Just when you count Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes out, they always seem to say, “Hey, we’re still here.” In 2013, that statement came in the form of an 8-5 record, wins over Michigan and Nebraska and close losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and LSU. In a throwback to the first decade of the 2000s, Iowa is once again a favorite in the Big Ten.
The new divisional alignment has made the East top heavy and the West wide open. Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska are all contenders to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. If the Hawkeyes make their maiden voyage to Indianapolis, chances are it’ll be on the arm – and brain – of quarterback Jake Rudock.
Think Craig Krenzel. The style might be different, but the schooling is similar. Rudock, an Academic All-American, is a microbiology/pre-med major who completed nearly 60 percent of his passes last season for 2,383 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. And that was in his first season as a starter.
Experience and intelligence could set him on a path for stardom in Year 2. Iowa’s schedule sets up nicely – no Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State, and the two toughest games – Nebraska and Wisconsin – are in Iowa City.
Not only has Rudock settled into his role; together, he and third-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis have developed a rapport and familiarity with one another. Continuity has been a theme of Ferentz’s 15-year tenure at Iowa, contributing to the program’s multiple Big Ten titles, 11 bowl games and more than 100 victories. But rough patches in 2011 and ’12 led to staff changes.
Now, two years after Davis arrived, the Iowa offense is poised for a titanic leap.
“He has a great understanding of everything that is going on,” Davis said of Rudock this spring. “Nothing rattles him. He handles himself as a quarterback, and he can make all the throws. He’s just got more experience.”
The Hawkeye offense will feature more variety and a faster pace this season. A flair of unpredictability should suit Iowa well in the mundane West Division. Expect wide receiver-heavy formations, screen passes, zone scheme, pro-style – all of it. Rudock is able to compartmentalize everything and study defenses to the point where he recognizes what’s coming.
“I think we’ve all gotten more comfortable with the offense,” Rudock said. “We all understand it better. Things like route depth. Sometimes it’s supposed to be a 12-yard route. We’d accidentally run it eight yards or nine yards, and that makes a big difference.”
An area Ferenetz and Davis would like to see growth is inside the red zone. Iowa scored touchdowns on just over half their opportunities on first-and-goal from the 7-to-9-yard line. It’s a percentage that’s lacking if the Hawkeyes hope to be among the Big Ten’s best.
“Now there’s really no excuses to make mental mistakes. We should know better,” Rudock said.
One of Rudock’s favorite targets last season – and a big one near the goal line – is gone. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz caught 30 passes or 299 yards and six touchdowns, before being drafted by the Houston Texans. Left behind are Ray Hamilton, Jake Duzey, George Kittle and Henry Krieger-Coble behind.
All Hamilton, Duzey and Kittle did last season was haul in 32 receptions, 473 yards, and two touchdowns. So a dropoff in production is not imminent. All three possess size that should create matchup problems for opponents.
“We’re all gunning for certain spots, we know they’re only going to put one, two, or three tight ends and we have more tight ends than that,” Hamilton said. “A lot of us are talented guys that we feel could help the team and get the best out of each other.”
The wide receiver corps is plentiful but unproven. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the top returner having caught a team-high 40 passes for 388 with five touchdowns. Left tackle Brandon Scherff and running back Mark Weisman (975 yards, eight touchdowns) are the remaining weapons on offense. Scherff might not accumulate stats, but his value is immense.
“Not many have the athletic ability that he has,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “He moves very well. You want to see guys who play with their feet. You want guys who play with their eyes. You can’t do anything if you don’t have good eyes.
“You could put a football player in a test tube, you’d want them to look like him.”
Defensively, Iowa has few deficiencies. The unit returns almost entirely intact, save for the loss of all three starting linebackers. The Hawkeyes were great against the run last season, limiting opponents to 121 yards per game and just five rushing touchdowns in the regular season. Then LSU had 220 yards and three scores in the Outback Bowl.
Even with that stout front seven, Iowa ranked eighth in the Big Ten with 24 sacks. It owned the conference’s second best pass defense. All areas are expected to improve in 2014, especially with a stout defensive line.
“Our job and goal obviously is to sack the quarterback,” defensive end Mike Hardy said. “As long as we’re working our hardest and we’re pressing that pocket, making that quarterback uncomfortable – that’s good enough for us.”
Iowa hopes its quarterback remains in a comfort zone. The offense was ninth in the Big Ten last season in yards per game despite running five more plays per game than it did in 2012. The Hawkeyes figure that problem will be corrected due to the spiced up offense.
“I want to be able to come to the line and if I see something fuzzy, I want to be able to get us into a safe play where we can get something positive,’’ Rudock said. “I have to keep working.”