Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pittsburgh Predictions

A week after the sting of the Iowa State loss has started to subside, Iowa fans seem to remain in a daze about this team’s true identity heading into this Saturday’s showdown with Pittsburgh.  Some of the lingering questions include whether Marcus Coker’s performance against Missouri was an aberration, whether the defensive line will struggle the entire year as much as they did against Iowa State, and whether Iowa’s defensive coaching staff has any answers for hurry-up, spread offenses.  Here are my thoughts.

GrahamPittsburgh’s running back, Ray Graham, leads the nation in rushing averaging 161 yards per game.  Granted, Pittsburgh has opened this season against Buffalo and Maine, neither of which would be considered world beaters or be confused for having stellar defenses, so the numbers may be a bit misleading.  Nevertheless, Iowa’s run defense was paper thin against an Iowa State rushing attack that by the end of the year will likely be considered mediocre by the end of the year.  While I am of course interested to see whether the defensive line improves from last week’s performance, I am also interested to see how James Morris performs.  Morris seemed lost at times last week and was having problems shedding blocks to put himself into position to make tackles, but he is still a young player with plenty of time to improve and to put his incredible athletic ability on display.  Assuming that Pittsburgh tries to establish a running game behind Graham, the play of the linebackers will be crucial to slowing down that element of the Panther offense and forcing Pittsburgh to rely on a shaky pass attack.

Offensive Line.  For the playing experience that the members of the offensive line have, it was disappointing last week to see them struggle to win the line of scrimmage battle against Iowa State and, in some instances, struggle to reach Iowa State’s linebackers.  The tendency of Iowa offensive lines under Kirk Ferentz is that they tend to come out of the gates slowly but continue to improve as a unit as the season progress, hopefully we see parts of that progress on Saturday.  Speaking of offense, Marcus Coker remains an enigma.  While most fans, including myself, were giddy at the prospect of his return this season, he has thus far struggled to get into the rhythm of a game with any consistency.  It was obvious in the Tennessee Tech game and last week that Coker is still shaking off the rust from camp when he was not hit.  Unfortunately, Coker has fumbled four times in his last four games as a Hawkeye, a statistic that likely makes the Iowa coaching staff quite nervous.  Regardless of how Coker does on Saturday, I am curious to see how Jason White and Damon Bullock perform, as one or both of them will need to be able to shoulder at least 5-10 carries a game in order to spell Coker over the course of a long Big Ten season.

Pass Attack.  It will be interesting to watch how James Vandenberg plays in a home game that does not involve miserable, wet conditions and, whether his offensive coordinator gives him the opportunity to throw the ball down field.  Establishing Vandenberg’s confidence seems critical to me at this point in the season in order to lighten the defensive fronts that the Iowa running backs see week in and week out. What I would like to see is the Iowa offense coming out throwing short, seven to eight yard pass plays on first and second down in order to get into manageable third down situations rather than running Coker into eight man defensive fronts to set up third and long situations.

With so many questions about this team still remaining unanswered, I am excited to see what unfolds on Saturday.  I am curious to see if we see any changes on defense in terms of personnel or schemes.  I am curious to see if this offense has the octane necessary to put points on the scoreboard in droves, which a young Iowa defense desperately needs this year.  I also want to see our kickoff coverage unit make tackles and not give up field position to the Panthers.  Hopefully there are more good answers than lingering questions after Saturday’s game.  I tend to think that the former will be true.

Prediction:   Iowa 24   Pittsburgh 20

Pick to Click:   James Vandenberg

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