Thank you to Ross from Black Heart Gold Pants for taking the time to answer some questions from us about the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes. You can read my responses to questions Ross asked me here.
Testudo Times: Iowa came into the season seen by many as a middle of the pack B1G West team but enter Saturday's game against Maryland undefeated at 7-0 and ranked #10 nationally. What were your expectations for this team coming into the season? Are you surprised by how well the Hawkeyes have done so far? Is Iowa a candidate for the College Football Playoff?
Black Heart Gold Pants : I did not have the highest expectations for Iowa entering this season -- despite a schedule that appeared very favorable, I was leery of putting too much stock into a team that had ended the previous season so badly. Iowa lost four of their last five games a season ago, which included two absolute drillings (versus Minnesota and Tennessee), one heartbreaker (versus Wisconsin), and one absolute choke job (versus Nebraska). That team also lost key players on both the offensive (Brandon Scherff) and defensive (Carl Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat) lines and their starting quarterback (Jake Rudock). I didn't expect much more than another 7-5 season -- maybe 8-4 if they were a bit luckier. So yeah, I'm very pleasantly surprised by how well Iowa has done so far this year. I thought all of the games Iowa has played so far this season werewinnable, but I didn't expect them to actually win them all so far, either. But they keep impressing me by shutting down my doubts -- they beat Wisconsin in Madison behind stifling defense and they blitzed what looked like a very good Northwestern defense with a rushing attack built mainly out of back-ups.
As far as the College Football Playoff goes... it's still probably a bit of a long shot. Thanks to their schedule (which hasn't been that bad so far, but is overall pretty easy), Iowa has a very small margin of error -- they aren't going to make the Playoff without a perfect record. And getting to 13-0 means beating either Michigan State, Michigan, or (likely) Ohio State in Indianapolis -- that's going to be very difficult. Still, all you can do is beat the teams on your schedule and see how things shake out -- if Iowa keeps winning, they're absolutely going to be contenders for a Playoff spot.
TT: Last year, Maryland defeated Iowa in College Park 38-31. What are the biggest differences between last year's team that lost to Maryland and this year's team that comes into the game undefeated?
BHGP: I think the Iowa backfield will be the biggest change that Maryland fans will notice. The switch from Jake Rudock to C.J. Beathard has reinvigorated the Iowa offense -- and seemingly the Iowa offense as a whole. Physically, Beathard brings a skill set that Rudock couldn't match -- Beathard has the ability to make plays with his legs and an absolute cannon of an arm that gives Iowa's passing offense a more vertical dimension, which has been a very welcome development. And Beathard also seems to be a big boost to Iowa in terms of the intangibles, too -- the rest of the team really seems to have gravitated to his leadership and his example, which has been fun to watch. The change at running back has also been pretty significant -- it was fun to watch Mark Weisman plow over smaller defensive backs in the open field, but too often he got stopped for a short gain (or no gain) in the backfield. That's the peril of playing a natural fullback at running back, I think. Both Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley are true running backs, with the speed to get to the edge, make guys miss, and hit holes before they close. Their ability has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for Iowa's running game (which is also benefiting from some absolutely vicious run blocking by Iowa's offensive line), which in turn has given Iowa's offense much more juice than it's had in recent years.
TT: Iowa has had a few close wins so far this season. What have teams like Pitt, Wisconsin and Illinois done to keep those games close? Is there a plan or strategy Maryland can adapt from any of those games?
BHGP: Pitt (and Northwestern, when the game was close) took advantage of Iowa mistakes. Pitt blocked a punt and returned it for a score and turned an interception into a short field that led to another touchdown. Northwestern also used Iowa turnovers to cut into the lead and make that game close briefly. Illinois kept the game close by converting a number of big plays in the passing game (mostly by targeting Greg Mabin) that allowed them to keep drives going and get into scoring position. They also did a good job of shutting down the Iowa passing game by brutalizing C.J. Beathard with their pass rush. (They didn't do much to slow down the run, though, as Jordan Canzeri ran for 256 yards that day.) So yeah: force turnovers and pop a few big plays (through the air; Iowa hasn't given up many big plays on the ground) -- that's probably the best recipe for staying close to Iowa this season.
TT: Akrum Wadley replaced an injured Jordan Canzeri during Iowa's win last week over Northwestern. What can you tell us about sophomore running back? How does his game differ from Canzeri?
BHGP: Wadley had flashed some talent on brief outings in the past, but no one was prepared for this 200+ yards, 4 TD outburst against Northwestern two weeks ago. That was an incredibly impressive performance. Wadley possesses a bit more speed than Canzeri in the open field. Wadley also has really impressive body control and the ability to slip through traffic effectively and make cuts quickly. He reads blocks very well, too. He isn't the strongest running back, although he's capable of holding his own on between the tackles runs, too. The biggest problem with Wadley at Iowa has been his propensity to fumble -- he'd put the ball on the ground with alarming frequency in his previous appearances for Iowa -- the fact that he didn't fumble once versus Northwestern is encouraging, but it's still a concern for Iowa fans (and coaches, I presume). I fully expect Maryland defenders to be ripping at the ball when he has it.
TT: As we talked about in your Q&A with me, Maryland has been racking up the yards on the ground since quarterback Perry Hills took back over under center. Iowa has one of the best run defenses in the country. Do you think the Terps will be able to run on Iowa? If Maryland can't run, how good is Iowa's secondary this season?
BHGP: I'm very curious to see how the Iowa run defense matches up with Maryland, frankly. The defense has been very, very good this season against the run, but they also haven't played a rushing game quite like Maryland's this year, either. Hills looks like the best running quarterback Iowa has seen by far this year. In the past, running quarterbacks like Hills have given Iowa's defense some problems, so tomorrow should be a very good test to see how well this year's Iowa team can contain a threat like that. As far as the secondary goes, Iowa's pass defense isn't putting up stats as gaudy as the run defense, but they're still pretty solid. And if you're going to throw on Iowa, you definitely don't want to throw it in the direction of Desmond King -- he's tied for 2nd in the nation in interceptions with six picks on the year. If the Terps loft a few passes in his direction, don't be surprised if they're quickly headed the other way. ...
TT: Final question - complete this sentence: _____________ will win on Saturday because ________________.
BHGP: Iowa will win on Saturday because their defense will force turnovers from a turnover-prone Maryland team and because a health(ier) C.J. Beathard will have a big day in the passing game against a shaky Maryland secondary. Iowa wins 34-17.