Quality Control: Did We Have It Right in 2004?

Publisher
Posted Dec 23, 2004
Jon


Back to back to back New Year's Day Bowl games for the Iowa football team has Hawkeye fans in a state of euphoria. Who could have predicted such a thing? Given that we are nearing the end of the year, we felt it might be a good idea to look back at some of our thoughts on the 2004 season from way back in the spring & summer, to see where we got it right and where we swung and missed. We think you might enjoy this trip down (recent) memory lane, in addition to laughing at some of our folly.

To me, it’s always a good exercise to read what we have written here at HawkeyeNation.com or Hawkeye Nation, the magazine, for the sake of quality control.

It’s good to look back and see if we were just talking out of our ears, or if we knew what we were saying. Being that we are close to the end of 2004, taking a look back seems to be en vogue.

The following is something we wrote in the magazine last April. We took a look at the main questions that the 2004 team would encounter. You will find my current comments in italics. Everything not in italics was penned in either the April 2004 or August 2004 issues of Hawkeye Nation.

CONTINUITY ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE

On the surface, the loss of Robert Gallery is something that Iowa cannot replace with just one player and it would be unfair to hold any current Hawkeye up to the standards set by Iowa’s Outland Award winner.

However, the 2004 offensive line has something that the 2003 version did not: quite a bit of returning experience.

When Iowa’s front five lined up to face Miami of Ohio last September, Gallery was Iowa’s lone trenchman that day that had ever started a game for the Hawkeyes. Brian Ferentz, Eric Rothwell, David Walker and Pete McMahon had a combined zero starts.

Sam Aiello was serving a suspension and he had been a starter earlier in his career, but Iowa had not been in such a situation since the 1999.

If you accept that Ferentz and Walker will be able to play come September as they rehab from off-season surgery, and doctors feel they will be able to go, you also have Mike Jones and McMahon returning on the line. That is four players who saw a lot of playing time in 2004.

Then you fall to last year’s reserves that will be counted on heavily this year. Lee Gray, Blake Larsen, Chris Felder, CJ Barkema, Mike Elgin and Ben Cronin.

Larsen came to Iowa with a lofty national recruiting ranking. To this point, he has made no real contributions on the field when the game was in doubt. Larsen had a couple of surgeries last summer called ‘Lateral Release’, where leg tendons that connect to the knee cap are actually cut and reattached. The condition inhibits mobility, which is not a good thing for an offensive lineman.

Barkema battled back problems last year and Felder dealt with a neck stinger.

However, all players are expected to be at ‘full go’ come fall, and there is a lot of beef up front.

Should everyone get healthy and should a few backup players form last year make good strides this spring, Iowa’s offensive line in 2004 might actually have a chance to be better than what it was in 2003.

In looking ahead to 2005, only one of the players mentioned, Pete McMahon, will have exhausted his eligibility.

December of 2004 thoughts: Well, injuries plagued this year’s group and likely stopped them from being ‘all that they could have been’. It’s still amazing to me that this team won nine games and a share of the Big Ten title with so many injuries up front. David Walker played fewer than 20 snaps this year, Mike Elgin and Lee Gray missed starts, walk on Todd Plagman came in for relief early in the year and then he went down, Brian Ferentz didn’t play until mid season, which is pretty remarkable to begin with, etc. Perhaps we will see in the Capital One Bowl what this offense could have been like with a healthy crew all season long?

THE ARMS RACE

All eyes are going to be on Iowa’s competition at quarterback this spring. Drew Tate enters spring practice seemingly with a leg up on the competition: Eric McCollom, Jason Manson and Cy Phillips.

Tate has the high school pedigree and Iowa thought enough of his decision-making abilities and moxie to name him as Nathan Chandler’s backup coming out of fall drills last year.

Tate did not see a lot of action in 2003, but when he did play he showed Flutie-like grit and endeared himself among the Hawkeye faithful. December 2004 Note: See, I told you I was the first to make the Flutie comparisons :)

Eric McCollom made a brief detour as an Iowa receiver last year, but he makes the move back to quarterback. Jason Manson is one of the most liked players on the team and he will not just go gently into that good night.

Cy Phillips is the biggest of Iowa’s quarterbacks, and that is a fact that might come into play during the 2004 season.

Though Iowa suffered through a lot of injuries last year, Nathan Chandler went wire to wire. At 6-7 and 260-pounds, Chandler could handle a lot of the hits that he took.

Brad Banks was shifty enough to stay out of harms way, and he also had the good fortune of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in Iowa history.

Prior to the 2001 season, Iowa played at least two quarterbacks per season for several consecutive years, and it was not necessarily by choice.

Scott Mullen, Randy Reiners, Kyle McCann and Jon Beutjer took turns getting injured back in those seasons as they played behind smallish and inexperienced offensive lines.

Tate, McCollom and Manson all weigh less than 200-pounds, while McCann, Banks and Chandler were well above that mark.

It’s just one more reason to hope that Iowa’s offensive line gels early.

December 2004 Note: Were it not for Tate’s ability to avoid the big hits in the backfield, this year’s team would have yielded 50-plus sacks. Drew is shifty, and he was able to stay out of the trainer’s room. I don’t think that anyone expected what we saw out of Tate, or at least, I know that I did not. I felt that he had that ‘it’ that you can’t put your finger on, but I did not expect ‘it’ to yield a first team All Big Ten performance.

KICKING GAME UNCERTAINTY

Gone is Nate ‘The Great’ Kaeding. It’s a safe bet that Iowa fans may never see his kind again. He is the NCAA’s all time leader in field goal accuracy from 40-yards out and he is tied for the all time most points scored in Big Ten history by a kicker.

I could go on and on about his accomplishments, but more than anything else, Kaeding was consistency personified during his final three years at Iowa.

He was so good that most people forget that he missed eight kicks during his freshman season at Iowa.

Of course, he only missed eight more kicks over his final three seasons.

As difficult as it will be for one man to replace Robert Gallery or Bob Sanders, the most difficult task of all might fall to sophomore place kicker Kyle Schlicher.

Schlicher is another in a line of great kickers to come out of Ankeny, Iowa and he was regarded as one of the best kickers in the country coming out of high school two years ago. That is why Iowa chose to offer him a scholarship when they still had Kaeding for two more years.

Excellent special teams have been one of the strengths of Iowa football program over the past three seasons, and that goes much further than the place kicker splitting the uprights.

Kaeding had a very strong leg on kickoffs, but he also had great control of the ball and could kick it very high as well as deep.

When Kaeding wasn’t booting touchbacks, he was placing his kicks high and inside the five-yard line. When he did this, Iowa’s coverage unit usually stopped the return man from reaching the 20-yard line.

Schlicher has strong leg, but it will be a bit much to expect him to be able to have that much control of the ball at this early juncture of his career. At least he was able to learn from one of the best kickers in the history of college football.

It’s likely that Schlicher will have his troubles at some point during the 2004 season. Kaeding was probably good for two wins last year. Iowa’s offense might have to be better to the point of not having to rely on Schlicher to bail them out the way Kaeding did in 2003.

Of all the questions that exist heading into 2004, this one might be the most significant as it relates to wins and losses at the end of the season.

As I pointed out earlier, control of the ball on kickoffs will be a big factor.

Another positive note on special teams is the fact that the Hawkeye return seven players from the 2003 punt return unit.

While that might not be on the tip of your tongue as far as important factors, it’s certainly something the Iowa coaching staff is glad to see.

Iowa’s punt block (or punt return) team has been among the nations best for the past two seasons.

As evidence, Iowa has scored more touchdowns outside of its offense and defense over the past two years than all but six other teams in Division 1 football.

Iowa assistant coach Darrell Wilson recently said that Sean Considine is one of the best punt blockers that he has ever worked with, as Sean has a unique ability to make himself ‘skinny’ when getting through would be blockers.

After watching Wilson break down 30-minutes worth of punt block film at the recent FanFest event, it gave the fans a greater appreciation for this unit.

Having been spoiled by such great return specialists as Tim Dwight, Kahlil Hill, Ed Hinkel (who led the Big Ten in 2002) and Ramon Ochoa (Iowa’s all time record holder for punt return yardage in a season), we sometimes focus on the man catching the ball as opposed to the men trying to block the punt and those that create some of the holes that the specialists run through.

Having seven of eleven players back on this unit is a great ‘plus’ as Iowa builds towards next season.

December of 2004 Note: Schlicher did struggle with his trajectory this year, no doubt about it. But I don’t think anyone could have asked for anything more out of Kyle. He is proof that lightning can strike twice at the same place. Iowa’s coverage units were not solid over the first half of the year, but they became great late in the year, as did Iowa’s return units. Though Hinkel did not put up the numbers that Ochoa put up, he had a solid season.

NOT RESTING ON PAST SUCCESS

It’s been a while since Iowa has had to confront this issue, but it is an issue that they must now face.

The foundation of the turnaround that Iowa has enjoyed is now, for the most part, gone.

Eric Steinbach, Dallas Clark, Bruce Nelson, Robert Gallery, Ben Sobieksi, David Porter, Fred Russell, Bob Sanders, Derek Pagel, Brad Banks, Nathan Chandler, Ramon Ochoa, CJ Jones, Mo Brown, Howard Hodges, Fred Barr, Colin Cole, Jared Clauss, Edgar Cervantes and many more…

They suffered through the 3-8, 1-10 and 3-9 seasons back in 1998, 1999 & 2000. They had a unique appreciation of what it felt like to get your teeth figuratively kicked in, only to keep pounding away at the rock until it finally breaks.

As the old saying goes, it was not that last blow that broke the rock, but all of the blows that came before it.

Many of Iowa’s younger players did not have a big mouthful of that adversity and therefore they might not have as much appreciation for the perch on which the Iowa football program now stands.

There are still some players on the team that were around during the leaner days; Jermelle Lewis, Jonathon Babineaux, Matt Roth, Pete McMahon, Aaron Mickens, Tony Jackson and a handful of others.

It’s up to them to remind their teammates that Iowa did not just wake up one day and anoint themselves the ‘Bullies of the Big Ten’.

It came from hard work.

Perhaps the most difficult coaching challenges await the Iowa staff over the course of the next 12 to 24 months.

Iowa’s current crop of redshirt sophomores and younger have known nothing but bowl games and top 10 rankings.

Maybe the most challenging part about building a perennial football power is reminding each new class that arrives on campus that it’s not their manifest destiny to go to January 1 bowl games.

There is a price that has to be paid.

December of 2004 Note: I think this was evident after the Arizona State game, and it’s something that Ferentz talked about. But Ferentz and his staff righted that ship, and the point of demarcation from the success of the 2002 and 2003 seasons was the beat down in Tempe.

That was when a lot of players came to the realization that the press clippings and preseason rankings were more about what had happened before than they were about what they were at that point in time.

The team refocused their efforts, they dug in, and then wound up winning seven of their next eight games, including their last seven.

Here are more thoughts and factoids that we pointed out last spring and summer that you might find entertaining…

August 2004 Issue

- Did you know that since the start of the 2001 football season, Iowa has the best home field advantage in Big Ten games, with a winning percentage of .917 at home? In fact, there are just two other teams in college football (Miami and Texas) who have a better conference home record than Iowa does over the past three years.

Iowa has lost just one game at home over the last three years, and that was by six points to Michigan in 2001, where a blocked punt in the end zone was the difference in that contest.

December 2004 Note: Well, Iowa didn’t hurt its numbers this year. Miami did lose at least one conference home game, while Texas did not.

- Who will start at Iowa’s Leo linebacker position vacated by Grant Steen’s graduation? George Lewis? Kyle Williams?

We can’t get them all right.

- On the running back situation: “This is a real solid position for Iowa, though the national magazine pundits do not agree.”

- Jonathon Babineaux will be overlooked by a lot of pre-season publications and all Big Ten teams, but expect to see his name a lot come the end of the season, as he should have a monster year. He creates mismatches inside, having started at defensive end for the 2002 Hawkeyes before moving inside last season.

Rob Howe and Jon Miller’s pick for the biggest game of 2004, circa our August Issue

Rob: Enough already with this losing streak to the Buckeyes. Bubba was just getting settled into the White House the last time Iowa won in the series. A victory against Ohio State further cements the Hawkeyes' place among the nation's top programs. It's time.

Jon: The next Big Ten game is always the most important, but Rob is dead on here. Say you came across Aladdin’s lamp, and the genie told you he would guarantee an Iowa victory in just one Big Ten game this year; I think you pick Ohio State for all of the reasons Rob mentioned. It’s the only Big Ten team that Kirk and Company have failed to beat since 1999. If there is such a thing as a good year to get Ohio State, this might be the last one for a while.

- Iowa's Surprise Guy Come NFL Draft time

Rob: Last spring, it was Erek Jensen. Derek Pagel and Ben Sobieski popped up on the radar in '03. Moving forward, as Coach Kirk Ferentz would say, I'm going to go with Jonathan Babineaux. The guy has played like a monster when healthy. Because of last year's injury, he probably won't get a lot of love from NFL people until he hits the postseason workouts. Also, keep an eye on Derreck Robinson.

Jon: ‘D-Rob’ is a solid pick here, as is Babineaux. I think I have another: Sean Considine. The Iowa coaches rave about his heady play at free safety as well as his work on Iowa’s punt block unit. McMahon and Lewis will likely be drafted as well, along with Matt Roth. One thing is for certain, as we highlighted in our April Issue, is that NFL people will give Iowa seniors a serious look, based on the strength and conditioning program and the coaching they receive.

- Where will Iowa's Upcoming Recruiting Class will be ranked ... in the Big Ten

Rob: The self-anointed experts probably will never rate the Hawkeyes' haul up there with Michigan and Ohio State. It seems that often times when a kid commits to Iowa, his ranking is lowered while another kid that pledges to become a Wolverine or Buckeye receives more stars. I still believe these gurus will find it difficult keeping Iowa much below the Top 2 if it adds prospects like Dan Doering and Dace Richardson to an already impressive haul of Christensen, Trey Stross, Marcus Wilson, Kyle Calloway and Alex Kanellis. I'll say third.

Jon: Rob is clearly onto the conspiracy theory that exists among Iowa Hawkeye recruitniks, and I certainly won’t disagree. I think that you also have to add the Penn State factor in all of this, as they are always in the Top Three in these rankings, though they have not fared well on the field in recent years. If Iowa lands four or five of what I like to call the ‘Chicago Seven’ of Doering, Richardson, Anthony Moeaki, Ryan Bain, Rahkeem Smith and David Moosman, to go along with the commitment of Jake Christensen, that will be an amazing haul out of Illinois alone. This is the year that Iowa makes its mark in the minds of national recruiting pundits, as well as the recruits themselves. Third or better is a possibility.

December 2004 Note: Not too bad, eh?

And hey, we cannot forget about you, the Hawkeye fan, and what you felt we would see in 2004.

Over 500 fans emailed us their predictions…and here is how you predicted the 2004 Big Ten race:

1 Michigan
2 IOWA
3 Ohio State
4 Minnesota
5 Wisconsin
6 Purdue
7 Penn State
8 Michigan State
9 Northwestern
10 Indiana
11 Illinois

The predicted record for the Hawkeyes in 2004 averaged out at 9.47-1.53. So better than 9-2 and worse than 10-1. There were several 11-0 and 10-1 predictions in the mix, but there were also several 8-3 predictions that balanced those out. There was one lone prediction among the properly formatted entries that had Iowa any worse than 8-3, and that was a 7-4 prediction.

Jermelle Lewis and Matt Roth were the runaway favorites as Iowa’s offensive and defensive MVP’s.

The most popular bowl destination as the Iowa fans saw it was the Capitol One Bowl in Orlando, Florida, which is a ‘New Years Day’ Bowl game.

For those fans that felt Iowa would lose one or more games, their September 25th contest at Michigan was the most common loss on the ledger, and nearly 90-percent of all Iowa fans who felt Iowa would lose one or more games saw Iowa dropping this one.

Arizona State and Penn State were among the other games that the fans felt Iowa stood the ‘best chance’ at losing. There were not many fans predicting Iowa to lose at home against Ohio State.

Here were some of the fans comments:

I think Iowa will lose to Michigan because it is our first B10 game, it's an away game and beating Michigan three times in a row is really going against the odds. But if we win that game we may run the Big Ten table. – Tim, South Carolina.

Michigan will be very focused on Iowa this year but they will be upset at Purdue and lose again at Ohio State. Ohio State's second loss will be an upset at Michigan State. Iowa will take the Big Ten this year and finish in the top ten for the third straight year. The biggest question in my mind is how quickly Tate or possibly Manson get settled into the season and whether the receivers get focused. – Dale C.

I just don't know who to say we'll lose to. I could see us losing at ASU, but then remember the pounding our defense put on them and know that the ‘D’ will be better this year. OSU game is at home and the house will be absolutely ROCKING. Jeff Smoker' is gone at MSU. Wisconsin is at home. Minnesota has no run D. Penn State doesn't really concern me. Purdue is at home and lost a ton on D. I could even see us winning at Michigan. – Bill, Spring Hill, Kansas

Iowa will be good this year, but I look at this year as a semi-rebuilding year. This is the year we develop more talent and get key guys a good deal of game experience. This year will go a long way in preparing and developing our football team for what we all think will be a title run in 2005!! Could very well be a breakout year for recruiting also!! – Cory, Grand Island, Nebraska

Iowa faces two vaunted air attacks in ASU and Michigan, and although MSU had a solid passing game last season, Jeff Smoker is gone and so is his experience. After that the competition focuses more on the run and the Hawkeye run defense is second to none. If the Hawks make it through the month of September without a loss they will go undefeated. Defense wins championships! – Pete, Davenport, Iowa

I am going to error on the side of caution here...The kool-aid tastes good, but not that good. Like the past two years, the question marks line up when talking about quarterback and offensive line...BUT, I could see it turning into a positive. I could see the line gelling and I could see the quarterback position solidified with Tate. I hope I am eating my prediction and the Hawks go 10-1 and get to another BCS game or even go 11-0 and play in early January for it all, no matter what, it is great to be a Hawkeye! – Kirk, Altoona, Iowa

This is how I see it on paper right now (9-2, 2nd in the Big Ten), but fully expect key injuries, upsets, and other quirky final outcomes in close games to help determine the season just like any other year. It should be fun watching as I feel the top seven teams in the Big 10 all have the talent to potentially finish on top. I also feel that Michigan will lose to maybe OSU or some other team they shouldn't simply because they seem to every year and that would slip them into a first place tie with us. – Kyle, Omaha, Nebraska

December 2004 Note: I think we will rely on all of you even more come August of 2005!

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