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Pat Harty: Are the Big Ten Bullies back? Still too soon to say

[ 0 ] September 28, 2013 |

To prove I’m not pounding the black and gold Kool-Aid, even with Saturday’s 23-7 victory over Minnesota, it’s still too early to say that the Iowa football team has returned to contender status.

But it’s headed that way.

Except for the kickoff team, which allowed two long returns, Iowa pretty much had its way with the previously undefeated Gophers.

From Mark Weisman’s power running to Jake Rudock’s poise in the pocket to a smothering defense, Iowa football under Kirk Ferentz has the right formula to be relevant again.

Saturday’s game was probably Greg Davis’ best performance as the Iowa offensive coordinator. He mixed in just enough finesse to go with the typical power game.

The bubble screen that junior-college transfer Damond Powell turned into a 74-yard touchdown in the second quarter was the perfect call, made better by near-perfect execution. Throw in Powell’s blazing speed and the Gophers were no match on that key play.

“That was a great call and great execution,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward.

While it’s true the Gophers were no match against Iowa last season, losing 31-13 at Kinnick Stadium, Saturday’s victory just felt different. That’s partly because Iowa is clearly better than it was last season.

Davis and defensive coordinator Phil Parker are better than they were last season, moving beyond the first-year transitional stage.

There also is no substitution for age and experience, and Iowa has it at key positions, namely linebacker and on the offensive line.

I said before the season that at least one of Iowa’s three senior starting linebackers would have to make first-team all-Big Ten for the team to have success. James Morris certainly helped his cause Saturday by making plays all over the field, including the victory-clinching interception late in the fourth quarter.

But Morris also would be the first to say that he and fellow linebackers Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens benefited Saturday from feeding off the big bruisers on the defensive line.

It’s been a while since you could say that about the Iowa defensive line, but just like the team, it’s coming along nicely. It almost seems like the light has turned on for several players at the same time, namely defensive tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis. They’re both fourth-year juniors, so perhaps it’s just experience finally paying off.

As for the offense, Weisman was vintage Weisman, grinding his way to 147 rushing yards on 24 carries. Left tackle Brandon Scherff was a force as usual and Rudock was clearly the best quarterback on the field.

He threw another costly interception in the Gopher end zone, but the good still outweighs the bad. His ability to run is probably the biggest surprise this season—  besides Ferentz recently saying on his radio show that he listens to the Grateful Dead.

Rudock rushed for his fifth touchdown Saturday and he extended some drives on third down with his legs.

Nothing against Iowa’s previous two starting quarterbacks, James Vandenberg and Ricky Stanzi, but neither had Rudock’s running ability.

If you’re looking for things to criticize, Iowa struggled in the red zone Saturday and Mike Meyer missed a 39-yard field goal. But Meyer also made three field goals and it’s hard to criticize an offense that produces 464 yards. There were some breakdowns on pass coverage, but the defense compensated by shutting down Minnesota’s rushing attack.

Assuming everybody stays healthy, the Iowa offensive line is showing that perhaps it’s time to start calling them the Big Ten Bullies again.

But remember, last year’s team was 4-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten when the roof caved in. Injuries on the offensive line played a part in the collapse, as did an inept passing attack, but so too did playing against better competition.

Northern Illinois is still the best team Iowa has played this season, as they showed again by dismantling Purdue on Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.

It’ll be interesting to see how Hawkeye fans, namely the Iowa students, respond to Saturday’s victory. If ever there was a time to sell out Kinnick Stadium, it would be Saturday against Michigan State for homecoming.

The Hawkeyes deserve that kind of response as a way to say thank you for whipping the Gophers.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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