Leistikow: Fresh off bye, 4-2 Iowa Hawkeyes positioned for perfect October
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Along Iowa’s quest to deliver a perfect October — and set itself up for a challenging November finish — it’ll encounter a lot of the same scenarios that it did in 2015.
Considering those Hawkeyes played their best football down the stretch and completed the regular season 12-0, that’s at least a positive starting point.
The bid to go 3-for-3 this month starts Saturday with an 11 a.m. game at Northwestern — which oddsmakers see as a toss-up in the Hawkeyes’ seventh game — with a true freshman listed at right tackle.
Same as 2015.
Iowa would end up winning that contest, 40-10, in one of the signature performances of the 2015 season behind a patchwork offensive line that helped roll up 492 total yards — including 294 on the ground led by then-sophomore running back Akrum Wadley.
A true freshman named James Daniels made his first career start that day at left guard, even though he was listed at right tackle leading up to the game.
Daniels is now the third-year starting center, and Wadley is the workhorse senior.
This week, Iowa indeed plans to start a true freshman at right tackle in Tristan Wirfs. The rookie from Mount Vernon shined in his first career start Oct. 7 against Illinois, and on Monday was listed as a first-teamer by the university for the first time.
Northwestern (3-3 overall, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) was a 1½ -point favorite for Saturday’s ESPN2-televised matchup after a resounding road win at Maryland, while the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2) are coming off their lone bye week of the season, in which heavily used starters were given light practice workloads.
“I still believe — and I have believed all along — that we’re a team that is capable of significant improvement,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said on last week’s Hawk Central radio show. “But it’s not like it’s just going to happen just because we all got 80 more snaps under our belt against Illinois or had some good practices this week — those types of things. We’ve got to do it daily. That really is the challenge: Keeping our focus on us getting better as a football team.”
Another Hawkeye similarity between the second halves of 2015 and 2017 is a home night game against Minnesota.
On Monday, it was made official that Iowa’s Oct. 28 contest against the Gophers (3-3, 0-3) at Kinnick Stadium would be staged at 5:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1. With sunset in Iowa City expected at 6:05, it’s essentially clinching a night-game feel at Kinnick. Iowa won, 40-35, against the Gophers in 2015 to improve to 10-0 while breaking out alternative uniforms.
The Hawkeyes should be favored in that matchup, so they’ve got a fair chance to enter the November gauntlet — vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin, vs. Purdue, at Nebraska — with a 6-2 record.
Considering Big Ten West front-runner Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0) already has head-to-head wins against three division teams with two league losses in Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue, the Hawkeyes hold the best chance to make the West a little bit interesting.
Iowa’s two Big Ten losses are by one score to East Division foes who are unbeaten in Big Ten play — Penn State and Michigan State.
“In retrospect, both of those teams look like pretty good football teams,” Ferentz said. “We thought they were when we played them. The challenge is for us to learn from those two, and learn from last Saturday (a 45-16 win against Illinois).”
In other depth-chart news: Iowa listed free safety Brandon Snyder as a starter for the first time, while leaving the strong-safety starter unclear between senior Miles Taylor (29 career starts) and sophomore Amani Hooker (two). Hooker was given the unofficial nod by defensive coordinator Phil Parker last week.