Trophy SZN is here as the Badgers will battle the Iowa Hawkeyes this weekend in Iowa City. To help gain some insight on the 2022 Hawkeyes we talked with our friends over at Black Heart Gold Pants! Enjoy!
Let’s start from the top. Wisconsin moved on from Paul Chryst for not meeting expectations. Any chance Iowa does that with Kirk Ferentz or will he and his nepotism be around for years beyond 2022?
Kirk will be back in 2022 for a number of reasons. For starters, Gary Barta is still the athletic director and there is a 0.0% chance he ever fires Kirk for any reason. If Barta is gone, and given his track record he should have been fired multiple times over by now (on-field performances aside, how many P5 ADs have had multiple multi-million dollar lawsuits filed against them?), the door is open but it seems unlikely Gary leaves before his contract expires in 2024.
Beyond the Barta issue, I think Kirk has built up more equity with the fanbase than what Chryst had. Things have not gone according to plan this season, but at the end of the day, the Hawkeyes are in a position to compete for the West a year after winning the division. They’ve had as much success over the last decade as basically anyone not named Ohio State or Wisconsin with fewer resources in the state. So it would take more than a single down year to get him the boot even if Iowa had a competent AD in my view.
The blame, of course, falls on this Iowa offense. It’s very poor. What has been this unit’s biggest problem and is there anything to fix it?
This is the top question for one of these Q&As and it’s been the top question we’ve asked our own fanbase almost every week. The simple answer is you don’t get to dead last nationally in total offense with just one issue. There are many and they compound on each other.
If I were to try and point a finger at the single biggest impact this year vs any other year it would be the offensive line play. Iowa has a really young OL and had to move some guys around early in the year. The result has been very lackluster run blocking and an uncomfortably high-pressure rate in the passing game. Now, those issues could be mitigated if Iowa had a mobile QB (they do, he’s on the bench and the staff has refused to play him) or if Iowa didn’t run a zone scheme that required all five guys to be on the same page and working well together or if they schemed up ways to get the ball out quickly in the passing game to alleviate the pressures on the line.
Is there anything positive going on for this Iowa offense that you can try and build on?
Over the last two weeks, we’ve seen Brian Ferentz do some of those things I just referenced. Iowa is mixing in gap-blocking schemes some 30-40% of the time over that period and that’s helped get the run game going. Settling in on true freshman Kaleb Johnson at RB has also helped there as he is a downhill runner who has home run speed and an ability to break tackles (151 of his 200 yards against Purdue came after contact). And we’ve seen Brian try to get Spencer Petras more rhythm throws that come out quickly.
That has been aided meaningfully by the return of several receivers. Early in the year, Iowa was playing with just one of their seven returning scholarship WRs as six guys missed multiple weeks to injury (the national story was all about Charlie Jones, but he genuinely figured to be the 3rd or 4th option in this offense – his absence only magnified the injury issues early). Over the last four weeks, they’ve gotten Nico Ragaini, Brody Brecht and Diante Vines back to put alongside Arland Bruce IV and that’s provided enough talent on the edge to at least be able to threaten defenses with a few throws beyond what TE Sam LaPorta commands on a regular basis.
So yeah, the defenses each of the last two weeks were well below the quality of the teams Iowa has lost to (all four losses have come to top-10 total and scoring defenses), but I do think there is some cause for cautious optimism with this offense. That being said, none of it matters this week as Ferentz has shown absolutely no ability to effectively gameplan against a 3-man front.
Switching gears, this Iowa defense is as great as always. What has made this version of the Iowa defense so good?
This is going to sound really boring, but I think Wisconsin fans can appreciate it. There is really nothing that makes this group special vs. any other group of Iowa defenders. Phil Parker has a system and recruits athletes that fit his system. Typically, those guys come in and develop for 1-2 years before they see the field and when they’re plugged in, they have a complete understanding of their responsibilities.
That’s maybe the best way to describe this defense in 2022. There are some guys who are individually very good athletes and excellent players. Guys like middle linebacker Jack Campbell, cornerbacks Riley Moss and Cooper DeJean, defensive linemen Lukas Van Ness and Logan Lee would all be good anywhere they played. But when you put them beside each other with their responsibilities pounded into their head, they play great for Parker’s D. They will, as they have done for more than a decade, give up yardage between the 20s when teams are disciplined enough to take what is in front of them and not take too many shots. But when the spaces tighten up in the redzone, they clamp down and hold teams to field goals and when opponents get impatient and take shots, they capitalize with turnovers more often than not.
This game always feels like it comes down to whichever team makes less mistakes. Some of those big mistakes have been in special teams in recent years. How has that phase of Iowa been in 2022?
The thought in Iowa City this season has been this team has a top-10 defense and a top-10 special teams unit with a bottom-10 offense. Punter Tory Taylor is one of the best punters in the nation (as an aside, it sure feels like 4-5 of the best punters nationally are all in the West and Rutgers has another one) averaging 46 yards per punt with 42% of his punts pinning opponents inside the 20. He has had a couple of head-scratchers this year but has largely been spectacular and I would expect him to be active on Saturday.
In the kicking game, true freshman Drew Stevens has taken over and has been tremendous. He’s 12 of 14 on the season with both misses coming in the mid-40s range and both in situations where a miss was certainly understandable. He’s 2 for 2 beyond 50 yards and has a long of 54 on the season. Hawkeye fans are definitely excited a bout his future as he’s been named a Groza Award semifinalist.
In the return game, the loss of (Charlie) Jones really hurts. He was truly dynamic for the Hawkeyes and was named returner of the year in the Big Ten last year. Iowa does not have anyone as dynamic as him or anyone capable of breaking one to the house the way they came to expect of Jones. But Kaleb Johnson has been very good on kick returns and Arland Bruce has proven serviceable on punt returns so I would not expect the type of gift Wisconsin got on the muffed punt the one return Jones missed in last year’s matchup.
What does Iowa have to do to win this game on Saturday and what do you think will be the end result?
The answer to this one seems simple. In the last 21 meetings, the team to win the rushing battle has won the game. The Hawkeyes have to find a way to slow down Braelon Allen and make Graham Mertz beat them while simultaneously not allowing Wisconsin to do the same to them. Ultimately, the team that is forced to throw more is likely to lose the turnover battle and that’s a recipe for disaster. I suspect Allen breaks a long one Saturday while the Badgers really stifle Johnson and force Petras into 1-2 turnovers. That gives them the edge in my view.
Wisconsin 13, Iowa 9