1) Last week the black and gold got a bonafide scare from the Northern Iowa Panthers. While I'm sure any Iowa diehard will concede that's too close for comfort, what would you like to see Iowa duplicate on Saturday? What needs to go away?
ROSS: I certainly wasn't surprised by the scare that UNI gave Iowa last week. Iowa is a notorious slow-starter under Kirk Ferentz and UNI always plays with a big chip on their shoulder against Iowa (since most of the players there were overlooked or ignored by Iowa during the recruiting process). That's a bad combination if you're an Iowa fan -- especially since UNI appears to have one of the more talented rosters in the FCS this year. So, again, I was certainly not surprised that it was a close game. But I was happy to see Iowa get the win (and that it didn't require something miraculous, like the infamous back-to-back blocked field goals at the end of their 2009 win over UNI), happy to see Iowa put together several good scoring drives on offense, happy to see the defense make key stops in the second half when they needed to, and happy to see that Iowa emerged from the game in good condition, injury-wise.
The main thing that needs to go away is the sloppiness in pass coverage. Iowa got ripped apart by big plays against UNI; Sawyer Kollmorgen threw for 380 yards on 17 completions and David Johnson had 203 yards on five completions. That was painful to watch (especially since a few of the big pass plays were absolute mirrors of one another) and absolutely must get better in the weeks ahead. The problems seemed to stem from a mix of poor communication between the linebackers and the safeties and some poor technique on the part of the linebackers, so hopefully those errors are correctable and get fixed as the season goes on. The other thing that I'd like to see go away is the way Iowa struggled to run the ball at times against UNI. The ground game looked strong on Iowa's first two drives, but after that it largely stalled out beyond a few big plays. Iowa's offense relies on a solid ground game, so I want to see them get that in gear over the next few weeks.
As far as things I'd like to see Iowa duplicate against Ball State... Jake Rudock was very accurate against UNI (31/41), so it would be encouraging to see him maintain that accuracy for a second week in a row. It was fun to see Iowa successfully rotate several running backs early in the game, so I wouldn't mind seeing more of that approach again. Iowa's offense also looked at its most dangerous when it finally put together a few shots downfield in the fourth quarter, so I'd like to see a few more vertical looks in the passing game this week -- preferably sooner than the fourth quarter, too. On defense, Iowa's defensive line wreaked a fair amount of havoc against UNI, so I'd just tell them to do it again this week. I'd also like to see the defense continue to stonewall opposing running games and generate more of the pass rush that we saw in the fourth quarter against UNI.
2) There are few units more famed in college football history than that of Iowa's legendary offensive lines. How does this year's team measure up, and what does that mean for the Hawkeye running game?
ROSS: On paper, this is Iowa's best offensive line in several years -- at least among the starters. The line is led by pre-season All-American Brandon Scherff at left tackle, who's earned renown this off-season for his feats of prodigious strength. Scherff was a likely first round NFL Draft pick a year ago (probably in the teens or twenties), but he opted to come back for his senior season, which has been a massive boon for Iowa's fortunes this year. Scherff isn't the only familiar face on the Iowa offensive line -- Austin Blythe is entering his third year as a starter (first at offensive guard, now at center) and Jordan Walsh (guard) and Andrew Donnal (right tackle) earned some starts a season ago.
In practice, this unit was inconsistent against UNI. In pass protection, they were very good -- Jake Rudock was rarely pressured by UNI's pass rush and usually had ample time to find his receivers. In run blocking, though, they were much less effective -- Iowa ran for just 151 yards on 36 carries (4.2 ypc), and that figure includes a 35-yard run by an Iowa wide receiver. UNI certainly sold out to stop the run, but it was still unsettling to see Iowa struggle to establish a presence in the running game in that game. I think Iowa will enter this game determined to do a better job of running the ball, which certainly starts up front. If the line can do a better job of opening holes this week, I think Iowa's running game will be able to do much more damage than they did a week ago.
3) How concerned do the Cardinals need to be with the quarterback play of Jake Rudock? Can Iowa beat Ball State through the air?
ROSS: On paper, Rudock had a very effective game last Saturday -- 31/41, 250 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT. In practice, Iowa fans were a bit more divided about his performance. He avoided any big mistakes (always important), but his performance also wasn't hugely dynamic (aside from a few big pass plays in the fourth quarter on the game-icing touchdown drive) -- there were a lot of checkdowns to running backs and short throws to tight ends. That he was so accurate with those passes was tremendous, but the conservatism was frustrating at times. Part of that was certainly a function of UNI's defense -- they did a pretty nice job of bottling up a lot of the deeper options in Iowa's passing game -- but Rudock also seemed hesitant to test UNI's defense at times as well. Ultimately, though, it's hard to complain too much about Rudock's performance -- 31/41, 250 yards, and 2 TD is nothing to sniff at.
That said, I think Ball State's best chance is probably to force Rudock to make plays and beat the Cardinals through the air. Iowa's preference is typically to control the game through the ground and use a strong running game to open up some play-action looks in the passing game. (Although of late they've also used the aforementioned short passing game to stand-in for the running game at times.) If Ball State can slow down Iowa's running backs and limit the damage they do on the ground, then the pressure will be on Rudock to deliver for Iowa's offense through the air. How well he can do that is an open question at this point; Rudock has had his ups and downs in his 1+ years as a starter at Iowa, but so far he's been at his best when he has a solid running game to fall back on; if Ball State is able to take that away and force him to pass, they might have a chance to force him into some mistakes.
4) We talked. I know that you know about the Ball State backfield. Who will Jahwan Edwards and Horactio Banks be running into on the other side of the line Saturday?
ROSS: If they try to attack the middle of Iowa's defense, they're going to encounter Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat -- and that's probably not going to go well for them. Davis and Trinca-Pasat are Iowa's starting defensive tackles and they've developed into two of the very best in the Big Ten; Davis has NFL size (6-5, 315), solid quickness, and he's finally developed the technique to go with that hulking presence. Early in his career, Davis tended to play too high and he found himself getting blocked out of plays with some regularity. But the light finally clicked on him for last season and he's steadily become a consistent disruptive force at tackle -- so much so that he's been getting quite a bit of NFL Draft buzz. Trinca-Pasat hasn't generated that same NFL buzz, mainly because of his size (6-3, 290), but he's an excellent college defensive tackle. Davis tends to occupy opposing blockers a lot, which frees up Trinca-Passat to be more of a playmaker -- he was one of Iowa's leaders in tackles for loss last year.
Other than Davis and Trinca-Pasat, Iowa also has some defensive ends who are solid against the run -- Mike Hardy and Drew Ott. (Another face at DE, Nate Meier, is a bit less consistent against the run at this stage of his career.) Compared to the defensive line, Iowa's linebackers (Quinton Alston, Bo Bower, and Reggie Spearman) are a bit more of a question mark. They got exposed a bit against UNI last week, but their primary struggles were in pass coverage, not run defense. Iowa held UNI to 25 rushing yards on 25 attempts. I won't predict anything that gaudy for this game, but I do think Iowa's defense matches up well against Ball State's rushing attack.
5) Autonomy is a word that was absent from most of our vocabularies prior to this offseason. What do you think about Big Ten schools scheduling out of conference game with the MAC?
ROSS: I would be lying if I said I got too excited about Iowa -- or any Big Ten team -- playing a MAC team in the early season, but I also understand that they're a necessary evil. As both an Iowa fan and someone who wants to watch entertaining, competitive football games, it would be nice if Iowa could play 12 games against truly compelling, exciting opponents every year, but I understand that for fiscal reasons, that's a pipe dream at this point. (To be fair, it would entail more than just dumping games against MAC or other non-Power 5 opponents -- I'd also want to do away with games against the likes of Purdue or Rutgers, too. Those games often aren't very compelling, either.)
So yeah, games against MAC teams are necessary evils for Iowa. I get that. And, frankly, I'd rather see Iowa play a MAC foe than an FCS school (even an in-state opponent like Northern Iowa) or a team from the Sun Belt or Conference USA. If Iowa's going to play opponents from outside the Power 5 leagues, the MAC is one of the best choices -- the quality of football is solid (and, of late, getting even better) and it's nice to support fellow Midwestern schools. I'd rather send $800,000 Ball State's way than give that money to, say, Louisiana Tech or Georgia State. Huzzah for regional pride!
6) Is Iowa a bowl team this season?
ROSS: I think so, yes. It would be a pretty epic disappointment if they failed to make a bowl game this year. They went 8-5 last season, return multiple players of significance from that team, and play a friendly schedule (no games against the B1G East Division heavyweights, home games against their fellow B1G West contenders in Wisconsin and Nebraska). Everything seems to be set up for them to have a good year. But more important for them than the schedule is the fact that they just appear to be a good, well-constructed football team. Iowa is at its best when it's strong in the trenches and Iowa has good offensive and defensive lines this year, led by All-American left tackle Brandon Scherff and monstrous defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. There are some question marks in the defensive back-seven, but Iowa's defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) has had a Midas touch when it comes to developing high-quality defensive backs, so we're optimistic that they'll settle into a solid unit before too long. All told, this looks like a talented, experienced team -- we're definitely expecting a bowl game and, frankly, we're pretty hopeful that it's going to be a very solid bowl destination.
7) Who ya got on Saturday? Be nice, I've always been a Tim Dwight fan.
ROSS: TIMMY D! Well, you're definitely good people, then. The last time Iowa played a MAC team, they delivered a 59-3 woodshed beating to Western Michigan. But Ball State looks a hell of a lot better than that WMU squad and prior to that game Iowa had lost two straight games against MAC opponents (Northern Illinois in 2013, Central Michigan in 2012). So I certainly have plenty of respect for #MACtion when it visits Iowa City. That said, I like the way this Iowa team is looking and I think this game plays to their strengths fairly well. I expect the key of this game to be the running game, and I think Iowa will have a significant advantage on both sides of that equation. I look for the Iowa defense to slow down Ball State's running attack pretty effectively and force Ozzie Mann into a few mistakes. On the other side of the ball, I think Mark Weisman, LeShun Daniels, and company will be too much for Ball State's defense to contain. I'll go with Iowa 30, Ball State 14.
You can follow Ross @RossWB. Be sure to be active on his Twitter feed if/and when the Cardinals leave Iowa City with the upset win. Thanks, Ross!