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Just How Good Can The Iowa Hawkeyes Be This Season?

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Don’t look now, but the Iowa Hawkeyes have quickly jumped out to a 5-0 start after going into a hostile environment and beating then-No. 19 Wisconsin by a final score of 6-10 last Saturday. Although it wasn’t the most impressive of victories, it showed just how capable this team is at beating quality opponents.

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C.J. Beathard, who has been the rave of the season thus far in Iowa City, had his first bad game last Saturday, finishing the day 9 for 21 for 77 yards, which included an interception. This undoubtedly will be a game Beathard would personally like to put in his rear view mirror and move on from, but in the end, this may help him get over the hump most first year starters face and propel him to be successful over the course of the season.

However, with that said, there was more to the offensive struggles than just poor quarterback play — in fact, a lot more.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes struggled mightily in pass protection against the Badgers allowing star pass rusher Joe Schobert, a former walk on, to rack up 3 sacks, 8 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and even hit Beathard as he threw forcing him into his only interception of the day. Schobert was virtually un-guardable and is undoubtedly one of the best defensive players in the country right now and on multiple occasions burned past left tackle Cole Croston and right tackle Ike Boettger with a great first step off the line, displaying speed and an unmatched amount of quickness that Hawkeye offensive lineman had not yet experienced coming into the game.

Sitting there right now you might be thinking, “If somebody is really that good, should fans even be worried?” For the most part I say no, and here’s why. When you look at the games left on the schedule, there isn’t a team remaining that has a pass rusher with replicable explosive athleticism to Schobert, in fact most of the teams left on the schedule don’t even have much of a pass rush to speak of. So in conclusion, I don’t think pass protection is a huge worry for the rest of the season, but as fans, I think we would obviously like to see improvement and I think we will.

Enough about recap — that is not what I want this article to be about. Let’s instead shift our focus to a broader vision, a vision about what this Hawkeye team can accomplish over the course of this season.

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This Hawkeyes team is a lot different than in years past. The Hawkeyes thus far have had a solid running game, pass rush, run defense, and for the most part above average quarterback play, but something else is making the difference between winning and losing right now and will be the x factor as the season continues. One word: turnovers.

At this point in time, the Hawkeyes are tied for 5th in interceptions, with 7 in the first five games. In addition, the Hawkeyes are also tied for 7th in the country in turnovers gained with 10. The Hawkeyes secondary through the first five games of the season has not played lights out, despite having some good individual talent in that area. But when the moment arises, for example against Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, Desmond King has been there to bail out the defense, accounting for 5 of the team’s 7 interceptions through five games. That kind of production is more than likely unsustainable, meaning that other players will need to step up and start forcing turnovers while in addition, tightening up in coverage down the stretch to help this team pull out victories in close games.

In addition to forcing turnovers this season, the Hawkeyes have excelled against the run, allowing a nation-leading 0 rushing touchdowns through the first five games. However, I want to move away from the stats and simply focus on how great Nate Meier, Jaleel Johnson, and Drew Ott have been not only in regards to creating a pass rush, but also when it comes to shutting down the opposition’s running game. Coming into the season, I’m sure most Hawkeye fans knew the names of Drew Ott and Nate Meier, but Jaleel Johnson? Well, through the first five games of the season Johnson has been playing lights out, in fact he’s arguably been the best piece in the Hawkeyes front seven. This unit would certainly not be playing at the level that they currently are if it weren’t for him.

After re-watching the Hawkeyes defensive line play through the first five games of the season, I came away more impressed with their play against the run than I did against the pass, which really surprised me due to the fact they’re currently tied for 6th in the country in team sacks. When you watch this unit upfront, they’re not really making a whole lot of “splashy” plays against the run or blowing up plays in the backfield for that matter, but what they’re doing is filling holes and stopping runs at line of scrimmage which is inevitably forcing teams to look for success in the passing game on later downs. This combined with Hawkeyes’ ability to create turnovers this season has proven to be a dangerous combination that opposing teams need to start taking into account.

Moving away from the defensive side of the ball, it’s time to shift the focus over to the offense, where early in 2015 we’ve seen a completely new, refreshing backfield for the Hawkeyes in the form of starting quarterback C.J. Beathard who was brought in to replace last year’s incumbent starter Jake Rudock (transferred to Michigan). While in addition, we’ve seen Jordan Canzeri and Leshun Daniels assume control of the running back spot which was formerly held by Mark Weisman who has since graduated and moved onto the NFL.

Thus far, Beathard has performed very well in every game other than last Saturday’s win over the Wisconsin Badgers. Beathard has been able to add an entirely new dynamic to this offense that hasn’t been there since Brad Banks, when he was making a run for the Heisman trophy back in 2002, and that comes in the form of being able to make plays on the run from the quarterback position. With that said, Beathard has also been quite successful while in the pocket through the first five games throwing for over 1,000 yards, while completing over 64 percent of his passes, and the biggest positive, not turning ball over, with only 2 interceptions on the year. If the Hawkeyes want to be successful over the duration of this season, Beathard will need to keep up this level of play and leave poor performances, like the one he had against Wisconsin, behind him.

Finally, let’s talk about the play of the running game. More specifically senior running back Jordan Canzeri. Canzeri through the first five games has been electric, showing off his clear explosiveness each time he gets the ball in his hands. In fact, he is currently averaging 5 yards per carry and over 11 yards per reception while in addition also has a combined 600 yards and 8 touchdowns. Canzeri has already shown me that he’s an overall better fit for this offense than, with all due respect, Weisman ever was. He’s been the Achilles heel for the Hawkeyes offense this season producing consistently in each game he’s played in, and if the offensive success is going to continue it’ll be on the back of Canzeri.

So what exactly is this Hawkeyes team capable of this season? In my opinion, this team is the best one since the 2009 team that ended up going to the Orange Bowl, except in this case the Hawkeyes won’t have to play nearly as tough of a regular season schedule. With that said, I think this team has a real shot at finishing the regular season at 10-2 or dare I say 11-1, meaning that a trip to the Big Ten title game could definitely be in the cards. Do I think this team is even remotely close to as talented as the one in 2009? Simply put, no. But this team is talented and if the Hawkeyes offense is able to stay on track they’ll be a very dangerous team down the stretch.

— Written by Rob Donaldson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An NFL Draft analyst and writer for drafbreakdown.com, Donaldson also recently founded his own site, OnTheClockFB.com, and also pays careful attention to his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes and Pittsburgh Steelers. Follow him on Twitter @RobDonaldsonOTC.