300 yards passing for the first time. (His career high is 278 vs. North Texas.)
Oh, and not that coach Kirk Ferentz would ever, ever let this come into his thinking, but just tuck this nugget away: In Tuesday’s initial CFP poll, Iowa was ranked lower than No. 6 Baylor and No. 8 TCU despite having a better strength of victory because those Big 12 teams, in the words of CFP chairman Jeff Long, each had a more “explosive offense” than Iowa.
Senior receiver Tevaun Smith discusses possibilities against the nation's worst pass defense.
Saturday would be a time to help change the plodding perception of Iowa (which incidentally puts up 32.6 points a game despite its huddle-every-down pace).
“As long as we are able to go out and execute our game plan well and do the little things that we should be able to do and know we can do,” Beathard said, “we should be able to put up some points on these guys.”
Winning the battle up front
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So piling up gobs of yardage against Indiana isn’t as easy as handing off and throwing deep.
Because Indiana knows its secondary is suspect, it tries to confuse and attack opposing offenses. It’s an understandable plan, especially against a team such as Iowa that likes to chew clock and move the chains, because the Hoosiers can disrupt momentum and create big plays. They pushed No. 1 Ohio State to the limits in a 34-27 loss on Oct. 3.
The Hoosiers have 49 tackles for loss, four more than Iowa (which packs the nation’s No. 7 total defense).
“These guys, they move a lot, they've got a lot of different looks, things they'll throw at you,” Ferentz said. “We have to be really on top of our game.”
The key guy to stop is 6-foot-5, 275-pound senior defensive end Nick Mangieri. He wears No. 56 and has seven of Indiana’s 21 sacks. By the way, the Hoosiers’ co-defensive coordinator is former Iowa defensive end/co-captain Bill Ennis-Inge (1993-96) – officially listed as “William Inge” by Indiana.
“They bring a lot of pressure,” center Austin Blythe said. “We’ll have to be assignment sound and technically sound and fundamentally sound and pick that stuff in order to make big plays of our own.”
Iowa’s offensive line was just so-so last week against Maryland, with a season-low 110 rushing yards, as it continues to adjust to different personnel groups. Boone Myers’ return to left tackle swung Cole Croston over to right tackle, where starter Ike Boettger remains out with a high-ankle sprain..
Left guard Sean Welsh, Blythe and right guard Jordan Walsh have given Iowa its most consistent push in the running game and have taken pressure off Beathard’s injury. Since the junior quarterback got hurt, Iowa has scored 10 touchdowns (nine rushing, one defensive, zero passing) and 84 points in less than 10 quarters.
Even with leading rusher Jordan Canzeri (high ankle sprain) out for the second straight week, there’s a lot to like in the three-pronged group of shifty Akrum Wadley, powerful LeShun Daniels Jr. and pass-catcher Derrick Mitchell Jr.
“One thing about injuries,” Ferentz said, “they force you to develop depth.”
The Beathard health factor
Oh, yeah, Beathard’s injury. That will be a thing for the rest of the regular season and the Dec. 5 Big Ten championship game, if Iowa gets there by winning at least three of its next four.
The main problem: Beathard has become a statue in the pocket and he can't effectively run bootlegs or rollouts. That hurts Iowa’s play-calling versatility.
“But there’s other things we can do in their place,” he said this week. “Maybe I will get to the point where I can do that in some games.”
Here’s the good news. Beathard’s arm is fine. And he says he’s gotten accustomed to playing with his limitations now and that throwing isn’t a problem.
“It’s more my hips. So it’s not as tough throwing the ball,” Beathard said. “I’m all right there.”
As mentioned, Iowa’s defense has been very good. Taking away special-teams and garbage-time scores, here are the game-by-game point totals that Iowa has allowed: 0, 17, 17, 16, 6, 10, 20, 7.
So even if the Hawkeyes permit Sudfeld (who is legit, having thrown for 779 yards and seven TDs in the last two games) to move the ball downfield occasionally, Iowa can win this game by not turning it over and with an offense that keeps scoring.
If that strategy pans out, Iowa will be 9-0 to match the 2009 team's start – with a shot at a program-first 10-0 before an electric atmosphere and the season’s first sellout crowd, at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 against Minnesota.
“We’re definitely excited about it, too,” Blythe said. “Don’t get us wrong. But at the same time, we’re focused on one game at a time, and everything’s going to take care of itself after the regular season’s over.”
Matchup: No. 10 Iowa (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) at Indiana (4-4, 0-4)
When, where: 2:30 p.m. CT, Memorial Stadium, Bloomington, Ind.
TV: ESPN (Announcers: Mike Patrick, Ed Cunningham, Jerry Punch)
The line: Iowa is favored by 7
Weather: Partly sunny, high of 59 degrees. Zero chance of rain, light winds.