IOWA CITY, Iowa – One-third of the way through the regular season and the Iowa football team still is sort of a mystery and very much a work in progress.
Some will call it a disappointment because the Hawkeyes are 3-1 when almost everybody outside of Fargo, N.D., expected them to be 4-0 at this stage.
There is a lot to like about Iowa after four games, but also a lot to dislike in the wake of Saturday’s uninspiring 14-7 victory at Rutgers in the Big Ten opener.
Here are 10 of each in no particular order:
What to like
1. Ron Coluzzi’s impact: The timing of his arrival as a graduate transfer from Central Michigan could not have been better. Iowa faced a big challenge with having to replace its punter and its kickoff person from last season. It took two players to do those jobs last season, but Coluzzi is handling both responsibilities by himself this season, and is doing both quite well.
You could make a strong case for Coluzzi being Iowa’s most valuable player after four games. That speaks volumes about his consistency, but also about Iowa’s inconsistency as a team.
A native of Naperville, Ill., Coluzzi has punted 20 times this season for a 43.25 average. Five of his punts have covered at least 50 yards, while six have been downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
He also entered the Rutgers game with 15 of his 19 kickoffs having resulted in touchbacks.
2. The energy, enthusiasm and athleticism that James Daniels brings to the center position: The sophomore from Warren, Ohio is versatile enough to carve out holes in the trenches and quick enough to get out in space and block down field as he showed against Rutgers.
That really shouldn’t be a surprise, considering Daniels turned down scholarship offers from schools like Ohio State and Alabama.
3. The Legend of Josey Jewell: Watching him limp, tackle, lead and inspire all at the same time against Rutgers was incredible. His story just keeps getting better, as do his performances. The Decorah native leads Iowa with 33 tackles despite missing almost the entire game against Miami of Ohio after being disqualified for targeting early in the first quarter of the season opener.
4. Ohio State isn’t on the schedule: The only way Iowa would face the machine from Columbus would be in the Big Ten championship game. And by then, it really wouldn’t matter what happened in the game because Iowa fans already would be satisfied with winning back-to-back Big Ten West Division titles.
5. George Kittle’s continued ascent at tight end: Yet another classic Ferentz story, the son of former Iowa offensive lineman Bruce Kittle goes from being a lightly recruited late addition to Iowa’s 2013 recruiting class to the next great tight end for the Hawkeyes.
Kittle has caught 10 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns, while also excelling as a blocker.
6. Full Nelson: Iowa’s two former high school centers in basketball both are emerging at defensive end. The 6-foot-8 Matt Nelson leads Iowa with four sacks, while the 6-7 Anthony Nelson is second on the team with 3 ½ sacks.
7. Desmond’s King presence and versatility: The only Jim Thorpe Award winner to return to college still hasn’t intercepted a pass this season. However, that is mostly because opposing quarterbacks aren’t throwing his way out of fear and respect.
King’s ability to shut down his area on defense, along with his ability to return punts and kicks is invaluable.
8. Beathard’s 16-3 record as a starter: He hasn’t looked as mobile or as spry as he did before injuries affected him last season. But Iowa still has won nine consecutive Big Ten regular-season games with Beathard behind center, and that is how a quarterback ultimately should be judged.
9. Getting and staying healthy: Iowa enters its fifth game with the starting lineup now mostly intact from a health standpoint. Beathard and running back LeShun Daniels already were slowed by injuries at this point last season.
Both are said to be healthy now, as is junior running back Akrum Wadley, who had been hampered by what he said was a knee bruise.
Wadley scored the game-winning touchdown against Rutgers on Saturday on a play in which he tight-roped down the sideline for a 26-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
10. Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska are all home games: You could make an easy argument that these three teams all look superior to Iowa at this stage, or maybe even vastly superior in the case of the Badgers and Wolverines.
Iowa has the luxury of playing all three of those teams at home this season.
What to dislike
1. Interior rushing defense: The Iowa defense is being gutted from the inside as opponents continue to find running room up the middle.
Rutgers matched Iowa with a whopping 193 rushing yards on Saturday.
Iowa is now ranked 86th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 179.0 yards per game heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium.
That average would be a concern regardless of who Iowa had played up to this point. It becomes a huge concern, though, when you factor in the four opponents that Iowa has played so far. North Dakota State is the best among the four, but it competes at the FCS level.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked on his post-game radio show on Saturday if there was one thing causing this problem.
“Yeah, I think there is,” Ferentz said. “Nobody wants to hear this, but it’s detail stuff where a guy has got to get his nose across a blocker and doesn’t. Or we may not all be on the same call check. Eight guys get the check and maybe one or two don’t.
“So when you allow those little cracks, it’s such a fine line. Those little cracks, a guy comes squirting through there for a couple yards. And then last week we compounded because we missed tackles beyond it.”
2. No established second option at tight end: You could say that Iowa’s tight ends have combined for 11 catches for 194 yards and three touchdowns. But that wouldn’t be fair to senior George Kittle because he has all but one of the catches and two of the yards.
True freshman Noah Fant is the only other tight end with a catch after four games. His lone reception gained two yards against Iowa State.
One of the keys to Iowa’s success last season was the one-two punch of Kittle and his cousin Henry Krieger Coble at tight end.
Junior walk-on Peter Pekar is now the second tight end, but he has been used almost exclusively as a blocker this season. Defenses are aware of that and will make adjustments until somebody besides Kittle becomes a pass-catching threat at tight end.
3. No established second option at receiver: Sophomore Jerminic Smith is probably the closest to filling this role, but he still lacks consistency as a pass catcher. The Garland, Texas native has seven catches for 97 yards and one touchdown in four games.
Smith has shown an ability and a willingness to block, which will keep him on the field. He just has to become more productive as a receiver to take some of the burden off senior Matt VandeBerg, who leads Iowa with 19 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns.
4. Inability to protect Beathard in the pocket: Iowa has surrendered two sacks in each of the four games this season. Sacks don’t tell the entire story, though.
There have been numerous plays this season in which Beathard has been hit hard in the pocket, including this past Saturday against Rutgers. That has to stop or you risk going from having a fifth-year senior who made second-team all-Big Ten last season to a true freshman as your starting quarterback.
5. Too many penalties: Iowa has been penalized at least three times in every game this season, including a season-high seven times for 57 yards against Rutgers.
Now there were extenuating circumstances, including a chop-block penalty on right tackle Ike Boettger that erased a 75-yard touchdown run by LeShun Daniels early in third quarter. Ferentz called it a perfectly executed block and then lobbied for the chop-block rule to be re-visited.
Iowa also was penalized 15 yards when one its assistant coaches apparently got in the way of an official near the Iowa bench.
“We need to clean that up,” Ferentz said of the penalties.
6. Michigan is on the schedule: Jim Harbaugh is sort of strange and a polarizing figure. But he sure knows how to coach. He has lifted his college alma mater back to elite status as Saturday’s 49-10 drubbing of Penn State showed so impressively.
Iowa didn’t have Michigan on its schedule last season, so the path to the Big Ten championship game was considered easier.
Always looking for an emotional edge, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Harbaugh told his players that the Iowa game was sort of a homecoming for him based on the three years he lived in Iowa City as kid in the early 1970s when his father was an Iowa assistant under Frank Lauterbur.
7. Wisconsin is better than expected. The Badgers might be the biggest surprise in college football to this point.
They did what many thought was close to impossible by not only defeating Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, Mich., but by turning the game into a 30-6 rout. Combine that with the season-opening victory over Louisiana State and Wisconsin already has two victories over top-10 opponents.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier, though, with the Badgers next three games at Michigan, at home against Ohio State and at Iowa. Wisconsin would make a strong case to be ranked No. 1 if it makes it through this brutal stretch of the schedule unscathed.
8. Beathard’s mobility: He just seems a step slower compared to the short time when he was healthy at the beginning of last season.
In fairness, he now wears a heavy knee brace and a rib protector, so it isn’t as easy to move around anymore.
9. Receiver separation: This familiar problem surfaced in the last two games. Beathard has missed a few open receivers this season, but he also has been forced to throw into tight windows because of little separation.
Matt Vandeberg has a knack for getting open, but defenses are starting to pay extra attention to him.
10. Identification please: The circumstances against Rutgers just screamed for Iowa to run the ball, and yet offensive coordinator Greg Davis seemed content with trying to throw.
The circumstances against North Dakota State a week earlier were just the opposite when Iowa insisted on running against an opponent whose secondary was considered suspect.
So which is it?