Fresh off their bye week following a 41-7 defeat, the Central Michigan Chippewas hit the road for the first time. They travel to Iowa to take on the Hawkeyes, their second Big Ten team in a row.
This week I had the pleasure of appearing on the Black Heart Gold Podcast, and answered a Q&A for them. Now it's their turn as RossWB from Black Heart Gold Pants took the time to answers some questions that I had for him about Iowa.
Find out more after the jump.
Iowa has played a fairly easy schedule thus far (Saturday included), and despite a 2-1 record the team has struggled, what is the feeling among Hawkeye fans after the slow start?
Relief that it's not worse? I'm only half-joking, too -- Iowa trailed for much of the game against NIU and last week played UNI, who took Wisconsin to the wire in week one (and who nearly knocked off Iowa in 2009). It's fair to say that confidence was not particularly high prior to last weekend; I think spirits are a little higher after they looked pretty solid (especially on offense) in the win over UNI. But, overall, the feeling is probably disappointment mixed with some acceptance. It's disappointing to only be 2-1, given the relative ease of this schedule, but people aren't totally shocked, either, given the inexperience at several positions and the coaching staff overhaul that took place in the spring. People were definitely anticipating some growing pains and we've seen 'em so far.
2. At this point in the season, what are the Hawkeyes biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Ironically, the two biggest strengths of this Iowa team so far -- the running game and the defense -- were two of the things people were most concerned about entering the season. The running game has seen the usual amount of catastrophe that we've come to expect at Iowa (the first- and second-string running backs went down in a span of about 20 minutes last week; neither is very likely to play this weekend), but it's actually been quite productive anyway. Damon Bullock had a great showing in the season opener against NIU, rushing for 150 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Last Saturday, after Bullock and his understudy, true freshman Greg Garmon, went down with injuries, fullback Mark Weisman stepped in and became an instant cult hero: 113 yards, 3 TD, and countless battered and bruised defenders laying in his wake.
The defense has also been strong, especially in the second halves of games. Through three games, they've given up a total of 10 second half points -- and zero in the fourth quarter. New defensive coordinator Phil Parker has definitely been pushing the right buttons as the game goes on and making some savvy halftime adjustments. They haven't been nearly so sharp early on in games, especially the last two weeks -- both ISU and UNI drove straight down the field and scored on their opening possessions. But on the whole the defense, which features multiple new starters (particularly in the trenches) has been a very pleasant surprise.
That said, one of the biggest weaknesses is also on that defense -- the defensive line. They're an odd hodge-podge of redshirt freshmen getting their first taste of college football and fifth-year seniors who couldn't crack the line-up until all of the upperclassmen ahead of them graduated. They've played better than expected so far (I suspect it helps that expectations were rock bottom for this unit), but they still struggle to get pressure on the quarterback and they've gotten burned on a few big runs this year. If CMU's offensive line can hold their own against this group, the Chippewas could have a real shot in this game.
The other primary weakness is the passing offense, which has been very lackluster so far. QB James Vandenberg has yet to throw a TD pass this year (he threw 25 last year) and though the passing game was markedly improved last week, we're still just one week removed from one of the most ghastly passing days in recent memory; Iowa's receivers had 8 drops in the loss to Iowa State and it's been a weekly battle for Vandenberg and his receivers to get on the same page. Right now, the passing game is not something for CMU to be afraid of -- at all.
3. Who are the playmakers for Iowa, on either side of the ball, that the Chippewas will have to try and slow down on Saturday?
On offense, the player to watch in the running game is Weisman, a converted walk-on fullback from Air Force who runs low to the ground and eagerly seeks out contact when he runs. He's not a speed demon (again: converted fullback), but he loves to hit people and anyone tasked with tackling him will likely be sore on Sunday. In the passing game, two key figures are WR Keenan Davis and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz. Martin-Manley is Iowa's second-leading receiver and, actually, someone you probably would have become very familiar with in an alternate reality. He initially chose Bowling Green over scholarship offers from Central Michigan and Toledo; then Iowa made a late run at him and managed to poach him from BG's clutches. He was absolute dynamite in the slot last week and if CMU tries to cover him with a linebacker, they could be in trouble. Fiedorowicz is an athletic marvel -- 6'7", 265, excellent leaping ability, and solid hands -- although he's struggled to get that to translate to the football field at times. He has 10 catches for 109 yards so far this year, but he has the potential to really terrorize CMU's defense.
On defense, two key faces to know will be SS Tom Donatell and LB Anthony Hitchens. Donatell has interceptions in back-to-back games and appears to be getting increasingly comfortable at the SS slot, although he still occasionally takes the wrong angle in coverage on a receiver and sometimes struggles in run support. Hitchens is leading the Big Ten in tackles right now and is simply an absolute tackling machine; he has an impressive radar for the ball. Based on the results so far this year, if there's a tackle within 5-10 yards of the line of scrimmage, there's a mighty good chance that Hitchens is involved in it.
4. Iowa has already played a nail biter against a MAC school, an 18-17 victory over Northern Illinois, what are some things that Iowa will need to avoid to prevent CMU from keeping this game closer than it should be?
Allow me to throw out a handful of boring coaching maxims: start fast, maintain an offensive flow, and avoid turnovers. They're boring, they're cliche -- but they're also true. The Iowa offense has actually started pretty well in all three games this year -- all three of their opening possessions have resulted in points (two field goals and a touchdown) but, as noted earlier, the defense has been slow to get going. Iowa needs to jump on CMU early -- on both offense and defense -- and put the game away as soon as possible. Iowa failed to do that against NIU and came achingly close to losing that game.
The other things Iowa needs to do is maintain a consistent offensive flow; after getting off to strong starts against NIU, ISU, and UNI, the offense hit a wall in two of those three games (NIU, ISU). Points on the opening possession are nice, but Iowa needs to follow those up with more points on subsequent drives, too. The good news is that they were able to score on multiple consecutive possessions against UNI, so maybe things are finally beginning to click there. Finally, Iowa just needs to avoid turnovers. Short fields and defensive/special teams touchdowns can be an underdog's best friend and Iowa doesn't need to help out CMU in this game. Iowa isn't good enough to sleepwalk through this game and win and they certainly aren't good enough to gift CMU good field possession or free points if they want to win.
5. Give us some interesting facts about either the football team, or just the university in general.
There are five MAC teams that Iowa has never played before: Ohio, Bowling Green, Toledo, Eastern Michigan, and UMass. (Although UMass shouldn't really count, what with them just joining up this year.) Iowa is 2-2 all-time against the MAC's Michigan contingent (2-0 against Central, 0-2 against Western).
There's also a prominent Iowa-Central Michigan connection, albeit in basketball. Your new head coach, Keno Davis, is a former Iowa assistant coach and the son of a former longtime Iowa head coach, Tom Davis. I'm sure we'll hear all about Davis' time at Iowa when CMU plays Iowa later this year.
6. Finally, your prediction for the game on Saturday?
Iowa 30, Central Michigan 14. Iowa opens up an early lead behind a pair of punishing Weisman touchdown runs before Vandenberg notches his first touchdown pass of the season. The Iowa defense gives up its first fourth down points of the season as CMU tacks on a late score.
We would like to extend a big thank you to RossWB for joining us, and taking the time to answer these questions, you can follow him on twitter at @RossWB and the rest of Black Heart Gold Pants at @BHGP.
Kickoff is set for noon on Saturday, and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.
Picture courtesy of cmuchippewas.com