The start of Big Ten play is upon us and first up is defending West division champion Iowa. The Hawkeyes fell out of the AP poll this week and landed at #25 in the coaches poll. They are obviously looking to rebound in a big way and this game will be a major challenge for Rutgers. I was fortunate to speak with Max Brekke, who is the managing editor of SB Nation’s Iowa site Black Heart Gold Pants. He has given some good insight on Iowa and what we can expect in this game. And by the way, please take his Rutgers “bashing” as a bit of harmless fun. Okay? Okay. Here we go!
It was an interesting week plus for Iowa, as you blew out your in-state rival, saw your long time head coach given a lengthy contract extension, and finished with a stunning, last second loss at home against FCS defending champion North Dakota State. What is your take on the current state of the team and how are Iowa fans dealing with the loss?
Yeah. Interesting couple of weeks in Iowa City. People were mad about Kirk Ferentz getting an extension with that many years and that big of a buyout, then they were ecstatic about the Iowa State victory. Then this 9/17 happened. How are we handling the loss? Look no further than our comments sections. It's a really weird mix of "Shut up and get ready for Rutgers" and "The season is over and this team is awful and we need to fire Ferentz." In other words? Shut up, we really don't want to talk about it. We're handling it really poorly.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard has solid stats through three games so far. How much has he improved during his career and what are his strengths and weaknesses right now? How do you expect him to attack the Rutgers defense this weekend?
So C.J. Beathard probably should have been our quarterback for the past three years, but during a weird 2014 season, Ferentz wouldn't move away from Rudock. After a disaster of a TaxSlayer Bowl, Iowa chose CJB to replace Rudock going into 2015 and Rudock transferred to Michigan. Beathard was probably the better quarterback the whole time, but it was really noticeable last season when Iowa went 12-2; he's mobile (even when he had a sports hernia for most of 2015), accurate, and has a hell of an arm. He's also really smart and has continued to get smarter throughout his career, as most players do. He's the total package.
His biggest weakness? It's honestly everyone surrounding him. CJB is a legitimate NFL-caliber quarterback and he'll almost definitely get drafted by someone seeing as how he's one of the better quarterbacks in college football right now (and definitely the best in the Big Ten, if you're looking at draftable QB types). He has a pretty mediocre offensive line, at least by Iowa standards, and his receiving corps severely misses Tevaun Smith's big-play ability. If he had the support around him, he'd be even better.
Expect him to attack Rutgers through play-action. He actually audibles or calls the majority of Iowa's plays at the line of scrimmage (yeah, they trust him THAT much), and Iowa's rushing attack is how they're going to want to attack Rutgers as a whole. If they have success on the ground, the play action will be deadly, as it was here. Notice how MSU has 7 guys in the box and only has two guys down the field - that's how Iowa wants to make it happen. If the run game isn't there (like it wasn't against NDSU where they managed 34 damn yards on the ground, woof), then CJB will have to air it out to win, and he's going to throw it to Matt VandeBerg a ton.
Iowa features a running back tandem with LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley, who both have at least 25 carries and each average well over 5 yards a carry. Please describe their running styles and what they do best as well as how are they rotated/used throughout the game?
The two-headed monster. Thunder (Daniels) and lightning (Wadley). These guys are legit. Wadley suffered a knee injury a couple weeks ago, and while KF claims that Wadley is healthy, he had four carries against NDSU and did not do much with them. That could be a big factor in how Iowa does on the ground, as he's the explosive, shifty running back - he's super fast and can juke just about anybody out of their shoes, and he can bring the thunder on occasion, too. Daniels is the power back and can run through guys, but he's not a slow dude, either - he's had a couple plays where he's broken off 50+ yard touchdown runs while barely being touched in the past couple seasons. He can provide the lightning, too, and make guys miss.
Iowa doesn't really have a way that they'd prefer to use the two backs, from what I can tell; Wadley is a better pass catcher, usually, so he usually plays in passing situations. That's about it, though. They mix things up pretty well.
On defense, Iowa is led by star cornerback Desmond King. What are his strengths and has he been a dominant force so far this season? Does he typically move around the field to cover the opponent's best receiver or does he stay on one side of the field?
Something else we don't want to talk about. Desmond King has, for all intents and purposes, done nothing this season. Not because he's a bad player, either. It's because teams literally refuse to throw the ball towards his side of the field. He's got some tackles (and is honestly probably our best tackler, for better or for worse), but he's at least eliminated a receiver from the other team simply because teams are afraid to throw at him. He doesn't shadow anyone, either; he made a claim before the CyHawk game that he would shadow Iowa State's Allen Lazard, but never did. He plays exclusively on the right side of the field and so Rutgers will probably play the majority of their passing game on the left side of the field, if the past few games have been any indictor for Hawkeye opponents. Expect to hear left-side CB Greg Mabin's name, a lot.
Has the Iowa defense faced any spread offenses this season and how have they fared against run heavy teams?
Iowa State's offense is probably most reminiscent of a spread offense, but the thing about Iowa State is that they really don't have an offense. They were atrocious and while I haven't watched any Rutgers football this season, I can guarantee you that the Scarlet Knights have a far superior offense to ISU so what ISU did really doesn't matter.
If you want to talk about run heavy teams, look no further than the last game against NDSU. They gashed up the Iowa defense to the tune of over 230 yards on the ground. They're definitely more of a power, downhill running team that game plans to run the ball down your throat, as they ran it over 45 times against the Hawkeyes. Miami also ran for about 160 yards against the Hawkeyes, on 41 carries, but they were down for the majority of the game and garbage time stats contributed a bit to that.
How have the special teams units performed so far in 2016? Janarion Grant of Rutgers has already returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns this season. Is Iowa's kicker strong enough to keep the ball away from him on kickoffs and how have their coverage teams been through three games?
Iowa's punter Ron Coluzzi actually handles the kickoff duties for the Hawkeyes, and he's been a touchback machine so far this season. Coluzzi is a grad transfer and has a boot, I'll tell ya. Teams have not had a whole lot of success returning the ball against the Hawkeyes because he's done such a good job in preventing them from doing so.
On the other end of things, Keith Duncan hasn't really kicked many field goals. By that, I mean he's 1-for-1 through three games. He hasn't missed an extra point, though, for whatever that's worth. Desmond King handles the return duties, and if he gets some room, he's fast enough to break one open - he hasn't yet in his career, but he did break an 88-yard pick-six last season so he has potential to do it.
Aside from those already mentioned, who else are key players for Iowa that Rutgers fans should be aware of?
THE OUTLAW JOSEY JEWELL. He's our middle linebacker and last season, a year in which he had 126 tackles, was the first sophomore captain in team history. He's the defensive play-caller and definitely the backbone of our front-seven.
Matt Nelson has been really good as a freshman, too, receiving Week 1 Freshman of the Week honors from the Big Ten after recording 2.5 sacks and forcing two fumbles.
On offense, I already briefly mentioned Matt VandeBerg, but he's our best wide receiver - he's such an efficient route runner and has pretty solid hands. He's CJB's favorite receiver and will definitely be the primary target against Rutgers.
How do Iowa fans feel in general about having Rutgers in the Big Ten? As this is the first ever meeting between the two schools, how many fans do you expect to travel to the east coast for this game?
We hate Rutgers!!! We have always hated Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey!!! You guys are the worst.
But actually, we really just don't care. We're the second farthest school from you guys, and that makes it hard to care. Really hard to care when you take into consideration just how much of a disaster Rutgers has been since they've joined the Big Ten, with the scandals and bad basketball and not very good football. I'm sure you're great people and all (probably not), but you're just too far away. We don't usually think about Rutgers, and have only thought about Maryland because we've played them in football the first two seasons and been beaten by them in basketball a few times.
There could be a pretty good amount of Iowa fans in New Brunswick (that's where Buttgers is, right?), but if there are, it's going to be because they're alumni or family that live in that area. I haven't heard of anybody who is traveling from these parts to New Jersey for the game, but what do I really know, anyway? I'm just a guy who is trying to troll some people that live very far away from me through the internet.
What is your prediction for the game?
Iowa needs this game. Last game was a wake up call. Or at least, it should have been. Iowa fans need this game and Iowa players definitely need this game. The Hawks should come out ready for this one and should put a charge in the Red Spartans early. Maybe like 200 yards rushing and 200 passing for the Hawks, and New Jersey native Akrum Wadley has himself a day. I don't think Rutgers has the talent to compete with the Hawkeyes and that Iowa takes a lead early and doesn't let go because they need that. Iowa 35, Rutgers 20. Please? Did I mention that we need it?
Thanks to Max for taking the time to answering my questions. You can follow him on twitter here and to read up on even more Iowa coverage, check out Black Heart Gold Pants and follow their twitter @BHGP. To read my answers to Max’s questions on Rutgers, click here.