Northern Illinois opens its season Saturday at Iowa, when the Huskies will look for their first-ever win over the Hawkeyes.
Marc Morehouse covers Iowa for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. He took some time out of his schedule to answer some questions about the Hawkeyes from Daily Chronicle NIU beat writer Steve Nitz.
The following is an edited transcript.
Nitz: Iowa was in a BCS bowl not too long ago, beating Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl in January of 2010. However, the Hawkeyes have slipped every season, and were just 4-8 last year. How does the fanbase feel about head coach Kirk Ferentz?
Morehouse: It’s getting restless, as you can imagine. Ferentz has won two Big Ten co-championships and has taken Iowa to two Orange Bowls in his 14-plus seasons. The political capital started burning in 2010, when the Hawkeyes, with valuable returning starters from the Orange Bowl-winning team (quarterback and most of the defensive line), underachieved and finished 8-5 with losses in three of their final four games.
The Hawkeyes didn’t move the needle much in 2011, even with a record-breaking season from WR Marvin McNutt, when they finished 7-6. Last season was splat. The math has been done on Ferentz’s buyout by the critics (it’s $3 million a year through the 2019 season). The reality of that math ($18 million) says that Ferentz’s seat is golden and not hot. So, 4-8 has fans on edge. Iowa split season ticket packages to accommodate fans in 2012. This year, fans with zero “priority points” were able to buy season tickets. Iowa is trending down and fans have reacted accordingly.
Nitz: Should Iowa have another down year, do you think Ferentz will be on the hot seat?
Morehouse: Depends what happens. If Iowa finishes 4-8 again, the torches and pitchfork factory in Iowa will be churning long into the winter. The buyout will still be in the $15 million range, so what will that really mean? Probably not too much. I point toward ’14 as being the season where the seat could be plugged in. The buyout will be in the $11 million range by then. The Big Ten will be inching toward a new network TV deal. Iowa might find itself with a cash inflow that would make a buyout plausible. If Iowa flails in ’14, that would be three straight seasons of down. The cycle for coaches to show something, anything, seems to be set on three years.
Nitz: What do the Hawkeyes really need to improve on to have a successful year?
Morehouse: Iowa’s offense needs to show up. Last season, the Hawkeyes scored 232 points, their worst output since 2007. They finished 118th in the country in plays of 10 yards or more. The passing offense, which is the charge of second-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis, turned a QB who threw 25 TD passes in ’11 into a disaster. James Vandenberg had a top-five season for an Iowa QB in 2011, but threw just seven TD passes last year.
Iowa has to find a way to bring some explosiveness into its game. The Hawkeyes have a decent offensive line and a healthy bunch of running backs, but to expect 11 perfect plays for four drives a game is too much. The passing game has to be a threat. Going into the season, it probably doesn’t scare any defensive coordinators.
Nitz: Iowa will start Jake Rudock at quarterback, a sophomore who hasn't thrown a pass at the college level. What can you tell us about him?
Morehouse: Rudock is a third-year player who came to Iowa from the highly regarded prep program at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He led Aquinas to the mythical prep national title with a 15-0 record as a senior. He passed for more than 5,000 yards and 73 TDs. He picked Iowa over Wisconsin and Colorado because he liked the pro-style offense Iowa ran under former OC Ken O’Keefe (it was actually more Ferentz’s than anyone’s).
Miami (Fla.) took a late run at Rudock when Al Golden was hired. He stuck with Iowa for the football, but also because of the UI medical school. Rudock is a pre-med major. This semester he’s taking organic chemistry II and physics I. He wants to be a pediatrician. He also wants to be a great Big Ten QB. Right now, he’s further along with the medical degree. Rudock is thinly built (6-3, 205), but he’s a fighter. He’s not afraid to pull the ball down and run. He has a decent arm. How he does will probably be dictated more by how Iowa’s OL imposes its will on a defense.
Nitz: What type of a back is Mark Weisman, and how many tailbacks do you expect to receive carries Saturday?
Morehouse: Weisman is 6-0, 238 pounds. He’s a fullback with just enough running back skill. He’s a straight-line runner with not much wiggle in his game. When Iowa runs its outside zone and left tackle Brandon Scherff (NFL written all over him) and left guard Conor Boffeli get out in front of Weisman, along with TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (6-7, 265), it’s an avalanche of humanity. The long-term remains blurry for Weisman, who missed four games last season with a sprained ankle and a torn groin. He did a lot of his damage against Northern Iowa, Central Michigan and Minnesota (his game vs. Michigan State was a thing of beauty).
Is he a full-service RB? Saturday you also will see Damon Bullock (a 200-pound hybrid RB/WR who sees time in the slot), Jordan Canzeri (190 pounds, fastest feet and perhaps fastest RB), true freshman LeShun Daniels (6-0, 220 and a bowling ball, played at DeKalb High School his freshmen and sophomore years) and maybe Michael Malloy (a 215-pounder with power and balance). Iowa has depth at running back it hasn’t had in several years. Still, if any back gets 20-plus carries a game, it will probably be Weisman.