The Iowa football team has shown marked improvement from each game it has played this year. If that holds true the rest of the season, the Hawkeyes should be in good shape in the not-so-strong Legends Division.
With teams like Northwestern and Michigan State showing that they need some work before Big Ten Conference play starts and with Nebraska’s defense giving up a lot of points and Michigan relying too much on Denard Robinson’s feet, the Hawkeyes have just as good of a chance to represent the Legends Division in the first Big Ten Conference Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in December.
But before all of that, Iowa needs to focus on getting healthy and getting better during the upcoming bye week.
“You don’t ever have a choice when the bye week happens, but this year it comes at a good time for us,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said on his weekly teleconference call Tuesday. “We are a developing team right now. It give us a chance to rethink and move forward. It will help us get healthy, too.”
The two biggest players that are needed to get healthy are offensive lineman Nolan MacMillan and corner back B.J. Lowery. Ferentz said Tuesday that Lowery will need at least two more weeks before he will start normal football activity, but the news for MacMillan was more promising.
“Nolan has made progress, and he could potentially return after the bye week,” Ferentz said. “He has been doing a little bit more lately so that is positive.”
Sophomore running back Marcus Coker was not healthy in camp this year but appears to be back on track after his impressive performance against Louisiana-Monore last weekend. He rushed for 113 yards and two scores in the win and appeared to have better vision, more confidence and good cut-back ability, which is what you need to have in the Hawkeye offense.
“He wasn’t at full speed in camp,” Ferentz admitted Tuesday. “He didn’t have a great start to the season, but he is healthy now and looked good Saturday. That’s a good thing because we are going to need him.”
Even though Coker has not been full healthy until recently, he is still averaging right around 100 yards per game in the first four games. The only running back in the Big Ten that is averaging more yards per game is Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball.
One thing that will help Coker’s development as a runner this year is the development of the passing game with junior quarterback James Vandenberg and wide receivers Marvin McNutt, junior Keenan Davis and redshirt freshman Kevonte Martin-Manley.
“I am pleased with the development,” Ferentz said of the wide receiver unit. “We have a long road ahead of us, but there is a really good chance to be good there.”
Vandenberg was terrific in the second-half comeback over Pittsburgh. He threw for 399 yards and three touchdowns in the game and rushed for another score as Iowa rallied from 21 points down in the second half. He carried that effort into this past Saturday’s game when he threw for 270 yards and three more touchdowns with another rushing score.
Even former Iowa and NFL tight end and current Iowa City Regina head football coach Marv Cook was impressed, saying this week on a local radio show that Vandenberg may be the “best pure passer in the history of Iowa football.”
The Iowa offense has scored 30 or more points in each of the first four games for the first time since 2002. The defense, however, has been a work in progress. And according to Ferentz, there is still work to be done.
“We’re improving, but we are still not there,” Ferentz said. “The defense is coming along, and we are playing better on film. We may have a good defense by the time the season is over. We have a lot of steps in front of us, but the good thing is we are taking steps.”
Ferentz said the biggest improvements that need to be made on defense include better tackling and better containment on running plays. He did say that the addition of Jordan Bernstine to the secondary the past few games has been a big positive for the defense.
“Jordan’s been a good story for us,” Ferentz said. “We had a nasty injury two years ago, and it is good to see him bounce back. He’s really played well and is helping us in a lot of different ways.”
Another senior who had not really been a factor until this season is defensive tackle Tom Nardo. Last week, Nardo earned Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording a career-high 12 tackles against ULM.
“We are very happy for Tom Nardo,” Ferentz said. “He’s been playing good football for us. It was good to see he was recognized for his hard work.”
Iowa is 3-1 heading into this weekend’s slate of games. The Hawkeyes will take that record into Happy Valley on October 8 to face Penn State, which also is 3-1 and will face Indiana on Saturday.