No big deal this week, just a national college football quarterfinal that doubles as a winner-take-all Big Ten Championship game.
We sat down with Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants to figure out how exactly Iowa got to 12-0. Check out my answers to Ross' questions at BHGP soon.
1) What's the Iowa fan's headspace like in terms of Kirk Ferentz? It has felt like since 2009, Hawkeye fans haven't been thrilled with the middle-of-the-road finishes in the Big Ten. Has Ferentz redeemed himself?
ROSS: He's led Iowa to its first-ever 12-0 start and put on the cusp of a spot in the College Football Playoff -- yeah, I think folks are pretty happy with him. Fandom is ever-fickle, so I'm sure there will be no shortage of carping when Iowa eventually does stumble (which hopefully won't happen until next year), but if Iowa fans are still upset with Ferentz at this point, you're just looking for things to be miserable about. That said, I don't think anyone is looking for Gary Barta to hand him another 10-year extension, but the angst about Ferentz being here until 2020 (the current end-date of his contract) has definitely been washed away.
2) Ok, seriously, did anybody see 12-0 coming? Where have the biggest improvements come from compared to a season ago?
ROSS: Did anyone see 12-0 coming? No, definitely not. I don't think anyone really expects to go 12-0 unless you're a Bama fan or an Ohio State fan. But this level of success was definitely not something that was forseeable on the horizon back in August. We knew Iowa had a schedule that looked favorable on paper, but the same was true last year and Iowa wheezed to 7-5 (7-6 after the bowl game beatdown) and this year's team had to replace several key cogs from that team (Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis, Mark Weisman, Jake Rudock). But here we are.
The biggest improvement off the field has been in the leadership department -- it's been a recurrent theme in interviews all season that the leadership among the players on this year's team (especially among the seniors) is much, much better than it was a year ago. The players seem to be holding themselves to higher expectations and holding themselves more accountable. And, well, whatever they're doing -- it's sure as hell been working.
On the field, the biggest improvements have been the talent upgrades at quarterback, running back, and linebackers. Beathard has been much more effective running the Iowa offense than Rudock, partly because his running/scrambling ability has made Iowa more difficult to defend and partly because he has a stronger arm, which has opened up options to the Iowa offense that weren't really there before. Mark Weisman was a great guy and a helluva Hawkeye, but he was also a fullback playing running back -- there were limitations there. The rotating band of ballcarriers Iowa's gone with this year are all actual running backs and they bring speed and agility to the mix that Weisman just didn't have. The faces at linebacker haven't changed too much from last year, but their positional responsibilities have and they've really taken to their new positions very, very well and been far more effective than they were a year ago.
3) After his outing against Nebraska, it seems clear that Jordan Canzeri is a big-play threat in the rushing game. Who should MSU fans be watching out for in the passing game? Have you guys been pretty happy with C.J. Beathard?
ROSS: Iowa fans have been very happy with Beathard so far this year, although I think there was some frustration in his inability to really hurt some of the poor pass defenses that Iowa has played over the last month. He didn't even throw for 100 yards against Nebraska's piss-poor collection of Blackshirts and while the weather probably played a factor there (it was a very cold and windy afternoon), it was still a little alarming. But passing yard gripes aside, Beathard's performance this year has been very encouraging -- he's done a great job of directing the Iowa offense, making smart decisions, calling the correct audibles, and avoiding turnovers. It would have been fun to see him light up some of lousy secondaries Iowa's seen for 300 yards and 4 touchdowns, but if Iowa doesn't need him to do that... well, C.J. can just keep on doing what he's been doing. It's been working quite well for Iowa's offense so far.
4) Desmond King won the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year award. Is he the kind of cover corner who will be put on an island against a top guy like Aaron Burbridge? Are there other guys in the secondary to pick on?
ROSS: It would be a lot of fun to see the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year and Big Ten Receiver of the Year square off all game long, but I don't think we'll see it happen. They'll probably match up at times, but for the most part, King patrols the left side of the field and his partner, Greg Mabin, patrols the right side of the field. Mabin has been a frequent target of abuse by opposing quarterbacks this season (he's just two years removed from being a wide receiver, so he's still getting experience as a corner) so I'd expect Cook and MSU to do the same on Saturday night. He did just have a nice interception last week against Nebraska, though, so hopefully his confidence is riding high going into this game.
5) Iowa is middling in the Big Ten (and nationally) in terms of sack rates. Is there a Hawkeye defender I should be watching when MSU is on offense? Might Shilique Calhoun have a big day?
ROSS: Iowa's pass rush has really struggled since Drew Ott was lost for the season with a knee injury earlier this season. He was Iowa's best pass rusher by far. (He's still second on the team with 5 sacks -- and he hasn't played a game since October 10.) In Ott's absence, Nate Meier has stepped up as Iowa's main pass rusher -- he's got 6.5 sacks on the year and 9 QB hurries. But pass rush is definitely something I'm concerned about for Iowa -- if they're not able to get to Cook, he could definitely do some damage against Iowa's defense. I suspect Iowa will need to get creative in how they bring pressure if the front four isn't able to get after him by themselves -- Iowa does blitz linebackers and safeties at times and I'd expect to see more of that on Saturday.
In terms of Iowa's pass protection... it's decent, but not exceptional. Iowa's offensive line has definitely been better at run blocking than pass blocking this year. Beathard's mobility has come in handy, though, as he's been able to slip out of countless would-be sacks; Iowa's given up 20 sacks this season, but that number would be far higher if he was less mobile. Blocking Shilique Calhoun will be a big test for Iowa's tackles -- Iowa's probably going to need to send them some help (from the tight ends or running backs) to keep Calhoun out of the backfield.
6) How do Iowa fans feel about Michigan State? Any unusual dislike or animosity? Feels like the Ferentz-Dantonio series has been competitive and that makes this matchup more interesting.
ROSS: I think there was definitely some animosity brewing between these teams (and fanbases) a few years ago, but the division swap may have calmed things down a bit. It's hard to keep the passion stoked when you only seen an opponent every 3-4 years. But around that 07-13 period, Iowa and Michigan State played a lot of really close games. The games were incredibly physical and hard-hitting and I think there was a perception among Iowa fans that Michigan State's hits went right up the line of what was acceptable (and went across it a few times). There was also a feeling that Dantonio seemed a little sleazy, which stemmed from the incident where Chris Rucker was released from jail and went straight into the starting lineup against Iowa just a day or two later. The similarity between the programs -- Dantonio has self-admitted that he used Iowa as a model when he was building up MSU -- also added fuel to the fire -- familiarity breeds contempt after all and Iowa and Michigan State appeared to be competing for the same spot in the Big Ten pecking order. I don't know how much animosity there still is, though -- most of the incidents that fueled things are several years old at this point and (IMO, at least) it's hard not to have some respect for the level of success that Dantonio and Michigan State have been able to maintain over the last 5-6 years.
7) Care to venture a prediction?
ROSS: This will be Iowa's most difficult game by far this season. Cook, Burbridge, and Calhoun will be among the best players Iowa has seen all year, so slowing them down will present a tremendous challenge. That said, this Iowa team has answered every challenge they've been faced with so far this year, which gives me some optimism for this match-up. I think the game will be decided by turnovers -- both teams have outstanding turnover margins -- so whoever is able to get takeaways and score some points off them should win the game. I can't go against Iowa now, though. Iowa 24, Michigan State 20 after Jordan Lomax gets a late interception to seal the win.