1. What are your overall thoughts on the team’s performance so far this year?
Pretty pleased. There’s not much to dislike about 37-7 and 35-7 wins. The biggest question mark on offense (the offensive line) has looked solid through two games (albeit against weak competition); Stanzi’s rarely been pressured and usually had ample time to find open receivers and they’ve done a nice job of opening holes for the running game most of the time. The biggest question mark on defense was the pair of new linebackers and so far things have been going pretty well there, too. Tyler Nielsen slid into one of the outside linebacker spots and already looks as comfortable as a multi-year starter there; at middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian’s been slowed by a wrist injury, but he’s been fine in limited action. The running game has been a pleasant surprise, with Adam Robinson looking even better than a year ago and Jewel Hampton looking like a very competent sidekick. The defensive line hasn’t been recording a lot of sacks, but they have been getting quite a bit of pressure on the quarterback. Overall, they’ve done exactly what you’d want them to do against lesser opposition: dominate them.
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2. Based on the performance in Week 1 and 2, what area(s) does the team need to improve on the most?
There are a few question marks on special teams. Due to circumstance, Iowa hasn’t yet attempted a field goal this year and given the inconsistency of our kickers over the past two years, that’s a bit of a worry. The coverage on a few kickoffs and a punt on Saturday was also poor; it didn’t cost them anything in that game, but it would be a poor idea to give easy yards to stronger opponents. Other than that, it’s just a matter of being a bit more consistent along the offensive line and in coverage for the linebackers. We’ll know a lot more about this team after this week’s road game against Arizona; that will be their first real test of the season.
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3. Which player(s) needs to step up their performance in the coming weeks?
As noted earlier, no one’s really played poorly thus far. RG Nolan MacMillan probably needs to be more consistent if he wants to keep his starting job; he only inherited that job because of an injury late in training camp to projected starter Adam Gettis. Now that Gettis is getting healthier, MacMillan will need to play at a high level to keep the starting spot to himself.
4. Which player has surprised you the most so far this season with their performance ?
Probably Tyler Nielsen, if only because before this season he’d only seen action on special teams or in mop-up duty (which was especially hard to come by on last year’s livin’ on the edge Iowa team). Riley Reiff, Julian Vandervelde, Adam Robinson, and Allan Reisner have also been playing very well this season, but it’s not quite as much of a surprise since they’d played well in spurts over the past two seasons. After some early game jitters against Eastern Illinois, Nielsen has really come on strong, delivering some hard hits and displaying impressive athleticism in leaping up for an interception against Iowa State. He’s filling A.J. Edds’ shoes quite well at the moment, although the true test will be when Iowa plays a good passing team, as Edds’ greatest skill was his excellent coverage ability – the jury’s still out on Nielsen there.
5. What are the major question marks headed into Week 3?
Just how good is this team and how well they handle a difficult road trip? They’ve played well through two games and avoided any embarrassing pratfalls (a la Virginia Tech) or near-pratfalls (a la last year’s Iowa team), but the level of competition also hasn’t been very high. They’ve basically performed up to expectations so far (although the first half against Iowa State last week was an impressive showcase of domination in all facets of a game: offense, defense, special teams), but things will be much more difficult this week. Arizona has also blown out its first two opponents (Toledo and The Citadel) and is building off a solid season a year ago. They’re far more talented than either Eastern Illinois or Iowa State and have plenty of speed and talent on offense and defense to challenge Iowa. And in Nick Foles they have a QB who can be patient and accurate and give Iowa’s defense some problems (see: pretty much every Northwestern quarterback over the past five years).
There are some worries related to the game that have little to do with the actual football, too. It’s a trip west for a late start (9:30pm CST) in the desert, conditions which have caused some Iowa fans to draw parallels to the ugly 44-7 road loss they suffered against Arizona State in 2004. Those same Iowa fans are also fretting over Iowa’s record in games west of the Rockies, since they’ve lost their last six or seven games in those conditions (albeit over a span of 20-30 years, so we’re talking about a pretty absurd sample size here). Still, even without the superstitions, it’s obvious that these are obviously ideal conditions, given how uncommon they are to Iowa.
6. What needs to happen in order to secure a victory in Week 3?
As usual with Iowa, it’s all about the line play. The offensive line needs to give Stanzi adequate protection and open up holes for Robinson and Hampton, while the defensive line needs to get pressure on Foles and disrupt this rhythm; the latter is especially important since Iowa rarely blitzes. If the defensive line can’t get pressure by themselves, the defense will either be forced to make uncomfortable blitzes or settle for getting picked apart by Foles and the Arizona receivers.
That said, I feel good about this game despite the fact that it’s a tough road game against an offense that’s been blitzing teams lately. Arizona’s struggled against teams like Iowa over the past few years: big, physical teams that can push them around and impose their will have really put the brakes on their offense (see: Iowa last year, or Arizona State and USC last year, or, most notably, Nebraska in last year’s Holiday Bowl, when they wiped the floor with Arizona) and been able to overpower their offense as well (see: Iowa last year to an extent and, again, Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl). If Iowa can deal with the inevitable early surge of emotion from Arizona (night game, national TV, “revenge” game, etc.) and avoid costly turnovers, I think they’ll be able to wear Arizona down and take control in the second half.