1. LSU and Iowa don't exactly have a lot of history. How would you sum up the Hawkeye program for a layman LSU fan?
ROSS: We don't share a lot of history, although strangely Iowa and LSU both have recognized national championships from the 1958 season, which is an odd little bit of shared history. Anyway. Iowa's generally a solid program, with fairly regular bursts of very strong performances -- at least that's how I'd describe the Iowa program of the last three decades or so, which is essentially when the current Iowa identity was formed. Unless you're one of the elites of the sport, ancient history doesn't really matter that much, it's what have you done lately. And lately -- meaning the last 30 years -- Iowa has been an above-average football team far more often than not.
Iowa's been a remarkably stable program in no small part because of the stability it's enjoyed at the head coaching position. Since 1979, when Hayden Fry took over, Iowa has had all of two head coaches: Fry and Kirk Ferentz. That's it. Iowa just doesn't change football coaches that often; it was momentous news for the program when both coordinators were replaced because that was the first time in over a decade that Iowa had needed a new coordinator. Obviously, there's a fine line between stability and stagnation and Iowa has occasionally crossed that line, but for the most part this is a program in the modern era that has won a pretty respectable number of games. Since 1979, Iowa has won 8 or more games 18 times and had a losing record 8 times (and in just two instances have they had losing records in consecutive seasons: 1979-1980 and 1998-2000).
2. The Hawkeyes turned in a disappointing 4-8 for 2012, so was this season's 8-4 run a pleasant surprise, or more of a redemption for the Kirk Ferentz Regime?
ROSS: A little of both? Most fans were hopeful (and somewhat expectant) of improved results this year, if Iowa could have a little better luck on the health front; last year Iowa lost their best offensive and defensive linemen (Brandon Scherff and Dominic Alvis, respectively) and their top running back (Mark Weisman) and (arguably) top linebacker (James Morris) both dealt with lingering injury issues for much of the season. For a team that a) didn't have great talent to begin with and b) didn't have great depth, those issues were pretty damaging, which manifested itself in a six-game losing streak to end the season (including some pretty miserable performances). Add in the fact that Iowa had new offensive and defensive coordinators who were tweaking schemes and approaches (sometimes significantly) and you had a recipe for a pretty nightmarish season.
This year, the Iowa players had increased familiarity with the new coordinators and their schemes (and vice versa), there was some positive turnover within the assistant coaching ranks, and the team was much healthier than it was a year ago. Oh, and Iowa replaced a QB who looked utterly shell-shocked and lost for most of last year (James Vandenberg) with a QB who was much more poised and comfortable in the current offense (Jake Rudock). All of that went a long way in helping Iowa turn things around in 2013. That said, not many people (myself included) really expected a 4-game turnaround in the win column, especially with a harder schedule (Iowa replaced games with Indiana and Penn State with games with Ohio State and Wisconsin). But this team really gelled in October and November and ended the season playing at a pretty high level.
3. Speaking of Ferentz, his contract gets used as a bit of a punching bag by a lot of football bloggers, but what's the actual perception of the situation among the Iowa faithful?
ROSS: I think most fans wish Iowa athletic director Gary Barta hadn't signed Ferentz to such a long and expensive contract extension after the 2009 season (locking him up until 2020 was a bit overkill and the buyout Ferentz has is incredibly onerous for the the school), but most Iowa fans also like Ferentz the person quite a bit, like the way he represents the university and community, and are (generally) happy with the results he provides. Obviously, there have been some frustrating stretches in there (winning 7 games, 6 games, and 6 games from 2005-2007; winning 8 games, 7 games, 4 games from 2010-2012), but the dissatisfaction never really reached a critical mass in terms of wanting Ferentz kicked to the curb. Part of that is just an acknowledgement of financial realities (when your coach's buyout is well north of $10 million dollars, you're not going to cut him loose at the drop of a hat), but it's also a sign of the patience of Iowa fans. Iowa isn't the easiest place to win at (the state of Iowa produces some good homegrown players, but not nearly enough to stock an entire team) so Iowans tend to have a lot of patience for the coaches who are able to win here. And as of last year, Iowa was just three years removed from an 11-win season and an Orange Bowl triumph; success like that tends to give you some job stability here. I mean, we're not Auburn or anything.
4. On offense, Jake Rudock was a fairly efficient quarterback that led a workman-like attack. There were a few issues in the bigger games though. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this offense?
ROSS: The Iowa offense works well when they can establish a strong rushing attack -- everything stems from that. A good ground game allows Iowa to control time of possession, control the tempo of the game, and open things up for the passing game (which relies on play-action a lot). If Iowa can't run the ball effectively (this was the case against Michigan State and, to an extent, Wisconsin) or they find themselves facing a huge deficit and having to pass the ball, they're going to be in trouble. Iowa's not a pass-first offense. The line isn't built for that and the receivers aren't good enough to handle that much of the offensive load. I mean, there's a reason one of Iowa's most successful formations this season was a three-tight end set, you know?
Early on, the offense was all about returning starter Mark Weisman; he's a converted fullback who transferred from Air Force. He's not particularly fast or shifty, but he is a bruiser and an absolute load to bring down when he gets through a hole and hits the open field. He has a tendency to gravitate toward contact rather than trying to avoid it, which has unfortunately led to hims suffering a lot of minor injuries over the past few years and limiting his effectiveness. Toward the end of the season, Iowa was also able to get another running back successfully incorporated into the offense, Jordan Canzeri. Canzeri is pretty much the polar opposite of Weisman: he's small(ish), quick, and shifty. He has a much better ability to hit cut back lanes and make guys miss in the open field and he's definitely not going to lower his shoulder and invite contact. We're all curious to see how Iowa uses both backs in the Outback Bowl.
As far as the passing game... again, it needs a good running game in order to be effective. Rudock is the quarterback and he brings a lot of good attributes to the table, most notably his poise (he doesn't rattle easily) and his ability to shake off bad plays. He's also got a better understanding of the offense than his predecessor and he's athletic enough to pick up yards on the ground scrambling (although his ability to do so was hampered the last few weeks by a minor knee injury he suffered late in the season). He doesn't have the strongest arm around and he threw a few too many interceptions this season (12), mostly as a result of not reading coverages quite right (there was definitely times this year when he looked like a first-year starter). Rudock's top target among the WRs is Kevonte Martin-Manley (39 catches, 384 yards, 4 TD), with Damond Powell (12 catches, 291 yards, 2 TD) providing the big play threat for Iowa's offense. Iowa also makes use of tight ends a lot in the passing game; the tight ends combined for 55 catches, 668 yards, and 8 TDs, with C.J. Fiedorowicz emerging as a primary threat in the red zone (6 of those 8 TDs).
5. On defense, you could count on Norm Parker to run a very basic, but very effective, cover-two style. What's changed under his successor Phil Parker?
ROSS: Parker (no relation) hasn't radically changed things from the defense that Norm Parker installed at Iowa when he arrived in 1999 -- Iowa didn't suddenly switch to a 3-4 defense or anything -- but he has made a series of smaller changes that worked very well this year. Iowa still runs a base 4-3 defense, but where Norm Parker relied on the front four to generate almost all of the pressure, Phil Parker has been much more willing to use blitzers to generate pressure. It's not entirely clear if this is a true philosophical change, or if it's just a reaction to the talent at hand; if Iowa had NFL-caliber defensive ends that could generate a pass rush, I suspect we might see less blitzing from the linebackers. But Iowa doesn't have NFL-caliber defensive ends, so blitzing it is! Iowa ran much more effective blitzes this year, and it's hard not to think that the addition of Jim Reid to the defensive coaching staff deserves some of the credit for that; his defenses at Virginia were remarkably blitz-happy.
Coverage-wise, Iowa ran a lot of cover-two and quarters under Norm Parker. They still run a lot of that under Phil Parker, but they've also incorporated several other coverages, like cover 1 and cover 6 and cover 2 man when blitzing. That said, Iowa still plays a lot of zone and while they've talked about using more man coverage, it's still something they do fairly sparingly.
6. In terms of personnel, I see that the linebackers are studs, but there doesn't seem to be that beast pass-rusher or many playmakers in the secondary. How's this unit held up this season?
ROSS: Iowa's defense relies a lot on the secondary to be smart and positionally sound; that was true under Norm Parker and it's been true under Phil Parker, too. Iowa doesn't have the athletic freaks in the secondary to gamble a lot, which is why Iowa doesn't ask its defensive backs to play a lot of aggressive man coverage. Iowa's defense relies on strong play out of the safety position and, honestly, the defense's overall success this year has been a little surprising given the safety play, which hasn't been outstanding. Early in the season, either Tanner Miller or Johnny Lowdermilk seemed to be getting caught out of position quite a bit, which was leading to a lot of big plays being conceded in the passing game; they tightened things up in the second half of the season, but it still isn't a unit that Iowa fans have an enormous amount of confidence in. I would be surprised if LSU didn't challenge Iowa's defense with some deep balls, given their strengths at the WR positions and Iowa's shakiness at safety.
The defensive line is a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Individually, there aren't really any standout performers on the defensive line (especially in terms of pass rushing), but collectively they really cohered into a very stingy and productive defensive front. Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat emerged as a really strong tandem at DT, great clogging up the middle and shutting down the run and also at generating pressure on the QB. Iowa used a rotating cast of guys at the DE spots, but they ultimately did a good job of keeping outside contain and shutting down opposing running games. (The pass rushing, as noted, left a bit to be desired.)
7. On to the Outback Bowl matchup itself. How do you see this game shaking out? What does Iowa have to do to win, and what can LSU do to put themselves in the best situation?
ROSS: I think this game primarily comes down to the running game: if Iowa is able to run the ball pretty successfully and keep LSU's own running game in check, they're going to have a great shot to win the game. The magic number for me is around 150: if Iowa can run the ball for 150 yards or more and keep LSU under 150 yards, they'll be in good shape. If Iowa can't crack 100 yards on the ground and LSU is able to gobble up 150+, though, it could be a long afternoon for the Hawkeyes. I have a tough time envisioning Iowa winning in that situation.
I'm also a little concerned about LSU's very lethal WRs, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., against Iowa's secondary; Landry and Beckham are far and away the best receiver tandem Iowa has faced this year and this is a unit that's had a propensity to give up big plays in the passing game this year. It would be painful if Iowa is able to stop LSU on first and second down, only to give up big passing plays to Landry and Beckham on third down. But yeah: ultimately this game is going to be settled by whether or not Iowa's defense can outplay LSU's offense. That's the strength v. strength matchup in this game and whoever wins that battle is very likely to win the game.
As far as how the game itself plays out... I think Iowa comes out sharper in the first half and opens up an early lead. But I think LSU makes some adjustments after halftime and puts together a run of their own with some big plays on the Iowa defense in the second half. I think it will be a close game in the fourth quarter and it's likely to be determined by whichever team can make the big plays there -- or avoid the big mistakes. I'm going to say that Anthony Jennings throws a costly interception in the fourth quarter that leads to an Iowa FG and Iowa hangs on to win 23-21.