Iowa takeaways: Status quo on defense, a new captain, Mitchell out
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Don’t look for wholesale changes by Iowa’s football coaching staff to fix a leaky rush defense. Perhaps don’t look for any changes, period.
The Hawkeyes’ approach entering Saturday’s Big Ten Conference opener at Rutgers is just to play better than they did in getting steamrolled in the run game by North Dakota State.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any changes at all,” senior cornerback Desmond King said. “Our gameplan is perfectly fine. We’ve just got to be ready to play.”
Despite being a two-touchdown favorite, Iowa (2-1) will be tested. Rutgers (2-1) brings rushing averages of 229.3 yards per game and 5.2 per carry into Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest on ESPN2 at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.
The Hawkeyes surrendered 203 rushing yards in the second half alone in a 23-21 loss to the FCS Bison.
“This team, they do a lot of pulling guards and centers. And so did North Dakota State,” said senior Jaleel Johnson, Iowa’s most effective defensive lineman this season. “We’re really focused on reading that key. Guy pulls, play your guy. That’s what we didn’t do enough of last week.”
Well, there is one change
The Hawkeyes are shaking up their captain lineup for the first time this season. LeShun Daniels Jr., not King, will join C.J. Beathard, Matt VandeBerg and Josey Jewell at midfield for Saturday’s coin toss.
During last year’s 12-2 run, Iowa kept its same four captains each week: Beathard, Austin Blythe, Jordan Lomax and Drew Ott. On game weeks, captains are voted on by the 16-player Leadership Group.
“No big story there,” coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, noting that in previous years Iowa has used “a lot of multiple” captain lineups.
Still, it’s notable to make a change the week after a loss. Carry on.
He’s the No. 3 running back, but Derrick Mitchell Jr. is a key piece to the Hawkeye offense. And he’s unlikely to play for a second straight week, with an unspecified injury.
Mitchell is Iowa's primary third-down back. Iowa especially missed his pass blocking against North Dakota State.
“He worked a little bit (Tuesday),” Ferentz said. “I just can't envision him being far enough along by the end of the week to be in a ballgame, so we'll just play that one by ear.”
The good news for Iowa is that Ferentz expects center James Daniels (knee) and right guard Sean Welsh (ankle) to play at Rutgers.
Welsh is Iowa’s most experienced lineman (25 career starts), and although Daniels has only one start at center, the true sophomore is a big talent.
“The thing about James, he’s very detailed where he puts his hands,” said Johnson, who goes against Daniels in practice. “If you’re going against him, you have to keep working him. If you take a play off, he’s going to get you. I think that’s what makes him really special."
Reserve defensive back Joshua Jackson, who didn’t play against North Dakota State, is “full speed” this week, Ferentz said.
Also, reserve tight end Jon Wisnieski, who suffered a knee injury in fall camp, is practicing again.
“He's got a lot of ground to cover,” Ferentz said, “but he's back full speed.”
Beathard trusts his line
Backside blitzes happen frequently in college and pro football. Sometimes, even against good offensive lines, they get home.
Beathard, Iowa’s fifth-year senior quarterback, was saddled with a pick-six interception against North Dakota State when he was sacked from behind while attempting to throw. Beathard said he never felt the pressure coming — something that ESPN2 identified, too.
During the broadcast, the sideline reporter shared that ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay sees a weakness in Beathard’s inability to feel backside pressure. Beathard was asked about McShay's assertion Tuesday, and he shifted the onus (and trust) to his offensive line, saying “those blitzes should’ve been picked up.”
“It’s hard to see when they’re coming off your backside. Honestly, I didn’t see it at all,” Beathard said. “I know when certain blitzes are coming. But if I feel they should get picked up, I shouldn’t have to worry about it.”
Ferentz vs. Rutgers
Iowa has never faced Rutgers in football. But Ferentz has. It’s something that The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette’s Mike Hlas asked about during Tuesday’s news conference.
“I thought I was going to slip right through here without anybody bringing that up,” Ferentz quipped.
Then in his second year as Maine’s head coach, Ferentz spent about 1,000 round-trip miles on a bus to go to Piscataway and preside over his Black Bears’ 40-17 loss to Rutgers.
“We played them tough for about four minutes, and that was about it,” Ferentz said. “It wasn't a good day at all.”