Iowa's Big Ten road map: Is 11-1 or 12-0 possible?
Iowa’s coaches and players not only say it, they do it — take one game at a time. They get 24 hours to enjoy a victory, then it’s on to the next opponent. No looking back (except for film study), no looking too far forward.
But the Hawkeye fan base doesn’t have that restriction. Which is why, at the halfway point of the season, it’s OK those outside the Iowa Football Performance Center to think ahead.
These 6-0 starts don’t come along very often. This is just the second time it’s happened in Kirk Ferentz’s 17 years (the other being the 2009 Orange Bowl team that started 9-0) as coach.
Of Hayden Fry’s 20 Hawkeye teams, only the legendary 1985 collection got through Game 6 unbeaten (that Rose Bowl team started 7-0).
Chuck Long was the quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up for that 1985 team. He has experienced high-level success as a player and coach. He continues to follow the Hawkeyes closely, as well as the rest of the Big Ten Conference as a network analyst. What’s impressed Long the most about Kirk Ferentz’s 2015 Hawkeyes is the togetherness they’ve displayed in winning four down-to-the-wire games.
“I don’t think they’re great defensively. I don’t think they’re great offensively,” Long said. “But together, they’re really good. They’re really feeding off of each other very, very well.
“They have a unique and hard-to-come by chemistry. You often hear that word, and it’s hard to achieve now. It’s hard to achieve.”
Long was the quarterbacks coach under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma when it won the 2000 national championship and was with the program through 2005. Oklahoma’s recruiting classes only got better, but Stoops hasn’t won a title since.
“I was on a national championship team in 2000 that was all about chemistry,” Long said. “The subsequent years I was there, we had a lot better talent than that team, but at times didn’t quite … we were just missing a little chemistry at the top.”
In other words, it’s time to enjoy this, Hawkeye fans. While appreciating the moment, it’s OK to let your mind run wild. Is it possible to reach the Big Ten championship game? It might take at least a 5-1 finish to make that happen. Granted, the Hawkeyes (6-0, 2-0) are hobbling as they enter their first matchup of ranked teams since 2010 — at No. 20 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1).
What about, gasp, 12-0 in the regular season? Decide for yourself as we break down each of Iowa’s six remaining games, with Long adding his perspective:
Saturday: at Northwestern
Reasons to be encouraged: Northwestern struggles on offense, especially in the passing game. And Iowa ranks No. 5 nationally against the run. The Hawkeyes have shown the ability to win a defensive slugfest on the road (10-6 at Wisconsin).They're favored by two points.
Reasons to worry: Quarterback C.J. Beathard isn’t 100 percent. Two of Northwestern’s best players are their senior defensive ends, who are going against backup offensive tackles, including a true freshman in James Daniels making his first college start. Iowa star defensive end Drew Ott (ACL) is out for the year.
Chuck Long says: Get the ball to Jordan Canzeri (43 carries, 256 yards vs. Illinois). “You’ve got an off week coming up, which should really help him. He’s got the hot hand right now, so you want to get him the ball.”
Hesse steps in for Ott as Iowa defense marches on
Oct. 24: Bye week
Iowa is hopeful to get wide receiver Tevaun Smith (knee), running back LeShun Daniels Jr. (right ankle) and tight end Jake Duzey (knee) back after the lone off Saturday this season. The prognosis is less clear on tackles Boone Myers (stinger) and Ike Boettger (left ankle).
Oct. 31: vs. Maryland (2-4, 0-2)
Reasons to be encouraged: Even if there are some nagging injuries for Iowa, the Terrapins have been dysfunctional. They are last in the Big Ten in total offense and scoring defense. Oh, and they just fired coach Randy Edsall.
Reasons to worry: Nothing can be taken for granted. Maryland was tied with No. 1 Ohio State in the third quarter. A year ago, the Hawkeyes led 14-0 in College Park, Md., before losing 38-31.
Chuck Long says: “You’re getting a team in disarray. They turn the ball over a bunch. I think they lead the league in turnovers (they do, at a minus-11 margin). They’re just a complete mess right now.”
Nov. 7: at Indiana (4-2, 0-2)
Reasons to be encouraged: Indiana is last in the Big Ten by a wide margin in total defense. This could be a chance for Beathard to record his first 300-yard passing game.
Reasons to worry: Indiana runs a wide-open style that has bothered Iowa in the past. The Hoosiers are sneaky good if quarterback Nate Sudfeld and Big Ten leading rusher Jordan Howard (141.8 ypg) can return from injuries by then.
Chuck Long says: “That team goes as Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard goes. If they’re not in there, they drop off significantly.”
Nov. 14: vs. Minnesota (4-2, 1-1)
Reasons to be encouraged: The Gophers have been decimated by injuries and are a shell of the team that was predicted by some to finish in the top two in the Big Ten West. Minnesota will have played Michigan and Ohio State the two Saturdays before playing in Iowa City. The November night game (7 p.m.) atmosphere at Kinnick should be electric following the outdoor wrestling dual.
Reasons to worry: Jerry Kill’s Gophers don’t quit, and they have a strong defense when healthy — as shown by a 23-17 season-opening loss to No. 3 TCU. They could have it all put together by mid-November.
Chuck Long says: “A couple weeks ago, they were a no-dimensional offense. They finally got it back to one dimension last week against Purdue (41-13 win) and ran the ball. They had to find something. They struggle throwing it.”
Nov. 21: vs. Purdue (1-5, 0-2)
Reasons to be encouraged: It’s Senior Day. Iowa could have a lot to play for, while the Boilermakers could just be playing out the string. Purdue has the Big Ten’s worst rushing defense. Iowa likes to run the ball.
Reasons to worry: The Boilermakers lost only 24-21 at No. 7 Michigan State a few weeks ago. Iowa had only sold 50,000 tickets for this game as of Tuesday.
Chuck Long says: “They’re better than people think, but they just haven’t learned to win yet. They just can’t get over the hump and learn to win. That’s hard to do.”
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Nov. 27: at Nebraska (2-4, 0-2)
Reasons to be encouraged: Let’s dream big for a second: Iowa could be 11-0 or 10-1 at this point, with a Big Ten West title in its own hands. The Hawkeyes dominated in Lincoln two years ago (38-17) against a better Nebraska team than this.
Reasons to worry: The Cornhuskers’ four losses have all come on their opponent’s final offensive play. They’ve got talent and the Big Ten West’s best dual-threat quarterback in Tommy Armstrong. There’s a lot of time left for Nebraska to figure things out it’ll be Game 12 for new coach Mike Riley.
Chuck Long says: “A lot of (the unsettled start) is a coaching change. That first year is a tough transition, you’re getting used to everything. They’re one of those teams, if they get it together, they could be really good, because they do have the talent. Their front four, front seven, are pretty good.”
WHO: No. 17 Iowa (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) AT No. 20 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1)
WHERE: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.
TIME/TV: 11 a.m., ABC (in Big Ten footprint), ESPN2 (otherwise)
LINE: Iowa by 2
OF NOTE: Fans are invited to join the National I-Club on Friday evening from 5-7 p.m. in Chicago for Hawkeye Huddles at Theory (9 W. Hubbard St) in downtown Chicago or Goose Island Wrigleyville (3535 N. Clark St.).