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Leistikow's Iowa-Wisconsin thoughts: Seniors outline future plans; could the 4-4-3 defense return?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Twenty-two Iowa football seniors will be recognized prior to Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. matchup against Wisconsin, but it’ll hardly be the final game in Kinnick Stadium they envisioned.

Their parents or loved ones won’t be out there for a midfield hug. No flowers, no snapshot pictures. Each player gets four tickets for family members or friends, but they’ll be relegated to the Kinnick bleachers in the COVID-19 era of social distancing. The rest of the stadium will be empty for the 22 seniors’ final swarm and tunnel walk as “Back in Black” booms over the loudspeakers.

Though fifth-year senior Nick Niemann can at least give his father, assistant coach Jay Niemann, a hug at some point, his teammates aren’t going to be as fortunate. Still, Niemann pointed out, there was a 35-day stretch in August and early September that Hawkeye players didn’t think they’d play any football in 2020, until the Big Ten Conference reversed course and reintroduced a shortened season.

Iowa players enter the playing field of Kinnick Stadium before the Michigan State game, swarming in front of cardboard cutouts instead of 69,250 pumped-up fans.

“It stinks. You’d love to run out there and have your family down there and have a stadium full of people,” Niemann said. “But that’s not the reality of it.

“It’s still going to be meaningful to have all your teammates down there and know that have a last game in Kinnick, that you get to go out there and play. I think everyone's just really grateful for that; we could be in a different situation.”

Iowa’s game notes list these 22 players as playing their final home game Saturday: Nick Anderson, Cole Banwart, Shaun Beyer, Max Cooper, Coy Cronk, Colton Dinsdale, Keith Duncan, Chauncey Golston, Matt Hankins, Jack Heflin, Alaric Jackson, Dallas Jacobus, Matt Lorbeck, Nick Niemann, Mekhi Sargent, Austin Schulte, Caleb Shudak, Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Austin Spiewak, Zach VanValkenburg and Barrington Wade.

Adding to the unusual nature of this season, all 22 of those players have the option to return for the 2021 season considering this one doesn’t count against their eligibility. But most are expected to move on. Duncan and Niemann basically confirmed this is their last game at Kinnick during media interviews Tuesday; Hankins said he hadn’t decided. Jackson is definitely moving on with an NFL future. Junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon didn’t want to say whether he would return in 2021, but one of 18 Chuck Bednarik Award semifinalists (nation’s top defensive player) is expected to move on.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said all 22 seniors would be welcomed back but that he would wait until after the season to have those individual conversations.

"Maybe there will be a few that'll be interested," Ferentz said. "But I know everybody's got a clock."

Duncan, who has family coming in from North Carolina and Texas, was able to secure 12 tickets for the game — thanking special-teamers Tory Taylor, Aaron Blom and Ryan Gersonde for giving up some of their allotment.

“Just having a senior day, whether it's with or without fans, is just special to me,” Duncan said. “I love being a part of the program. I eventually want to live here.”

Duncan, the fan-favorite placekicker, delivered a humorous parting shot in what could be one of his final interviews as a Hawkeye.

Was the reigning consensus all-American (who is 12 of 13 on field goals inside 50 yards) disappointed not to be named one of 20 Lou Groza Award semifinalists?

“It is what it is. I'm on the Tory Taylor campaign right now,” Duncan said, noting his freshman teammate is one of 10 semifinalists up to be the nation’s top punter. “I saw a Georgia Bulldog in there (among) the Ray Guy semifinalists, so we’re getting a little sketchy. But we’ll see how things turn out.”

That was Duncan's way of needling last year's Groza vote. He was a finalist but lost out to Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship, despite having better numbers. (Adding fuel to Duncan's insinuation of southern bias in the Florida-based award, there were six kickers each from the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences on this year's Groza semifinalist list, but none from the Big Ten.)

Even though Paul Chryst is no longer calling plays for the Badgers, Iowa expects the usual Wisconsin approach.

The sixth-year Wisconsin head coach confirmed Monday that he had turned over play-calling to longtime assistant Joe Rudolph before the season. Chryst’s rationale was that with the unusual preparation for a pandemic-shortened season, he didn’t have time to “do all the necessary homework” that he believes is required for a play-caller.

Offense is rarely a concern in Madison, but it has been over the last two games. Wisconsin (2-2) has mustered just 13 points in back-to-back losses (separated by two weeks) to Northwestern and Indiana. Wisconsin has averaged just 3.68 yards a carry in those games, a borderline crisis by their standards.

“They're going to try to run the ball right down the middle of the field of defense,” Niemann said. “If you can't stop that, you're going to be in trouble.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Iowa's defense combats the Badgers, who have won seven of the last eight series meetings. In last year’s 24-22 loss in Madison, the Hawkeyes introduced a 4-4-3 look to try to combat star running back Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers’ run game. It didn’t work, as Wisconsin piled up 300 rushing yards on 46 carries.

However, given that Iowa has been rotating talented middle linebackers Seth Benson and Jack Campbell alongside Niemann on the weak-side and sometimes Barrington Wade on the outside when they go 4-3, the Hawkeyes certainly have the personnel to give the 4-4-3 another try.

Iowa, of course, isn’t revealing whether the 4-4-3 could be revived.

“Uhhh,” Niemann said, “you’ll probably have to wait until Saturday for that.”

Ferentz brushed aside a question on the topic, too.

"Anything's possible," he said. "What we ought to do is look at a 12-man defense."

Ferentz says he asked each of the five players who are transferring, including Julius Brents, about whether they felt mistreated at Iowa.

“That was not the case with any of them,” Ferentz said Tuesday. ”We’ve stayed in contact with the other four, to make sure they’re following through and finishing their academic work here so that can go wherever they choose to go. All five guys are great guys.”

While Ferentz’s press conference was occurring, Brents tweeted his thanks to Iowa “for helping mold me into the player and person I am today.” He entered his name into the NCAA transfer portal Monday, joining running back Shadrick Byrd, linebacker Yahweh Jeudy, wide receiver Calvin Lockett and defensive back Daraun McKinney. All five transfers are Black, optics that Ferentz knows he must confront considering the summer’s investigation into his program found that team rules and practices “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity."

Brents was the first of the five who had seen extensive playing time in his Iowa career; he was a core special-teamer and has six career starts at cornerback. Brents was in his third year as a Hawkeye who had a ton of promise. Patience in the program paid off for recent second-round NFL Draft pick Josh Jackson and third-rounder Michael Ojemudia — late-blooming cornerbacks at Iowa who ascended to the next level.

Ferentz said that it was clear that Brents had put a lot of thought into the decision when they spoke Sunday.

“Long story short, I’m a little perplexed by his reasoning. And the timing is a little bit interesting,” Ferentz said. “But also that being said, I also respect his honesty and his courage. That’s how he’s feeling right now, and he’s going to follow his heart. I just wish him nothing but the best. I have great respect for Julius.”

Redshirt freshman Jermari Harris replaced Brents at left cornerback on this week’s depth chart.

Penalties could be a big factor in Saturday’s game.

The Badgers have been plagued by penalties in their last two losses — eight flags for 69 yards against Northwestern; then eight for 81 against Indiana.  

Iowa can relate. It lost a disappointing opener at Purdue, 24-20, after being penalized an uncharacteristic 10 times for 100 yards. In the six games since, Iowa is averaging just 24.5 penalty yards.

Jackson on Tuesday reflected that Iowa players might have been over-excited for that opener, given they hadn’t played in 10 months. They’ve corrected the issue since.

“Just more locked in on the assignments, snap count, details,” Jackson said.

Knock on wood, Iowa continues to have good injury luck.

The Hawkeyes consider themselves fortunate to be in position to play an eighth game Saturday, especially as Ohio State vs. Michigan was canceled Tuesday. They've also been lucky on the injury front.

Other than bouts of mononucleosis that kept Campbell and offensive guard Kyler Schott out for three games each, Iowa's only shaky position injury-wise has been right tackle. But now even that spot is getting healthier, with Ferentz on Tuesday saying that Mark Kallenberger (who has missed the last two games with an unspecified injury) would play Saturday but didn't say how much. Jack Plumb has started the last two games at right tackle; Coy Cronk also could be an option, but he hasn't played since Week 2.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.