by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Leading up to the upcoming football season, Inside Northwestern will give you a brief profile of each of Northwestern’s opponents. During the season, you can expect a more in-depth preview of each game, including key matchups and more specific player analysis. This is simply a refresher for eager fans looking ahead to the fall. Look for this feature every Thursday. This week, we look at Nebraska. Click here for last week’s edition.
Head coach (career record): Kirk Ferentz (96-66)
2011 record (in conference): 7-6 (4-4)
2011 stats (conference ranks)
Scoring offense: 27.5 points per game (6th)
Scoring defense: 23.8 points per game (8th)
Total offense: 373.5 yards per game (7th)
Total defense: 378.9 yards per game (8th)
Returning starters: offense-6, defense-5
Key loss: RB Marcus Coker
Key player returning: QB James Vandenberg
Depending on what you count as "recent" you could say Iowa has overachieved or say the Hawkeyes have underachieved. Since 2001, head coach Kirk Ferentz has achieved a level of success many coaches would struggle to find at Iowa, missing out on a bowl game just once, never finishing below 6-6, finishing in the top eight of the final BCS poll three times, winning two Big Ten Championships and reaching two BCS bowl games (winning one). People tend to forget about Iowa after one bad year, writing the Hawkeyes off as a team that is typically pretty average, but Ferentz's credentials in the past 11 years rival any team outside of Ohio State in that span. Even as recently as 2009, Iowa was ranked as high as No. 4 in the polls and 9-0, before a Corey Wooton sack injured quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the Hawkeyes went on to lose that game and an overtime thriller at Ohio State the following week, in which backup quarterback James Vandenberg made his first career start. Iowa defeated Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl that year to finish 11-2.
However, while Ferentz has a knack for pulling good seasons out of nowhere, he also has had some seasons where his teams have failed to live up to expectations. The 2010 season is the main example, when Iowa was considered a Big Ten Title contender and ranked by many national prognosticators in the top 10 of the preseason polls. However, the Hawkeyes lost an early season game at Arizona, and while they recovered in the middle of the season, they lost a nail-biter to Wisconsin and then fell at Northwestern after a dramatic comeback led by Dan Persa. After the Northwestern game things spiraled out of control and Iowa lost to lowly Minnesota to end the regular season at 7-5. Last year's team didn't have nearly as high of expectations, but the Hawkeyes still had the chance to finish with 9 wins. However, inexplicable losses to Minnesota and Iowa State kept Kirk Ferentz's team at 7-5 for the second straight year.
The Hawkeyes' recent history against Northwestern is one that many Iowa fans would like to forget. Iowa got the "NU monkey" off its back lat year, defeating the Wildcats 41-31 in Iowa City. However, NU has beaten Iowa in five of the teams' last seven meetings. The 2010 game was significant for both teams, as it sent Iowa spiraling downward and also ended up hurting Northwestern, as Dan Persa led a heroic comeback but was injured with a ruptured Achilles that ultimately affected the rest of his career. In 2009, Iowa went up 10-0 early, but Wooton's sack of Stanzi — and Stanzi's injury — gave Iowa its first loss of the season and jump-started the Wildcats to a solid finish and an Outback Bowl berth.
What to expect on offense
This is a strange year for Iowa on both sides of the ball, as Ferentz's coordinators for the past 13 years — Ken O'Keefe on offense and Norm Parker on defense — need to be replaced. Iowa brought in former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis on offense, which came as a pleasure to some Hawkeyes fans and the disdain of there, who were afraid that Davis would continue O'Keefe's ultra-conservative approach. While Davis won't be running a spread offense — there's no way Ferentz was going there, anyway — he will likely air it out more than O'Keefe and run a little more no-huddle.
Iowa may be forced to air it out a lot this year due to a string of troubles at running back. The Hawkeyes have had a number of solid running backs in the past few years — Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher, Jewel Hampton, Mika'il McCall, Marcus Coker, Jordan Canzeri, etc. — who have either been kicked off the team, transferred or been injured. It's a "curse" Iowa fans are blaming on the "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God" (or AIRBHG, for short). Coker was one of the Big Ten's top running backs in 2011, but after being suspended for an investigation involving a sexual assault, he transferred to Stony Brook. That left true freshman Jordan Canzeri, who did a solid job in the bowl game, but tore his ACL in the spring. This fall, Iowa will rely heavily on true freshmen Barkely Hill and Greg Garmon, both of whom were very impressive recruits. While the Hawkeyes have had trouble keeping guys at running back, they've actually been very good at running the ball during the "AIRBHG" period. Expect solid production from whoever gets the carries this year — likely a committee — just don't expect those players to be there next season.
Iowa's passing game will be the offense's strength. Quarterback James Vandenberg is the best pocket passer in the Big Ten and returns for his senior year. While the loss of Marvin McNutt, the conference's best receiver in 2011, hurts, Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley are perfectly capable of filling that hole. The Hawkeyes are loaded at tight end and led by C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound matchup nightmare that Davis has raved about since coming to Iowa.
Outside of the running backs, the offensive line is the biggest question mark. Ferentz is known for having solid offensive lines and coaching players up in that position — he's a former offensive line coach — but in years where Iowa's offensive line has struggled, the entire team has struggled. Center James Ferentz (Kirk's son) is an All-Big Ten candidate, but the Hawkeyes must find a way to replace some key players, including left tackle Riley Reiff, who was a first round draft pick of the Detroit Lions. Brandon Scherff will try to take Reiff's place at left tackle, and while he's talented, the lack of experience could hurt Iowa in the early going. The same goes for the rest of the line. However, if Ferentz can coach up this line and surprise people in the fall, Iowa will have a fairly dangerous offense, especially in the passing game.
What to expect on defense
Just as the Iowa offense goes as the offensive line goes, the defensive line has been a key to the Iowa defense's success (or lack of success) in the past. Last year was one of the Hawkeyes' worst defensive years in Ferentz's tenure and that was due largely in part to a mediocre defensive line. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels and defensive end Broderick Binns were impressive, but the line as a whole was inconsistent and certainly not as talented as the 2009 and 2010 lines, which featured Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard. This year's defensive line will be very inexperienced with the loss of Daniels and Binns, but it also has a lot of talent. Steve Bigach returns, as does Dominic Alvis, who tore his ACL last year. However, all eyes will be on sophomore Carl Davis and redshirt freshman Darian Cooper, who ultra-talented young players who will both see significant playing time and could start. Also keep your eyes on Louis Trinca-Pasat, who wasn't as hyped as Cooper, but was listed as a starter at defensive tackle on the preseason depth chart. In short, Iowa has the talent to be very good on the defensive line, but it is going to take some growing pains with the young guys. How long it takes to get through those growing pains — no time at all or the whole season — could determine Iowa's defensive fortunes this year.
The linebacker corps has fewer questions than the defensive line and it should be better than last year now that everyone is a year more experienced. James Morris is a rock inside and the outside linebackers, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens, have been pleasant surprises for Hawkeyes fans so far. Now that all three are juniors, Ferentz can feel good about his experience at linebacker, which was in question following the graduation of Pat Angerer, Jeremiah Hunter and AJ Edds in 2009.
The Iowa secondary was an unknown last year, but it performed fairly well, despite the loss of Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood at safety. The Hawkeyes must replace cornerback Shawn Prater this year, but senior Micah Hyde should do a good job holding down one corner spot and he could be in line for All-Big Ten awards this year, and Tanner Miller returns at free safety. The rest of the secondary is fairly young, but it has a lot of talent. Sophomore Nico Law is listed as the starting strong safety and B.J. Lowery will start at corner opposite Hyde after showing promise last year.
The story with the Iowa defense is really the same as the Iowa offense — it all depends on how the young guys do. There is a lot of talent on this team, but experience matters too, and the Hawkeyes are low in that department. The complexion of this team makes sense as the highly-touted 2010 recruiting class is starting to find its way into the starting lineup. Will this team be one of those Ferentz teams that sneaks up on everybody or will it fall short due to inexperience? That's yet to be decided, but the talent is there; now the young guys have to deliver.