IOWA CITY, Iowa – We want answers.
We want reasons for why the Iowa football team is 8-0 for just the second time in school history.
We have proof of the turnaround with Iowa’s record, but the reasons for it are still open for debate and always will be.
You can’t attribute it to staying healthy because Iowa has been rocked by injuries, with as many as six starters missing multiple games this season for health reasons.
Iowa’s schedule is being credited with helping the resurgence, and with no disrespect to the opponents, there probably is some truth to that. The last four opponents on Iowa’s schedule, beginning with Saturday’s game at Indiana, have a combined record of 13-20 overall, including a dismal 3-14 in Big Ten games.
But there is more to it than that because Iowa has squandered opportunities with soft schedules before, as recently as last season when the Hawkeyes lost their final three games to finish 7-6 overall.
Iowa also had who many thought was college football’s best offensive lineman in 2014 Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff, and yet still struggled to run the ball last season, averaging just 163.1 rushing yards per game.
Last year’s team also had Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat starting at defensive tackle as fifth-year seniors. They both made second-team all-Big Ten last season. So they must have done something right at two key positions.
The same with Quinton Alston, who started at middle linebacker last season as a senior and made second-team all-Big Ten.
Last year’s team also had a healthy Jake Duzey making plays at tight end, whereas Duzey barely has played this season because of a knee injury.
So what is it?
Making C.J. Beathard the starting quarterback has certainly been a factor, but Iowa’s resurgence under veteran head coach Kirk Ferentz goes beyond that. You could argue that Beathard has been average in Iowa’s four Big Ten games, partly because of injuries, but the team still has found ways to win.
“I think everybody has improved and every week everybody is trying to get better,” said sophomore linebacker Ben Niemann. “But I think we’ve focused on the little things.”
Niemann backed off that statement a little when asked if last year’s team didn’t focus as well on the little things.
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Niemann said. “Last year, we didn’t get the results that we wanted. And this year we just took another step.”
It’s tough for the current players to try to explain Iowa’s turnaround without making comparisons to last season. That’s why it’s awkward.
Alston was a guest on our podcast on Monday and he disagreed with the theory that the current team is playing better than last season’s team because the players on the current team are more unified. He also denied that last year’s team was divided by the quarterback competition between Beathard and former starter Jake Rudock, who has since transferred to Michigan after losing the starting job to Beathard.
It’s only natural for Alston to stand up for his team. He’s proud of what he accomplished as a Hawkeye, even though his career didn’t end on a high note from a team standpoint.
Alston said the biggest difference between this season and last season is simply that the current team is executing better on both sides of the ball, and on special teams.
He didn’t really have a reason for why, nor did I expect him to because that would’ve meant questioning his team from last season.
Some things just happen without an explanation.
We know the current Iowa team is executing better because we see it on Saturday. We see a more potent rushing attack, a more physical and aggressive defense and a more opportunistic special teams.
We see Dillon Kidd punting at an all-Big Ten level this season after barely hanging on to the job last season.
We see Niemann and the other two starting linebackers – senior Cole Fisher and sophomore Josey Jewell – making the position a strength instead of a weakness like it was last season despite Alston playing at an all-Big Ten level.
Ferentz was asked Tuesday if his defense has progressed faster than he had ever hoped it would during the offseason. He used junior cornerback Desmond King’s success to answer the question.
King leads the Big Ten with seven interceptions and needs just one more to tie the school record of eight that is held by Lou King (no relation) in 1981 and by Nile Kinnick, which he accomplished during his 1939 Heisman Trophy season.
“You know, yes and no,” Ferentz said. “I think we had a gauge on the athleticism of the group. But Desmond King is a good example of what I’m alluding to here. It’s one thing to be fast or athletic, it’s another thing to play fast or athletic. I don’t know how fast Desmond is. We don’t time our guys actually. You watch him practice. You watch him train. You get a feel for it. But then the real thing is how do they play, how fast do they play. A lot of that’s just knowing what to do and really reacting quickly.
“A player’s knowledge base, how he can connect dots, that type of thing, do it quickly, makes him play faster. That’s why I think Desmond is playing faster than he did a year ago. Probably you can say that about our whole group right now. They seem to be clicking, taking care of their responsibilities. When they do that, it gives everybody a chance to kind of get in the flow of things.”
In other words, King is better than he was last season, partly because he’s a year older and a year wiser. You could the same about many of his teammates, including senior offensive guard Jordan Walsh, who is performing at an all-Big Ten level this season, along with center Austin Blythe. Walsh performed well at times last season, but he was inconsistent.
So you take the experience factor and combine it with Beathard’s presence and with more speed and diverse options at running back and you have a formula for success.
With all due respect to Mark Weisman, he didn’t hit the hole as fast as the current running backs do most of the time. Weisman was no slouch as a running back or he wouldn’t have started for three seasons. But his skill set was better suited for fullback.
A year makes a big difference with Iowa’s current running backs, considering Jordan Canzeri was injured for much of last season, while Akrum Wadley hadn’t earned Ferentz’s trust last season. Derrick Mitchell Jr., also hadn’t even made the switch from receiver to running back at this point last season. That didn’t happen until prior to spring practice.
Iowa’s top two fullbacks – Macon Plewa and Adam Cox – also have stayed healthy this season, unlike a year ago.
“To me, that’s not one of the major stories, but a story,” Ferentz said of the fullbacks. “Last year, we really missed both of those players.”
As for Beathard, his impact goes beyond statistics. With a 9-0 record as Iowa’s starting quarterback, he just seems to have the “it factor.” And if somebody in the media feels that way, imagine how his teammates must feel with Beathard leading the way.
The offense had peaked with Rudock playing quarterback. His lack of arm strength, coupled with Weisman banging between the tackles had made Iowa predictable and sort of listless on offense.
It’s reasonable to assume that Beathard improved throughout last season to the point where Ferentz finally made the switch after seeing Rudock not improve. The quarterback situation was another thing that just needed time to work itself out.
Ferentz also had to look in the mirror and see what he could do to create an edge again. His approach in games seems more aggressive and he seems more willing to take chances on unproven players than before.
The switch to morning practice and having Thursday as the day off also deserves mention because it’s hard to argue with the results. The players now have the luxury of resting closer to game time. So it’s reasonable to think that perhaps their bodies are in better condition to play compared to the previous schedule when Monday was Iowa’s day off.
So there you have it; the reasons behind Iowa’s sudden and unexpected turnaround. A lot goes into making a team better, including players simply having time to improve.