IOWA CITY, Iowa – A lot of things went into the Iowa football team finishing the regular season at 12-0. Much like a good recipe in cooking, all of the ingredients proved important.
Iowa’s defense has held the edge better than it did in 2014. Quarterback C.J. Beathard put together a highlight tape of clutch plays. The Hawkeyes have improved just about everywhere, including offensive line, running back, linebacker and throughout the special teams, highlighted by punter Dillon Kidd and return man Desmond King.
Those items, and others, are easy to put a finger on. Players work hard and improve. What’s not as easy to explain is the chemistry. All teams strive for it but few maximize it.
Team Captain Austin Blythe was peppered with questions asking him to explain this improbable and unexpected run following Friday’s 28-20 win at Nebraska. The senior center kept going back to he and his teammates playing for each other as he had for much of the season.
Again, most teams seek that unity. Capturing it is rare.
“We just constantly talk about it, just really remind each other that you’re playing for 105 other guys on the team,” Blythe said. “Football is an 11-man game on both sides of the ball so you need all 11 guys working together. Beyond that, you need everybody working together.
“So, I think that’s what we’ve been doing well is keeping everybody together and making them understand that we need to play as a team to win.”
Iowa, which meets Michigan State in Saturday’s Big Ten title game, serves as a classic example of a team whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And without the togetherness and all-for-one attitude, it’s unlikely it would be.
It’s allusive. And much of it must be natural or someone would bottle it and make a lot of money.
“I don’t know if you really can force it,” said defensive end Parker Hesse, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday. “It’s just kind of something that just comes together, you know, organically. But it’s here and it’s continued to grow and we’re going to continue to build on it.”
Hesse also credited the seniors for reminding the younger players like himself that every day they’re presented with an opportunity to improve. It’s a message and action everyone has followed.
Sophomore Bo Bower represents the selflessness rampant throughout the roster. Instead of complaining or being disruptive, the sophomore linebacker readily accepts his role as a situational defender (raider package) and special teams performer after starting 13 games last season. That’s infectious.
“Everybody on the team is like that,” a modest Bower said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re at, where they’re playing, whether or not they’re playing. If they’re scout team, everybody is just giving great looks. Everyone is playing their asses off. We just want to win. That’s all.”
Bower agrees with Hesse that the seniors set the tone for the building of the chemistry. True junior receiver Matt Vandeberg felt they took their lead from the top.
“I think it comes from the head guy, Coach (Kirk) Ferentz, you know, making sure we know what we need to do if we’re going to be successful,” he said. “I think it just comes straight from him and then we buy into it. When the team buys in, that’s when something special can happen. And something special has happened so far this season.”
HAWKEYE HARDWARE: Iowa will find out during the next two nights how the conference coaches and media feel about its season. Monday, the Big Ten announces it’s all-league defensive teams along with individual awards on that side of the ball. The offense is released on Tuesday.
These usually are tricky to predict because coaches and media are being asked to submit their votes based on limited knowledge. They’re all normally busy watching their respective teams and their opponents each week while the other conference members are teeing off at the same time. As a result, these honors often can boil down to reputation and statistics.
With that in mind, I’ll share which of the Hawkeyes stand the best chance of being named and who I feel delivered all-Big Ten seasons.
Who I think will be awarded: Kirk Ferentz as coach of the year by coaches and media, Desmond King as Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year, and King, Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and Josey Jewell as first-teamers.
Who I think should be awarded: All of the above plus Jordan Lomax, Jaleel Johnson and Henry Krieger-Coble on first-team.
BETTER THAN LAST: The Iowa men’s basketball team salvaged the holiday weekend in Orlando with a blowout win Sunday over then-No. 20 Wichita State. I secured seventh place in an eight-team tournament.
The Hawkeyes fell in a couple of hard-fought games against likely NCAA Tournament teams in Dayton and Notre Dame. They didn’t shoot the ball well and received limited production off the bench.
While the losses won’t come up as bad ones when the committee analyzes Iowa’s resume in March, it missed opportunities at good wins. It left Wednesday’s home game against Florida State and a Dec. 10 contest at No. 5 Iowa State as the final chances for “good wins” in non-conference play.
The Hawkeyes already secured what should be a good win at Marquette. The Golden Eagles have gone on to win their next three games since losing 89-61 against Iowa, including triumphs against LSU and Arizona State.
We knew it would require time for Coach Fran McCaffery to work out the kinks with this odd Iowa roster comprised of players with a lot of experience or little to none. And that’s shown up in him relying heavily on veterans early.
The Hawkeyes are going to need to do well in the rough and tumble Big Ten to reach a third consecutive NCAA Tournament as they’ll likely lack a great non-conference resume.
While the trip to Orlando was not a killer, it certainly tightened the margin for error.
THE HOMESTRETCH: Iowa enters the homestretch of its football season in pursuit of a national championship. It’s also looking to secure commitments from a few more recruits.
As we’ve written in the past, it feels like Iowa could find away around sticking to the 25-signee limit allowed by the NCAA. It could do so with attrition and also receiving one or two early enrollees next semester as they would be counted in the ’15 class.
Cedar Rapids Kennedy Tight End Shaun Beyer received and accepted a scholarship offer from Iowa last week. He raised the number of known verbal commitments in the ’16 class to 24.
Interestingly, two of Iowa’s top targets – South Dakota Offensive Lineman Matt Farniok and Jovan Swann, a defensive tackle from Indianapolis – also have Michigan State under consideration.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the Hawkeyes will use their last ride or two but offensive tackle, defensive tackle and defensive back appear to be the top areas they’d like to address.