Guess who’s back. Back again. JP’s back, tell a friend.
Oh, hello. It’s me, your friendly neighborhood overreactionist. I apologize for my recent absence, but what with all the holiday hoopla, starting a new job and well, just life I guess, I’ve been a bit busy. I trust you’ve been totally level-headed about all things Hawkeye in my absence. No?
Well fear not, I’m back to lure you from the ledge. It’s quite ironic the guy who started this here Monday post to blow off steam with overreactions has found himself trying to keep the rest of you in check the last few months, but here we are. God help you all.
I’d be lying I told you I didn’t settle into my old ways a bit over the break. Watching the hoops team slowly fade over their three game stretch against nobodies, culminating with a disappearing act against Bryant, I thought I was going pull my hair out.
Cooler heads prevailed… until Purdue.
What we saw in West Lafeyette last week was absolutely pitiful. But it wasn’t altogether new. Quite the contrary. What we saw out of the Hawkeyes against the Boilermakers looked way too much like what we saw all of last season for my liking.
With those back-to-back performances, Hawkeye nation was on the brink. And I was right there with them. It seemed to me like this could be a turning point in the season. We’ve seen Fran McCaffery coached teams collapse and this looked like it could be a complete return to last year’s form.
That’s why the performance against Nebraska on Sunday was so key. It would have been easy for this Iowa team to fall back into old habits. It would have been easy to lose another one to fall to 0-4 in the Big Ten. But this group fought and came away with solid win against a top-25 team at home.
It’s difficult to say how the rest of the year will progress from here, but I’m optimistic after the fight we saw Sunday. And despite all the hand-wringing, this is an Iowa basketball team that’s sitting at 12-3 through the first week in January. They’re likely to fall out of the top-25 today, but they’re still a very good team. And anyone who says they expected a better record at this point before the season started would be lying.
So take it for it is: a very good basketball team with work left to be done. Enjoy the ride, overreact to the struggles, and hope for the best. I still have faith this is a tournament team.
That’s a similar mantra to that of the football season. The Hawkeyes had a ton of talent this year. We didn’t really know how good they could be until we got into the season and then we found ourselves frustrated the
talent coaching staff was letting wins get away.
But following last week’s New Year’s Day bowl win over a top-20 team from the SEC, I think it’s safe to say the season met or exceeded nearly everyone’s pre-season expectations (I’ll raise my hand right now and say I had expected them to finish 10-2 and win the West, but I’m more optimistic than you folks).
The Outback Bowl was certainly a microcosm of the season as a whole. It came complete with utter frustration, jubilation, head-scratching and in the end, no beer.
We saw the defense look like they have all season. Which is to say: spectacular, even if there were a couple hiccups. They came away with a pair of interceptions, including one incredible one to take away a touchdown, and a fumble recovery. Despite giving up over 100 rushing yards to Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and only getting home for one sack, it seemed like the defensive line got solid pressure. We saw again that A.J. Epenesa is a superstar in the making and Chauncy Golston continues to be the hero the Hawkeye fanbase needs but doesn’t deserve.
Ultimately, they gave up 22 points. But, as was often the case throughout the season, they found themselves cleaning up offensive messes. The defense gave up only two touchdowns on the game, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. The first came off a Nate Stanley interception which gave the Bulldogs the ball at the Iowa 6. The second came on the very first play following that kickoff, when Ihmir Smith-Marsette went airborne on the return, only to have the ball hit off his teammate’s helmet for a fumble recovered by Mississippi State. Given those two short fields, it’s pretty incredible how well the defense held up.
But that was to be expected with a top-10 defense.
What wasn’t expected was the offense putting up 27 points on the top scoring defense in the country. 27 may not seem like a lot, and it is less than the 30.9 Iowa averaged during the regular season (which happens to be the second most for a season in the Kirk Ferentz era), but it’s more than double the 12 points per game Mississippi State gave up all season. It’s 1 shy of the season high given up to Kentucky earlier in the year, and 3 more than Alabama put up on MSU.
The offense too mirrored what we saw most of the season. Things started off pretty rough. That stout defensive line, littered with future NFL players, was having its way with the Iowa front. The Hawkeyes, always looking to establish the run, struggled mightily.
But as frustrating as it was to watch those runs continually get stuffed, it set up everything else in the offense. It also helped bleed clock and keep the Iowa defense fresh. Those are staples of a Kirk Ferentz team. It can be painful to watch at times, but when executed well, the results are glorious.
In the Outback Bowl, we saw a bit of both as the offense struggled to get much going, until it didn’t. Nate Stanley and company were able to capitalize on some defensive mistakes, including a beautiful 75-yard pitch and catch to Nick Easley, for the longest touchdown pass in Iowa bowl history.
Despite seeming to run the ball a mind-numbing amount early, Brian Ferentz ended up throwing the ball nearly 61% of the time. The third down efficiency was brutal, but Stanley was good enough when he needed to be.
He found Easley again later, as well as Ihmir Smith-Marsette, to end the day with 3 touchdowns to go with that boneheaded interceptions and 214 passing yards. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was enough. And hey, there was a true American hero who made a habit out of digging himself out of his own grave after boneheaded throws. If that’s what it takes for Stanley to become Iowa’s all-time leader in pass touchdowns next season, I’ll take it.
For me, the bowl really symbolized the full season. It was certainly frustrating to watch for long stretches. There were moments where I said words I should never say in front of my children. But at the end of it, I was happy. We won. We sang “In Heaven There Is No Beer.” The defense was awesome and the offense did enough to win.
As I look at next year, I’m hopeful for more of the same. We know the schedule gets more difficult, so on the surface, predicting another season with 9 wins is risky. That’s even more true with the early departures of Noah Fant and now Amani Hooker. It’s still likely we’ll see T.J. Hockenson declare as well and it’s possible Anthony Nelson will join them. That’s a lot to replace on top of the seniors headed for the exits.
But there’s also a lot returning. That includes the bulk of the offensive line and a trio of running backs. We’re looking at a senior quarterback who will be in his third season as starter and is likely to end the season as Iowa’s all-time leader in touchdown passes. On defense, the linebackers are mostly back, ditto the corners. The safety spot is in good hands with Geno Stone and a crop of talented youngsters. And the defensive line looks strong with A.J. Epenesa, Chauncey Golston and some big time backups looking to step in.
It’s likely the offense will have to rely a bit more on the run without those talented tight ends. It’s also just as likely they find a way to throw to the receivers more. Despite losing Nick Easley and Kyle Groeneweg, Stanley will have some great weapons with Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Both have the potential to breakout.
Replacing Hooker in that “star” role on the defense will also prove difficult. It will be interesting to see if Phil Parker sticks with a 4-2-5 style defense or returns to his prototypical 4-3. But if there’s ever a concern for the Hawkeyes, it’s not with the defense.
So I’ll call my shot now and say next year’s team will look much like this year’s. I expect a team that finishes with 8 or 9 wins pre-bowl. There will be some frustrating moments and likely some frustrating losses. But like this year’s season finale, I expect there to be some good wins over top-25 team. The schedule will certainly present some opportunities.
And hey, is Kirk ever better than when expectations are out the door?
Happy Monday. Happy New Year. It’s good to be back. Go out there and have a top-25 week.