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Coaching From the Couch: Iowa vs Illinois State

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Iowa just beat a very good, but physically inferior football team. Was Illinois State overhyped, or has Iowa improved? Did we learn anything about the 2015 Hawkeyes? Am I actually feeling hope for this year, or did I just drink too much coffee again?

You've made Drew very angry
You've made Drew very angry
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Well that was fun, wasn't it? Iowa just beat an FCS team in a convincing fashion for the first time in the Greg Davis era. The Phil Parker defense has sort of grown into itself, but the offense showed major improvement compared to its last 3 opening days. While I'm not ready to declare the Greg Davis offense fixed after one game against a team they should have beat anyway, I saw a lot of things happen against the Redbirds that make me optimistic for this year. Let's start with the most obvious change from last season.

CJ Beathard

The first thing that needs to be said about CJB's performance is that he was damn good. We can finally put to rest the fear that, much like Samson, he lost all of his power when he cut his hair.

CJBHAIR

CJB went 15-24 for 211 yds, 1 TD and 0 picks, and added a couple of rushing scores on top of that.  He cemented his place as the team's leader early with a pair of very long touchdown drives to open the game, including one of 99 yds. Another important stat on the day was 8.79 yards-per-attempt for CJ. To put some perspective on that, Jake Rudock put up 6.09 YPA against a similar UNI team in last year's opener. With Iowa having the game in complete control from kickoff to the final whistle, Iowa didn't have to lean on the passing attack and Kirk Ferentz was able to play his field position/ball control game for 4 quarters. Because of the nature of Iowa's non-con schedule, we probably wont get a true read on what kind of quarterback Beathard is until Big Ten play starts, but today everything went as well as it possibly could have.

Offensive and Defensive Lines

First thing: the defensive line was a wrecking ball the entire game. Nothing was there on inside runs, ball carriers rarely found the edge on outside runs, and the Redbird quarterbacks could barely make a 3-step drop before having to dump the ball. Roberson was sacked 5 times, and Iowa only allowed 1.2 yds per rush for a total of 35 yds. As a unit, everyone who played today was solid, but it was Drew Ott who will be giving Roberson nightmares for the rest of the season. If he keeps playing at this level through the rest of the season, he'll be winning some awards.
The offensive line was solid in its own right. While still very much a work in progress, they gave up zero sacks and generally were pretty effective at both pass and run blocking. On the interior, Welsh, Blythe and Walsh were very impressive. With the exception of one or two blocks against the wrong man, both guards were generally very effective when pulling on screens and outside runs. The tackles, Boone Myers in particular, looked much improved from what we saw before today. Scherff, Bulaga and Gallery they are not, but the defensive front they faced in fall camp might turn out to be the best one they face all year. All 5 linemen made mistakes at some point, but they were far from the disaster we were all expecting after the kid's day scrimmage. Because of the difference in size between FCS and Big Ten linemen on either side of the ball this game is probably a poor barometer for both units, but for once it's nice to see lots of promise and no reason to panic.

Running Backs

It was clear that well before this game kicked off, Brian Ferentz and Greg Davis had figured out what everyone's role would be. LeShun Daniels was nothing if not solid. His job was to be the prototypical Ferentz workhorse and get the bulk of the carries while letting the offensive line and fullbacks do most of the hard work for him. The comparisons to a mortal Shonn Greene turned out to be pretty apt. He doesn't yet have all the physicality and underrated speed that Shonn had, but his vision and patience will prove invaluable this year. LeShun never hit a hole before it appeared, and he was very effective running behind a fullback (both of whom had solid games). The thing I noticed the most about LeShun's game was how he always fell forward. He's a powerful runner, which forced Illinois State to hit him low and allowed him to fall forward for an extra yard or two every time.
Canzeri's job is also very well defined. All day he was used as a more effective Damon Bullock; he was both a check down safety valve and a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game. He doesn't have elite speed, but he's still one of the quickest players on the team and he can make people miss in the open field. I would have liked to see him get a few more carries than he did, if only so opponents don't automatically assume pass every time he enters the game a month from now. Overall though, it's good to have these roles figured out and use each back according to their strengths (that is, no more Weisman going off tackle). Again, there was room for improvement from both Canzeri and Daniels, but on a day where Iowa had 210 yds on the ground I think it's safe to say this was a very good starting point.

Greg Davis

Earlier this year when Ferentz said the offense was going to look pretty much the same as it did in 2014, there was plenty of reason for pessimism. After all, the last 3 seasons have shown us some of the most stubbornly awful performances of the Ferentz era. While there was definitely no major overhaul of Davis' offensive philosophy, it's clear that Davis, Ferentz and the rest of the coaching staff spent some time this off season tinkering under the hood. The dreaded horizontal passes didn't seem to be called nearly as frequently as last year, but more importantly they actually worked when they were called. The formations and blocking schemes were tweaked to provide more protection to the receiver and allow him to pick up some steam. The deception on offense, which was nonexistent last year, was more effective as well. There were more runs out of single back and shotgun formations, and more play action passes. One of the biggest struggles for Iowa in recent seasons has been the fact that most teams knew whether to play the run or pass as soon as Iowa lined up. Davis seems to have finally gotten the hint. Iowa still doesn't have the speed to reproduce the 2005 Texas Longhorns, but at least they're giving themselves as much of a fighting chance as they will likely ever have with Greg Davis in charge.

Final Thoughts

-Apart from some minor use as run blockers, the tight ends were a non-factor today. Even with Duzey out I expected to hear their names called a lot today. I assume this is just Ferentz playing things close to the vest, but we'll see.

-Akrum Wadley fumbled again. As a result he's probably in Ferentz's dog house and I doubt we'll hear his name very much for the next few months unless AIRBHG strikes.

-The team was about as healthy as they ever have been on opening day, but depth is still a concern. Apart from the defensive line and maybe some minor patchwork for the linebackers, I worry about Iowa dipping too far into their bench.

-Desmond King was solid in coverage and we didn't hear his name that often. On the other side, Greg Mabin was an absolute battering ram. He gave up a couple of passes playing in zone coverage, but he was better in man and delivered some devastating and painful looking blows on tackles. For a converted receiver, Greg Mabin loves to hit people.

-Iowa State is next week, which means nothing we know about these Hawkeyes will be relevant until the following Saturday. I'll need the entire week to prepare mentally for whatever unpredictable nonsense is going to happen.