Loren Tate: Glad to see you, Iowa

Loren Tate: Glad to see you, Iowa

I’ve missed Iowa. You know, our western neighbor that we love to hate ... the rube with the tassels sticking out his ears (like we don’t have corn in Illinois).

Well, the Hawkeyes are now permanent fixtures on the Illini football schedule. The Big Ten came to its senses and established geographical (time zone) divisions sending Purdue west and Indiana east ... while still making a common-sense decision to let those in-state rivals cross over and duel for the Old Oaken Bucket every year.

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The Illini-Hawkeye series has been a bumpy one, the teams convening just twice in the 1930s, calling a “cooling-off period” for 14 years after a postgame incident in Iowa City in 1952, and more recently missing the last five seasons due to a quirk in the faulty Legends-Leaders alignment.

My feeling is this: With all the Illinois preps that Iowa brings across the border, those young fellows should be allowed to come back over here and show us what we missed. Why not?

Answering our own Matt Daniels on Monday in Chicago, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz referred to an April luncheon in Rock Island where “it dawned on me that we hadn’t played since 2008 ... and how unusual that is. It’s just one of those funny, quirky circumstances, and I think the good news is not only do we play this year but we’ll play annually now. That’s certainly one of the good byproducts of the new realignment.”

Luck of the draw

This is viewed as one of the “must-win” games for Tim Beckman’s team, and the timing isn’t ideal for defeating the Hawkeyes for the second time since 2000.

It appears the late Jack Mollenkopf got together with Hayden Fry and drew up Iowa’s 2014 football schedule. Mollenkopf was the former Purdue coach who, like Iowa’s Fry, believed the road to success was paved with pushovers. This schedule is so Iowa-friendly that Tom Dienhart, who writes for the Big Ten, is on a limb predicting a possible 10-0 start that carries through the Illinois game.

Come on. Ten straight? We know they’ll stumble somewhere.

Let’s see. They begin before a packed home stadium against Northern Iowa, Ball State and Iowa State before traveling to Pitt. For the record, Ball State has whipped Indiana twice recently and is coming off 9-4 and 10-3 seasons, and Ferentz is a shaky 7 for 15 in the intrastate rivalry that often brings out the best in Iowa State. Meanwhile, Pitt is coming off a rugged 7-6 season that saw the Panthers upend surprising 10-4 Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse.

Iowa then plays, in order, Purdue, Indiana, Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota and Illinois before closing against Wisconsin and Nebraska.

It’s the luck of the draw. They face Indiana and Maryland from the Eastern Division, thereby ducking Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan. No Big Ten team ever had a better opportunity to build momentum through mid-November.

Tough up front

How good are the Hawkeyes really?

Begin with this: They won’t come to Memorial Stadium on Nov. 15 to trick anybody. Ferentz has two veteran lines, and he plans to dominate up front. That has always been the style of a coach who has made Iowa bowl eligible in 12 of the last 13 years and won six of them. He enjoyed Big Ten seasons of 8-0 and 7-1 and has finished at least 4-4 in 11 of 13 years. At 5-3 last season, they closed with wins against Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska before falling to LSU 21-14 in Tampa.

If you heard that fullbacks went the way of typewriters ... well, Iowa has a 230-pound blocker (Adam Cox from Stillman Valley) who bulldozes for a 240-pound running back (Mark Weisman from suburban Stevenson High). The goal of these Illinois products is to win the battle of attrition.

“Weisman’s career has been very interesting, walking on at our place as a fullback,” Ferentz said. “We fooled around two years ago, threw him back there at the running back position, and he really did a good job with that.”

So Ferentz starts two fullbacks, one of whom rushed for 975 yards last season.

The MVP, naturally, is left tackle Brandon Scherff, a fifth-year guy who checks in at 6-foot-5 and 320.

“I think Brandon embodies a lot of the best qualities of other great players we’ve had,” Ferentz said, “and certainly he’s got some physical characteristics that are highly unusual.”

Both lines are Iowa’s strength but, while veteran QB Jake Rudock leads an experienced attacking unit, the defense must replace three linebackers who each topped 100 tackles last season and 250 during their careers.

The Illini just missed C.J. Fiedorowicz, the Johnsburg tight end who committed to Illinois and changed his mind. Fiedorowicz led Iowa receivers with six TDs last season and was drafted in the NFL’s third round by the Houston Texans.

Final thought

Iowa can be merely above average or really good. With this schedule, they’re bound to harbor dreams of winning the West, defeating Ohio State or Michigan State in Indianapolis and reaching the NCAA’s first four-team playoff. But with strength of schedule a huge part of the criteria, the selection committee might favor champions from the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC.

Furthermore, the Big Ten in general may be lifted or downgraded early depending on how Wisconsin performs against LSU in Houston, how MSU fares at Oregon and whether Michigan can win at Notre Dame.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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