Marc Morehouse is the Iowa beat writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. With Maryland set to travel to Iowa City, Iowa, to take on No. 10 Iowa, he was kind enough to answer some questions about the matchup and the undefeated Hawkeyes, one of college football's most surprising stories.
So Iowa is undefeated and has an inside track on winning the Big Ten West. Sure, people can argue that the schedule is favorable, but being undefeated at this point of the season is still impressive. Was there a feeling around the team before the season started that this type of run was possible? What's been the biggest key to the success?
No preseason talk of 7-0. OK, maybe a few of the blue-sky dreamers, but no one really listens to them, right? In the real world, there was more legit "hot seat" talk for head coach Kirk Ferentz than anything else. Ferentz has acknowledged this. He's not necessarily agreed with it, and, whoa daddy, does he now have a leg to stand on.
Also in the real world, you were talking about an offense that lost two tackles to the NFL draft, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff, a quarterback change that everyone strangely had felt good about and, outside of WR Tevaun Smith, had no skill playmaker with a real resume (mostly because TE Jake Duzey suffered a torn patellar in spring practice). Also, in three big showdown-type games last year, the defense was a no-show, allowing 51, 37 and 45 in losses to Minnesota, Nebraska and Tennessee, respectively. It also lost both tackles to the NFL.
The biggest key has been the re-emergence of the defense. In two Big Ten road games against ranked teams (Wisconsin and Northwestern), Iowa has allowed a total of 16 points. Iowa's defense is in the top four in all major defensive categories. It also has managed decent mayhem numbers (22.0 sacks, 44.0 tackles for loss, 15 takeaways) while staying in read-react mode.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard and the juggling because of injuries on the O-line and the mystical RB merry-go-round (everyone they've had to use has worked at "B1G player of the week" caliber) are part of it, but the defense has been the spine.
Iowa's been hit hard by injuries recently, especially with running back Jordan Canzeri and defensive end Drew Ott. How big are these losses? How can Iowa overcome losing them?
Iowa won't overcome the loss of DE Drew Ott. He was a senior from a farm in southeast Nebraska. He used every second of his four years to build himself into a 6-4, 270-pound premium Big Ten pass rusher. Iowa just doesn't have another one of those on the shelf. Redshirt freshman Parker Hesse has been the next guy. He's been capable, but he's 6-2, 240 and just doesn't have the pass-rush power that Ott had. Iowa does, however, play a defense that can really be boiled down to "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Players to the ball, gap integrity, leverage held across the board. The defense remains Iowa's strength.
Junior LeShun Daniels started the season as Iowa's 20-carry running back. He went down in week 2 with a high-ankle sprain. The 6-0, 225-pounder might be back this week. He gave way to senior Jordan Canzeri, who put up a school-record 43 carries for 256 yards against Illinois. He suffered a high-ankle sprain against Northwestern. Then, it was sophomore Akrum Wadley's turn. The 185-pounder rushed for 204 yards and four TDs against Northwestern. Iowa hasn't really cut the tape on sophomore Derrick Mitchell, who had 79 yards against Northwestern.
This week, it's Wadley, Mitchell and probably Daniels. Iowa needs that three running back cushion, because, with Beathard limited with hip/groin injuries, Iowa's offense has gone into wood chipper mode.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard has been banged up recently. What is his status for Saturday? And what has been the key to his success this season?
Yes, Beathard suffered a hip injury against Pitt and it's degraded. Against Illinois on Oct. 10, he also clearly suffered a groin injury. So, left hip and right groin. There also was a sports hernia Internet rumor scare, but he dismissed that. Still, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said he played at about 50 percent against Northwestern. Iowa loves play-action rollouts and naked bootlegs. Against Northwestern, it tried one of those and Beathard was nearly sacked and nearly fumbled. It's a big part of Iowa's game, and legs are a big part of Beathard's game.
Before the Illinois game, Beathard was one of the QB rushing leaders in the Big Ten (even if you counted that Braxton guy). That has been shelved in favor of a quick-passing game. What's made Beathard work as well as he has (and, frankly, has made the Iowa staff look pretty good for essentially trading two-year starter Jake Rudock to Michigan to make room for Beathard as starter) is the blend of a strong, accurate arm and his legs. The question then becomes does Iowa have the receivers to play to Beathard's strength now? Maybe. We'll see.
Beathard is practicing this week, which is an improvement over Northwestern week.
Iowa is right up there with the Big Ten's top defenses this season. What's been the reason for the defense's success? How can Maryland attack it?
Iowa has been strong down the middle on defense, with tackle Jaleel Johnson, middle linebacker Josey Jewell and free safety Jordan Lomax. Cornerback Desmond King, my vote for first-half MVP, has shut down one side of the field with a Big Ten-leading six interceptions. Iowa linebacker play from 2014 to this season is night and day. In the three big 2014 losses mentioned above, Iowa's perimeter defense sagged. This year, strongside linebacker Ben Niemann has sewn that shut.
Coordinator Phil Parker has settled into a 3-2-6 third-down package that has paid dividends. It's allows Iowa to play a zone, read the QB and attack. Iowa has dodged some bullets. Wisconsin lost running back Corey Clement two weeks before it played Iowa. Pitt lost James Conner to a season-ending knee injury two weeks before it faced Iowa. The best QB Iowa's defense has beaten this year? Probably Pitt's Nate Peterman.
The deception game that Maryland rolled out against Penn State could very well work. Spread option QBs have given Iowa fits in the past. Can QB Perry Hills avoid turnovers and hurt Iowa through the air on a consistent basis? Hills has the running ability (excellent balance). Iowa will force him to make throws.
For Iowa to improve to 8-0, what needs to happen on Saturday?
200 rushing yards and 50 carries. Iowa is 10-1 since 2008 when it's rushed the ball 50-plus times. The one loss was Nebraska in overtime last season. This would take pressure off Beathard to make plays and be exposed to hits (Maryland certainly landed a ton on Christian Hackenberg last week) and just drain the Terps' battery. Can Iowa do this? Maryland sold out to stop the run last week and did. It could again this week. That said, Penn State's offensive line isn't Iowa's offensive line, which will see left tackle Boone Myers return this week.
BONUS QUESTION: This is Maryland's first visit to Iowa (for football, at least). What should Terps fans making the trip do or see during their weekend in Iowa City?
Eat. Drink beer.
We have food here in Iowa that you can't get anywhere else. I recommend Pullman Bar & Diner, Atlas Restaurant & Bar, the Clinton Street Social Club and August (which is in Oxford, a short drive through the rolling hills of southeast Iowa). Also, Iowa Chop House for totally Iowa. If you're in Cedar Rapids (you'll fly into the Eastern Iowa Airport), go to Cobble Hill.
Find Toppling Goliath beer. Drink Toppling Goliath beer.