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Pitt-Iowa Q&A with Black Heart Gold Pants

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Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I answered some questions for SB Nation's Iowa site, Black Heart Gold Pants, and Ross from over that way was kind enough to reciprocate. See his answers to my questions below:

While the running game has been Pitt's strength, Iowa has struggled in that department. It also seems like multiple backs are being used with four guys registering at least ten carries already. Can you tell us a little about the Hawkeyes' backfield and what to expect?
ROSS: Iowa has been playing a game of musical chairs at running back this year and there are a lot of reasons behind that approach. For one thing, it's an attempt to help preserve Mark Weisman, Iowa's huge 240-lb fullback turned lead running back.  He's gotten worn down in each of the past two seasons and suffered injuries that either kept him out of action in the second half of the season or limited his effectiveness.  He's seen limited work early this year in part because the coaches want to keep him fresher later in the season.  For another thing, Iowa also has several backs that they like, each of whom brings something a little different to the table.  Weisman brings strength, power, and tremendous tackle-breaking ability.  Jordan Canzeri brings more speed and shiftiness to the table.  Damon Bullock is maybe the best pass-catcher of the bunch and a solid blocker, which makes him a useful third-down back.  LeShun Daniels might have the biggest upside of the bunch -- he has a lot of the strength and power of Weisman, but a bit more speed as well -- but he also has the least experience.  So Iowa's been trying to get all of those guys some attention in the early going this year.

The downside to that approach is that it's been extremely hard for the running game to find any sort of rhythm.  It's not a matter of one running back getting several plays or an entire series or even quarter -- they've frequently been subbed out on a play-to-play basis.  That might be good in terms of managing fatigue, but it also makes it nigh-impossible for the running backs to develop any sort of rhythm or positive momentum.  Iowa's offensive line has also struggled mightily in run blocking this year, which has developed into a big problem. Despite returning an All-America candidate at left tackle (Brandon Scherff) and several other players with starting experience (RT Andrew Donnal, C Austin Blythe, LG Jordan Walsh), the line has struggled to generate a consistent push on the ground or open holes for the running game.  It hasn't helped that teams are regularly putting 8 or 9 men in the box, either -- there's simply no room for the running game to get going.  As for why teams are doing that, well...
As I discussed in the Q&A I did for Black Heart Gold Pants, I've got real concerns on Pitt's secondary. Can you tell us what to expect out of quarterback Jake Rudock on Saturday?
ROSS: ...it's because they don't respect Rudock and the passing game.  And they don't respect him because he hasn't been able to make teams pay for loading up to stop the run.  Let's back up for a moment, though.  Three years ago, Iowa's longtime offensive coordinator, Ken O'Keefe, bolted to go coach wide receivers for the Miami Dolphins.  Kirk Ferentz ended up hiring former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis as O'Keefe's replacement.  We were concerned at the time about how Ferentz's preferred zone blocking scheme would mesh with Davis' short passing game; sadly, those concerns have very much been borne out in the disastrous results we've seen from the offense in recent years.  At first we were told that Iowa simply didn't have the receivers to work well in Davis' system (he prioritizes smaller, faster types who can make a defender miss and get yards after a quick catch), so Iowa spent the last three years recruiting receivers to fit Davis' needs.  Then we were told that Iowa needed a QB who was fully indoctrinated in Davis's sytem (in 2012 Davis inherited James Vandenberg, a QB who had spent four years being coached by O'Keefe), so in Rudock we have a QB beginning his second year as a starter under Davis (and who has been practicing Davis' system since his arrival).

And the passing offense is still a mess.  Iowa's receivers struggle to get open and when they do, Rudock struggles to get them the ball. He checks down to running backs and tight ends readily and too often fails to see wide receivers open downfield.  And on the rare occasions when he does attempt to connect with a receiver downfield, he often misses.  So while I understand the concerns you might have about Pitt's secondary, I don't think Iowa is the team (nor Rudock the QB) to exploit that weakness.  Vandenberg exploded during Iowa's stunning comeback against Pitt in 2011; it would be truly shocking to see a duplicate performance from Rudock and Iowa this year.
In addition to Pitt's secondary, Iowa's run defense is another big concern among Pitt fans. Iowa, like the Panthers, hasn't played a killer schedule to date, but their run defense ranks among the best in the nation. Just how good are those guys and what kind of effort will we see on Saturday against James Conner and Pitt's offensive line?
ROSS: I think the run defense is very solid -- they were 19th in the country last year, conceding 128.4 ypg on the ground, and they returned most of the same faces along the defensive line -- but it's fair to say they haven't been tested too much yet.  They certainly haven't been tested by a rush offense as good as Pitt or a running back as brawny and talented as James Conner.  The Iowa defense's typical plan of attack is to shut down the opponent's running game and force them to beat Iowa through the air (preferably via long, drawn-out drives that give the defense several opportunities to get a stop or force a turnover) and I can't imagine that they would do anything differently in this game.  I think their focus will definitely be on containing Conner and forcing Chad Voytik to beat them through the air.

Can they do that?  Hard to say.  Iowa's strength against the run begins up front, with Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat.  Davis and Trinca-Pasat are both seniors, with finely-honed technique and ample experience.  Davis is the bigger of the two and is generally the one who occupies multiple blockers, freeing up Trinca-Pasat to make more big plays.  Nate Meier, Drew Ott, and Mike Hardy are Iowa's primary faces at defensive end and they're generally solid against the run as well, although they can occasionally get caught overpursuing.  Iowa lost three senior linebackers last year, so Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman, and Bo Bower have some big shoes to fill this year.  They've struggled in pass coverage, but they've been pretty good in helping the defensive line shut down the run game (particularly Alston).  My biggest fear with the defense on Saturday is them getting overworked -- if Iowa's offense remains inept and can't stay on the field, the defense is inevitably going to get worn down and leave themselves vulnerable to Pitt's running game.  I think the run defense will be able to hold Pitt in check for a while on Saturday -- I just don't think they'll be able to do it all game (especially if they have to be on the field as much as I suspect they will).
One edge the Panthers may have is in special teams - particularly on field goals. Iowa's kickers are only 3/7 on the year and all four of the misses have been fewer than 40 yards away. I assume that's a real concern for the team, but can you talk a little about the Hawkeyes' kickers, and even special teams overall?
ROSS: They're terrible.  Is that enough?

The kicking game has been very disappointing in most facets this year.  Field goals have been an absolute adventure (and most of the time said adventure has ended with Iowa fans shaking their heads in disbelief and looking for another beer) and the punting has been extremely mediocre.  There were a few glimmers of hope last week -- Marshall Koehn made a 40+ yard field goal in the fourth quarter to tie the game (before the defense promptly allowed Iowa State to drive down the field and kick the game-winning field goal) and Dillon Kidd managed to pin a few punts deep inside Iowa's own 10-yard line.  Of course, he managed to do so in part because Iowa was punting from the opposition side of the field and... oh god, this is depressing.  The lone bright spot in the kicking game has been kickoffs -- Koehn has been banged 11/14 through the end zone for a touchback.  I'd mention the return game, but there's not much to discuss there -- Matt Vandeberg has returned four punts for 33 yards (8.3 ypa) in three games and Jordan Canzeri and Jonathan Parker are each averaging around 23 ypa on kickoff returns, which is fine, but hardly remarkable.  Iowa's special teams have been a net negative this year, which is not good news for a team that resides in the margins as much as Iowa does.
I'd love your thoughts on Kirk Ferentz. His path while at Iowa was relatively the same to a polarizing figure at Pitt that we like to call Dave Wannstedt. Ferentz started off slowly, turned things around, and then tailed off a little. The primary difference, obviously, is that Pitt (admittedly, in part to an SI report that focused on off-field issues by players) chose to cut ties with Wannstedt while Ferentz is going on his 16th year. After some early success, Ferentz had a few more good years in 2008-10, but has largely suffered through many seasons of mediocrity. What's the verdict - do the majority of Iowa fans want him gone or are they too wary of a potential coaching debacle that Pitt endured  to want change?
ROSS: I don't think the majority of Iowa fans want him gone just yet -- but we're definitely approaching that tipping point and the losses to teams like Iowa State (3 of the last 4 seasons), Northwestern (3 of the last 5 years), Minnesota (2 of the last 4 years), and MAC teams (one each in 2 of the last 3 years, and a narrowly-averted disaster against Ball State this year) are definitely eating away at the goodwill he'd previously built up with the fanbase.  This year could wind up being very damaging to that goodwill, too.  Iowa went 8-5 last year, ending the regular season with wins over Michigan and Nebraska.

Expectations were reasonably high for 2014, thanks to a slew of returning players on offense (including Scherff) and defense (including Davis), and a very favorable schedule (no games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, or Penn State; home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin).  If Ferentz was going to taste the same level of success he enjoyed from 2002-2004 or 2008-2010 at Iowa, this looked like it would be the year for that.  Based on how things have gone through the first three games of the season, though, that looks like a pipe dream now.  The last time Iowa entered a season with high expectations was 2010 and they struggled to 7-5 that year; a repeat performance this year could really fan the flames under Ferentz's seat and cast doubt on whether he really can pull Iowa out of their current doldrums and contend for a conference championship (let alone a playoff spot).

You noted Pitt's merry-go-round of coaching instability, though, and I do think a fear of that has played a part in Iowa's reluctance to move on from Ferentz (his widely-reported buyout is an obstacle but it's probably no longer a truly insurmountable one, especially with the TV revenue flowing into college football -- and the Big Ten in particular -- these days).  Iowa has enjoyed absolutely preposterous stability in football: since 1979, the Hawkeyes have had just TWO head coaches, Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz.  In today's age, when coaches often seem to get hired and fired at the drop of the hat, that's mind-boggling.  So there's a very real reluctance to break from that tradition, especially when we've seen peer institutions like Nebraska, Minnesota, and Illinois struggle mightily when replacing coaches.  Iowa fans also have an internal point of reference in basketball, too -- in 1999, Iowa declined to renew the contract of Tom Davis, a popular coach whose program had somewhat stagnated.  His replacements -- first Steve Alford, then Todd Lickliter -- not only failed to build on Davis' success, but drove Iowa's basketball program into a hole from which it's just now beginning to emerge.  There's zero desire to see that play out in football, too.

Ferentz has built up a lot of goodwill with Iowa fans -- he's coached here as an assistant or a pro for 25 years now, so even though he's not an Iowan by birth, he's definitely been adopted as one and he's been widely viewed as an excellent representative for the program, the university, and the state.  The Big Ten Championships he secured in 2002 and 2004 still resonate a bit, as does the Orange Bowl triumph in 2009.  But the more recent failures -- the disappointment of 2010, the complete cratering of 2012, the potential disappointment of 2014 -- are casting a long shadow over his tenure, too, and eating away at that goodwill.  I don't know when the majority will turn against him... but it feels like it's coming soon.
6. Give us a prediction for Saturday.
ROSS: I'm comforted a little by the fact that the Pitt passing attack has been fairly inconsistent all year and the fact that Iowa's biggest defensive strength (rush defense) matches up with Pitt's biggest offensive strength (rush offense).  Unfortunately, I have very little faith in the Iowa offense to do enough on Saturday to keep the pressure off the defense.  I think the Iowa defense holds firm for a while, but finally buckles in the second half and Pitt cruises to a 27-13 win.  Needless to say, I hope I'm wrong and that the Iowa offense shows me something, but... I'm not holding my breath.