The Iowa coach was asked to identify areas of concern after a 3-0 start. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Saturday's game vs. North Texas should be the closest thing to a sure win on Iowa's 2015 football schedule. That's not what anyone within the Hawkeye program is calling it, of course.
But when Las Vegas says you're favored by 24.5 points against a team that ranks near the bottom of 128 FBS teams in total offense (101st), scoring offense (118th), total defense (116th) and scoring defense (108th), you certainly shouldn't lose.
The Hawkeyes by Saturday evening should be celebrating their fourth 4-0 start in the Kirk Ferentz era after defeating Dan McCarney's 0-2 Mean Green. But despite a perfect record, Iowa has been imperfect in assembling impressive-in-different-ways wins over Illinois State (31-14 behind an overpowering defense), Iowa State (31-17 behind a gritty second-half comeback) and Pittsburgh (27-24 behind the clutch performances of C.J. Beathard and Marshall Koehn).
"There are a lot of little things that you probably don't see as a casual observer, but our opponents are seeing, whether it's the leverage we might have on a coverage, etc.," Ferentz said. "And if we don't get those things cleaned up, we're going to get found on them."
The head coach explains Iowa's philosophy week by week. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
So with that, here are eight things that would be nice for Iowa to accomplish and/or sharpen between the 2:32 p.m. kickoff and "In Heaven There is No Beer":
Win the game (of course)
With a lot to accomplish in three hours, Iowa needs to step on the gas early against North Texas, which allowed an average of 503 yards and 34.5 first downs in losses to SMU and Rice.
In 2009, Arkansas State entered Kinnick Stadium as a 20.5-point underdog the week after an emotional Iowa win (at Penn State). The Red Wolves weren't very good that year, going 4-8, but they returned a Ricky Stanzi interception 75 yards and forced the 4-0 Hawkeyes to survive a 24-21 outcome.
"There is that possibility (of a letdown), certainly, if you're not careful," Ferentz said Tuesday. "… That's one reason we don't gear for certain opponents.
"The message we're trying to get across to our football team is each and every week we have a chance to grow and develop."
Rest Ott, maybe Daniels
Drew Ott, Iowa's most dominant defender in the opener, suffered a dislocated elbow early against Iowa State. He tried to come back against Pittsburgh, but was limited and ineffective. Ferentz said on his radio show Wednesday that even if Ott is medically cleared (and wants) to play, it doesn't mean he will.
The same goes for LeShun Daniels Jr., who couldn't effectively push off his injured right ankle vs. Pittsburgh (nine carries, 17 yards) and ceded No. 1 running back duties to Jordan Canzeri. Ideally, 225-pound Daniels gets another week to recover for the Big Ten Conference opener at Wisconsin – but not at the expense of a third consecutive heavy workload for 192-pound Canzeri.
"If they're not going to be able to play the way they want to play," Ferentz said, "it's not always the best thing to have them out there."
Unleash "DMX," test Wadley
With the goal of keeping Canzeri fresh, it might make sense to see what Derrick Mitchell Jr. (aka "DMX") can do early against North Texas. The converted wide receiver hasn't received a carry this season due to on- and off-field reasons, but Ferentz said Wednesday he's the healthiest he's been in a month. Mitchell was so impressive in spring and fall camp that he shot up to No. 3 in the running back pecking order. This marks a great opportunity to test whether he can be Canzeri's heir apparent in 2016.
Otherwise, it might be time to give sophomore Akrum Wadley one more shot. He's got electric moves but has been plagued by well-documented fumbling and weight-control problems. If Iowa can't roll out Mitchell and Wadley now, it could be a long wait before we see them again.
No edge-rushing relapses
It's been fright and yay from last season to this with how Iowa has performed against outside running plays. The Hawkeyes are allowing 51 rushing yards a game, tied for fifth in FBS. And the first-team defense has allowed just four touchdowns, one of them coming on a one-play drive after a Pitt interception return to Iowa's 15-yard line.
North Texas will try to run the football out of a spread attack. Going 3-for-3 in keeping the edge has forced Iowa's opponents to be one-dimensional – even if that means giving up a big pass play or two.
"The more aggressive you are downhill, it can hurt you in play-action," said weak-side linebacker Cole Fisher, who leads Iowa with 24 tackles in his first year as a starter. "That's the way we're being coached at the moment, so that's what we're going to do."
The senior linebacker allowed his man to get a big catch on fourth-and-15 against Pitt. That conversion led to a tying TD but Iowa won 27-24. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
Crank up defensive-line push
Without Ott, Iowa has struggled to get pressure with its four-man rush – as it did with five first-half sacks against Illinois State. Pittsburgh quarterback Nate Peterman often had too much time to throw Saturday. Seeing Ott's replacement, redshirt freshman Parker Hesse, take a step forward is important.
"I'm going to have to recognize play-action faster," Hesse said. "I feel like I'm stuck playing the run. Just getting off blocks faster, pursuit to the ball. I get stuck on blocks every now and then. There's a long list of things, and I'm working on all of them."
Keep reppin' at linebacker
While rest sounds like the best medicine for some of Iowa's central cogs, the linebacker trio of Fisher, Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann need all the repetitions they can get.
Fisher got burned on the fourth-and-15 pass play that led to Pittsburgh's tying touchdown. Jewell got turned around a few times in pass coverage. Niemann is a true sophomore still getting acclimated to the critical outside role in Phil Parker's 4-3 defense. You could throw true sophomore strong safety Miles Taylor in the needs-reps category, too.
North Texas wields an offensive attack that averaged 7.7 yards a play against Rice last week, the most vs. an FBS opponent under McCarney since 2010.
"Kind of similar to Iowa State, they'll really get you spread out," Fisher said. "They'll actually run … a lot of play-action basically, which makes it tough to figure out if they're running the ball or passing."
Get C.J. to 5-0, out by third quarter
Iowa's junior quarterback took a physical pounding against blitz-oriented Pittsburgh, an opponent that forced him to sling a lot of screens and slants. North Texas plays more zone coverage, which should let Beathard work on deeper drops and progressing through his reads.
"They don't play as much man-to-man as Pitt did, so we'll have to be cautious out there throwing the ball, not be stupid with it," said Beathard, who is 4-0 as an Iowa starter. "Just execute the game plan well and it should be all right."
Getting Beathard out in one piece would benefit redshirt freshman backup Tyler Wiegers, who only got five snaps in his only career game against Illinois State. Iowa hopes to redshirt its other two scholarship QBs, Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook.
The Iowa quarterback discusses his health.
See what the rookies can do
Ferentz decided to play three true freshmen in early September. Left guard James Daniels has played a lot, but wide receivers Jerminic Smith and Adrian Falconer are still seeking their first catch. Ferentz told the Hawkeyes' website this week that he was considering pulling the redshirt off rookie defensive back Michael Ojemudia.
Kicking the tires on Smith (who had a team-best four catches on Kids Day) and Falconer would help determine if they can play meaningful snaps during Big Ten play. Add these five redshirt freshmen to the depth-building wish list, too: Matt Nelson (defensive end), Aaron Mends (linebacker), Joshua Jackson (cornerback), Brandon Snyder (safety) and Jay Scheel (receiver).
"Anytime guys that aren't starters get to play, that's a benefit," Ferentz said. "It's just good for everybody. It's how they grow. It's how they move forward, and it's a reward, too. But you've got to earn that right, and those things don't come easy."
IOWA (3-0) VS. NORTH TEXAS (0-2)
When, where: 2:32 p.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium
Television: ESPNU (announcers: Anish Shroff and Ahmad Brooks). Iowa is 7-0 all-time on ESPNU.
The line: Iowa is favored by 25.5 points.
Weather: Mostly sunny, high of 79 degrees. Light winds.