Over the last few weeks, I have repeatedly referred to the 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes as a team of which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Some may question this, saying that teamsmanship, and thus the whole, is the nature of football, perhaps more than any other team sport. On the other hand, there is currently a 6-0 team in Columbus of which the parts seem to be more than the whole; also, 2010 and 2014 Iowa had parts that were worth more than the whole.
That is not the case with 2015 Iowa. Unlike many iterations of past Kirk Ferentz-coached Iowa teams, this squad is not littered with NFL talent. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson may be the only current starter who has first-round potential. There are other starters who will hear their names called in the draft, but in comparison to the 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008 2009 and 2010 teams, which had NFL talent almost from top to bottom, the next-level talent on this team is limited. But again, that hasn't stopped them from playing beyond their individual talents.
The issue is that Hawkeyes are falling like Illinois dropped passes and one of the biggest concerns coming into the year—depth at almost all positions—is being pushed to the limits. By the end of this past weekend's win, six players who started, or would have started, the opening game were injured. Specifically, Iowa was missing its starting tailback, LeShun Daniels, to a high-ankle sprain. Its top receiver, Tevaun Smith, was out with a knee issue. Both tackles were out; left tackle Boone Myer had a stinger and right tackle Ike Boettger left the Illinois game with an undisclosed injury. Would-be starting tight end Jake Duzey missed the first three games of the season with a MCL injury that was sustained during spring camp. He has been back for the past three games, but has played sparingly. Finally, defensive end Drew Ott went down with what has been diagnosed as a torn ACL; he will miss the remainder of the season.
The great thing about the whole-is-greater-than-the-parts mentality is the team's ability to come together and fend off adversity. Daniels started the first two games, but was injured against Iowa State, and had been tentative through the Wisconsin matchup. He was finally scratched against the Illini. Senior Jordan Canzeri, who seemed fated to be Iowa's change-of-pace, third-down back this season, has stepped in seamlessly. He is currently second in the conference with nine touchdowns, and third in the conference with 145.2 all-purpose yards-per-game. Against Illinois, he paced the Hawkeyes with a team-record 43 carries. Duzey's absence has opened the door for fellow-senior Henry Krieger Coble, who has 15 receptions for 137 yards; and junior George Kittle, who has six receptions for 91 yards and three touchdowns. Tevaun Smith's absence opened the door for true freshman Jerminic Smith, who torched the Illinois secondary for four catches and 118 yards.
But the Illinois game saw two more starters go to the bench, and that may be two-too-many. By the end of the game, Iowa had a natural center playing right tackle; moreover, that natural center, James Daniels, was one of two true freshman playing with the 1's. With two new starters—Daniels and walk-on Cole Croston—protecting either side of quarterback C.J. Beathard, defenders had free runs at the junior signal-caller. According to this tweet from Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Marc Morehouse:
CJB had ice on left hip and right groin. Said he needs treatment.— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) October 10, 2015
Canzeri is another concern. He finished the game healthy, but he is currently second in the conference, and sixth nationally, with 132 rushing attempts. Canzeri is listed as 5'9", 190 pounds. Between 2012-2014, Iowa rode its starting tailback Mark Weisman similarly, and he generally became less effective as the seasons wore on. Canzeri is a superior back to Weisman, but Weisman was a 240-pound fullback, and thus was meant to take a beating.
In short, due to the injuries, fans are left to worry for the health and safety of the currently healthy Hawkeyes, especially in the backfield.
This is what we know. Up next on Iowa's schedule is a road game at Northwestern, arguably the toughest opponent on the remaining conference slate. After that is a bye week, when hopefully some of the injured Hawkeyes can get healthy.
Ott is done for the season. Tevaun Smith will be out until after the bye week. LeShun Daniels is likely out until November, though high-ankle sprains are tricky. Duzey should be back, but it's hard to say when he'll be at 100 percent. The tackles are week-to-week, and if another tackle goes down, the cupboard may be bare. Lastly, it's hard to see Beathard taking the punishment he has taken for the past two weeks and lasting the entire season. And it's hard to see Canzeri last as a 40-touch-a-game back.
We also know that Iowa is 6-0 for the first time since 2009. If it can beat Northwestern then it likely has a two-game lead over every competitive team—i.e. Wisconsin and Northwestern—in the Western Division. The Hawkeyes are ranked for the first time since 2010. It is the first time the Iowa offense has looked cohesive since 2011, and the first time it's looked dangerous since 2008; coincidentally, it is also the first time the Iowa scoring offense has ranked in the top two of the Big Ten since 2008. The special teams look capable for the first time in a long time. Head coach Kirk Ferentz is still Kirk Ferentz, but the changes he has instilled in his program are subtle but palpable.
But Iowa is also losing starters at a terrifying rate and will travel to Evanston to play the No. 20-ranked Wildcats.
So can how far can a duct-taped Iowa go?
Looking at the schedule post-Northwestern and bye week, Iowa takes on Maryland, then goes to Indiana, back home against Minnesota then Purdue, and ends on the road against Nebraska. Maryland and Purdue are not good teams. Nebraska is reeling, and could be playing for nothing but pride by the end of the season. Minnesota is a mediocre team with a terrible offense. That leaves a respectable Indiana. Iowa will be favored, in some cases substantially, for the remainder of the season.
In short, Iowa can go 12-0, it can go to Indianapolis, and it can compete with any team from the East. Indianapolis and the College Football Playoffs are a realistic scenario. However, it's going to need its patchwork crew to hold together for one more week, as it travels to Evanston to take on a humiliated Wildcats crew that got shut out by Michigan and will be hell-bent to regain national respect.