Pitt's first challenge comes against this man and his Iowa Hawkeyes.
I apologize for the long delay. Work definitely limited the amount of time I could spend writing this preview. But at long last, here it is.
It's Week 3 of Who the Heck is Pitt Playing. This time, Pitt is going to Big Ten country to face a team who is great at beating old JoePa and the Nittany Lions.
Who the heck are we playing? The Iowa Hawkeyes
When and where are we playing? September 17th at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, IA. Kickoff is 12 PM Eastern, 11 AM Central for those attending the game. For those at home, the game will be on ESPN or ESPN3
Why should I care? Pitt's first major road test of the season. It'll give the Panther faithful a glimpse as to whether the team has adapted to the new system.
How did they do last season? 4-4 in the Big Ten, 8-5 overall. They beat a good Missouri team 27-24 in the Insight Bowl.
Who's the coach? Kirk Ferentz, who is in his 13th year with Iowa
How many starters return? 5 on offense, 5 on defense, 0 kicker/punter
Thanks to the guys over at Iowa's SB Nation blog, Black Heart Gold Pants, for helping me with this preview. If you have the time, be sure to head on over and tell them
why they don't stand a chance against the HIGH OCTANE offense...I mean thank them for beating the snot out of JoePA .
What's the offense like? Iowa primarily uses a pro-style offense, which Pitt fans and more importantly Pitt players should be familiar with. As we know with pro-style offenses, they aren't going to reach Oregon explosiveness on offense, which is seen in the stats. Iowa finished 57th in FBS in total offense at 383 yards/game. When one thinks of a pro-style offense, you mostly think of a power running game which opens up the passing game. Except Iowa was seemingly average in the run game for a team that won 8 games. The team rushed for 148 yards/game, good for 70th in FBS. The passing game, led by QB Ricky Stanzi, was better, finished at 49th with 235 yards/game.
If you were to look at Iowa in 2009, Orange Bowl Champions, and Iowa in 2010, Insight Bowl Champions, the first alarming stat would be the team's play in the 4th quarter. In 2009, Stanzi seemingly willed Iowa to a BCS Game, outscoring the opposition by 56 points in the 4th quarter. In 2010, the team struggled in the 4th quarter, losing games against Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Minnesota, plus a near loss to Indiana. All of the games games were led by the Hawkeyes or were tied at some point in the 4th quarter. So which Iowa team will Pitt see on September 17th? With the number of starters this team lost, we may see the latter, although as the season progresses this team could surprise us.
We begin at quarterback, where Iowa says goodbye to the "Americanzi" as Iowa fans called Stanzi, and say hello to James Vandenberg. Now Vandenberg is not a new QB; he filled in admirably for Iowa when Stanzi went down with an injury in 2009 and started in games at Ohio State, where Iowa lost by a FG in overtime, and home against Minnesota, which Iowa won. He spent most of high school throwing out of a pro-style offense so don't expect a huge dropoff from Vandenberg. He won't be Stanzi, but he has shown he's more than capable of being the starting QB.
From looking at the rushing offense, you would think the Hawkeyes RBs were injured or relatively new. That was kind of the case. Iowa had a boatload of talented backs going into the season, but they all left before the end of the regular season. This led the way for sophomore Marcus Coker to emerge on the scene as the new Iowa RB. Had he played more in the season (he only saw action in 1 of the first 7 games), Iowa might have done better on the ground. After Coker, there's not much experience, so Iowa better hope that Coker avoids the injury bug or this offense could quickly become one-dimensional. Starting FB (yes the position still exists in college) Brett Morse is gone, but expect sophomore Brad Rogers to fill in nicely.
The wide receiver position, like the running backs, has good starters, but very little experience behind them. Marvin McNutt, Jr., the main receiver of this unit, and Keenan Davis are the two veterans. McNutt, Jr. had 53 catches for 861 yards while Davis only had 11 catches for 131 yards. But Davis' numbers should go up as his role in the offense improves. As for other receivers to emerge, the first name that appears to get playing time is sophomore Don Shumpert, the only other receiver that lettered. There are several other wideouts that could get playing time, but time will tell how many of them will see significant time in 2011.
When one thinks of Iowa, the first thing that should come to mind is the NFL pipeline that exists on both lines. The offensive line for the Hawkeyes will be a huge advantage in their matchup against the Panthers. While they lost two starters, there is starting experience all along the line. Tackles Riley Reiff and Marcus Zusevics have the potential to be the two best tackles in the Big Ten, which is saying something. At guards are senior Adam Gettis and Nolan MacMillan. Both are coming off on injuries in 2010. James Ferentz (coach's son) was the starting center in each game last season and will fill the role of center in 2011.
Okay, now what about the defense? Iowa's defense is set up in a 4-3 scheme. Like most Big Ten teams, the defense is pretty good. The Hawkeyes finished 25th in total defense and 7th in scoring defense. With that defense, you know Iowa was going to make teams grind it out from start to finish and they did. But surprisingly they didn't get to the quarterback as much. Pitt, who blitzed very rarely under Wannstedt, had 12 more sacks than Iowa. One would think with an NFL talent like Adrian Clayborn that Iowa would be better at getting to the QB, but I digress.
Iowa had one of the best rushing defenses in the nation, finishing at 6th overall. Despite losing a lot of starters, it still will be a challenge for Ray Graham to get his yardage against this Iowa defense. If there is an area to exploit, it'll be in the passing game, as Iowa finished 83rd in pass defense in 2010.
Up front for the Hawkeye defense will be a whole new cast of characters. Gone is the All-American Clayborn, All-Big Ten Karl Klug, and seasoned veteran Christian Ballard. Who will hope to make up for this loss of talent and experience? Coach Ferentz has a few players with some starting experience. Seniors Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns will start at tackle and end, respectively. They have 26 combined starts between the two. Look for Lebron Daniel to get the start at the other end position as he is the only other player to have lettered at defensive line for Iowa. For the last tackle position, senior Thomas Nardo will get the nod. Like other positions for Iowa, there is little experience beyond the starters on the depth chart.
Another position, another area where the Hawkeyes are young (This is what happens with 10 returning starters). The linebacking unit loses leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter, who started 36 games for the Hawkeyes. But LB Coach Darrell Wilson says he likes the returning players. When injuries sidelined Iowa's starting linebackers, sophomore James Morris stepped up and ended with 70 tackles on defense. He will get the starting spot at middle linebacker. As for the outside linebackers, Iowa hopes senior Tyler Nielsen can avoid injuries that have sidelined him last season in Iowa City. On the weak side will be either sophomore Christian Kirksey or DB-converted-LB Anthony Hitchens. The linebackers should be a solid unit for Iowa, especially if Nielsen is healthy and whoever wins the weak side linebacker competition is able to come in and produce.
Iowa's secondary had some of the best safeties and cornerbacks in the Big Ten. It makes you wonder why exactly they struggled so much in the defending the pass - especially in a league like the Big Ten, which is not exactly known for HIGH OCTANE offenses. Returning are both cornerbacks in Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde, who hope to be leaders for this young Iowa defense. Prater, in particular, is a preseason All-American according to some media sources so look for him to battle speedsters Devin Street and Cam Saddler when Pitt has the ball. The safety position is where it's a little confusing. The free safety position will be filled by sophomore Tanner Miller, but he missed spring camp after having surgery. But there is some experience behind him in Jack Swanson and Kyle Steinbrecher. At the strong safety position, the starter is Collin Sleeper, but Iowa's coaches haven't set that in stone yet either. It'll be interesting how these position battles play out as we get closer to fall camp.
Now what about special teams? Iowa loses one of the nation's best punters in Ryan Donahue, a Ray Guy Award finalist. Placekicker Daniel Murray also leaves the Hawkeyes. You may remember him from this game-winning kick against JoePA in 2008 (and allowed Pitt fans to say that Pitt > Iowa, Iowa > Penn State, therefore Pitt > Penn State, gotta love that transitive property). Iowa does return sophomore placekicker Mike Meyer and senior Eric Guthrie will begin as the punter for Iowa.
This is one of Pitt's toughest games in 2011 and if this game were at home, I would take the Panthers. But on the road, in front of a Gold Out crowd (Iowa is making Pitt feel at home?), this is where the Panthers suffer the first loss of the season, 23-17.
*Stats are courtesy of the NCAA
**Starters come from Iowa's Spring Prospectus http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/iowa/sports/m-footbl/auto_pdf/prospectus-11.pdf