Hawkeye football analysis: Keep an eye on these 4 areas

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa State star tailback Mike Warren produced a paltry 13 yards against Iowa last year. Northern Iowa throttled him last week to the tune of 31 yards from scrimmage.

Those are the two worst outputs of Warren’s career. The Cyclones lost both games.

So it seems like a pretty simple formula for success when the No. 10 Hawkeyes get a second crack at Warren and the Cyclones at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa State tailback Mike Warren found little room to run last Saturday against Northern Iowa, picking up 30 yards on 12 carries. The Hawkeyes would love to make that happen again this Saturday.

Except nothing is simple when these teams meet. The word “star” in that opening sentence was not a misprint. Warren averaged 131 yards rushing per game last season against opponents not based in Iowa. The shifty sophomore can change the outcome of Saturday’s Cy-Hawk showdown, especially if the Hawkeye run defense is as lackluster as it was last week.

“It seemed like we were thinking a little bit too much, just kind of overanalyzing,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of allowing Miami of Ohio to bleed the clock while rushing for 158 yards in his team’s season-opening 45-21 win. “Positive thing is nothing broke out of there for long plays, big plays (13 yards was the most). But you know, five yards, five yards, five yards, that’s just not good football.”

Warren carried the ball only 12 times last week in a 25-20 setback against Northern Iowa, his lowest total since getting three attempts in last September’s 31-17 Cy-Hawk loss. And that was despite the Cyclones holding a lead for much of the game against the Panthers, when you would think Iowa State would be intent on leaning on the all-Big 12 Conference running back.

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First-year Iowa State coach Matt Campbell would love to double up Warren’s workload this week. Keeping him contained will be the focus of the Iowa defense, which has been studying film all week and will be bolstered by the return of middle linebacker Josey Jewell, who was ejected early in the Miami game for a targeting infraction.

“We’ve just got to keep him in the backfield, bottle him up. He likes to bounce things out and make plays,” Iowa sophomore defensive end Matt Nelson said of Warren. “We’ve just got to keep him corralled.”

That’s one story line I’ll be watching closely. Here are three others:

Two stars in the making?

Last week, the Hawkeyes benefited greatly from the emergence of defensive end Anthony Nelson and wide receiver Jerminic Smith. Both saw expanded roles because of injury and responded with momentum-shifting plays.

Now the question becomes: Was that the high point of their season or can they be counted on as major contributors throughout at positions of great need for Iowa?

I’m guessing the latter, based on the talent and attitude both displayed, but this game will tell us a lot.

Nelson is a redshirt freshman from Urbandale who played both end positions in his first college game after sophomore Parker Hesse went out in the first quarter with what appeared to be a hamstring strain. Hesse did not practice this week and Ferentz called it a “day-by-day” situation.

The guess here is that Hesse sits out Saturday. That means more snaps for the Nelsons, who have yet to show that they can carry such volume without wearing down. Sophomore Sam Brincks will get some time and we might even see much more of redshirt freshman Brady Reiff.

Anthony Nelson is the playmaker of that group, after debuting with 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a pass breakup and Big Ten Conference freshman of the week honors. All of which he downplayed.

“There’s a lot of first-game mistakes I need to clean up and be disciplined,” Nelson said this week. “The plays that were made, it was a defensive effort.”

Smith made his first start at split end when fellow sophomore Jay Scheel was held out of the Miami game with a nagging leg injury. Smith had three catches and his first career touchdown, but was equally as impressive when blocking, helping pave the way for a pair of early touchdown runs. That part of his game he’s had to develop since arriving at Iowa out of South Garland (Texas) High School, where he played in a spread offense.

“I embraced that because I knew I had to do it. It’s part of my job,” Smith said.

So is being a deep threat, and Smith flashed some skill there as well, snaring a 38-yard pass from C.J. Beathard on the near sideline. Scheel is expected to play at last Saturday, but Smith remains the starter. If he keeps making plays like that, he’ll be hard to supplant.

Will Beathard run? Will Kittle receive?

Two components we assumed we’d see out of Iowa’s offense were noticeably absent against Miami.

Beathard, wearing a brace on his left knee but declaring himself fully healthy, said he never felt compelled to run against the RedHawks, although there was at least one occasion when it appeared that would have resulted in a first down. Iowa had a simple game plan in its opener, and moved the ball at will, so perhaps it’s not significant that Beathard remained in the pocket.

But his mobility is what helps make him so dangerous (as does his accuracy). Last year against Iowa State, Hawkeye coaches and fans alike got their first glimpse of the full Beathard skill set when he burned the Cyclones with his feet as much as his arm. His 57-yard scamper out of the shadow of his end zone was a back-breaker.

“I’m feeling good, feeling healthy. Last week, I didn’t really have an opportunity to tuck it down and run it,” Beathard told reporters this week. “If that’s necessary, definitely I’ll be able to do that.”

If it is, and he doesn’t, it might be time to wonder if Beathard really is just wearing the brace as a precaution.

It’s also hard to imagine that Beathard won’t target his senior tight end, George Kittle, more than once, as he did last week. Kittle, a gifted 6-foot-4, 250-pounder who grabbed six touchdown passes a year ago, was used primarily as a blocker against Miami. He excelled in that role and was part of the reason Iowa rushed for 212 yards.

But he is too important in Iowa’s pass game to be stuck at the line of scrimmage. Surely, Iowa will use its lone experienced tight end more than a week ago, right?

Let’s set the over/under on Beathard rushes and Kittle receptions at 3.5 each, and see where this discussion takes us next week.

Avoid game-turning turnovers

Iowa was plus-3 in turnover margin last week. Iowa State was minus-3.

For a Cyclone team looking to score an upset, there’s no clearer path than to reverse that stat line.

Iowa would love to force some miscues, of course, but it’s more important that the Hawkeyes don’t cough up the football.

Beathard has proven to be a relatively mistake-free quarterback, with only five interceptions in 362 passes last year. Starting tailback LeShun Daniels Jr. fumbled just one time. His backup, junior Akrum Wadley, lost three of them in his first two seasons.

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So there are no huge concerns there.

But an early fumbled snap or blocked punt or deflected pass that ends up in Cyclone hands, particularly if it leads directly to a score, could make it a long evening for the home team. It would be just the break a hungry, nothing-to-lose Cyclone squad could feed on.

I don’t think Iowa loses this game … unless it loses the turnover battle.