Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A September to remember? 

The Iowa Hawkeye football program has made great strides since Captain Kirk Ferentz took over from a retiring Hayden Fry in 1999. The futility of that 1-10 fiasco of a season seems almost unimaginable these days, with the Hawks entering the 2006 season aiming for a 5th straight January bowl appearance. This accomplishment is admitedly diluted by the proliferation of January bowls, but only Georgia, USC, and Florida State can currently make the same claim, so it's not nothing.

Despite the impressive resurgence, the Hawkeyes now have to live down their September bugaboo, for it has been in the season's first month where the team has had its worst stumbles of late, pushing them out of even water cooler talk of title contention. In 2002, it was the infamous second half collapse in Kinnick Stadium against Iowa State and Seneca Wallace, after opening up a 24-7 lead no less, that was Iowa's only regular season loss. They would go on to sweep the Big Ten. In 2004 the Hawkeyes were crushed 41-7 at Arizona State after beating the same team 21-2 the year before at home. In 2005, the Hawks took it on the chin twice in September, first losing at Iowa State after quarterback Drew Tate was knocked out of the game in the first half, and then getting stubbed out like a cigarette butt at Ohio State, where Tate's return to the lineup made not one iota of difference.

This year, the Hawkeyes return what should be a pretty good football team. Drew Tate returns at QB, along with talented running back Albert Young and a strong offensive line. While the receiving corps is inexperienced, it has speed, and while they season Iowa can rely on three experienced tight ends, a position which has tended to be a prominent part of the Iowa attack. The kicking game looks characteristically strong, with return of Kyle Schlicher, one of the best kickers in the nation.

On the defensive side of the ball, the defensive line, a question going into last year, came into its own and looks like one of the best in the conference heading into the season. There were some key defensive losses, however, most notably the pair of all-everything 3-year starters at linebacker, Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway, as well as cornerbacks who had both started nearly every game for the past four seasons. While there is talent filling in at both linebacker and cornerback, the lack of experience could mean some defensive problems early in the season.

Which brings us back to the dangers of September, which loom large. Iowa opens the season at home against I-AA Montana, but then must take its show on the road to the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse. The Orange were a big disappointment last year, but this is the kind of game that looks like trouble, at least based on recent Iowa history. On September 16th, Iowa hosts the always dangerous (to Iowa) Iowa State Cyclones, before taking a winnable road trip to Illinois. The Hawks will wrap up the perilous month at home against Ohio State, in a nationally televised night game on September 30th.

With two games on the road, and home games agains their biggest rival as well as the top ranked team in the country, September does indeed look rough for the Hawkeyes. The rest of the schedule is actually pretty accomodating, with the road game at Michigan in late October looming as the most dangerous matchup. And by October and November Ferentz usually has the Hawks playing at a very high level. The question is, can they defy recent history, gel early this year, and overcome the September challenge?

I certainly hope they do; a Hawkeye loss before the Ohio State game would have to be considered a pretty big upset. Ohio State, the top ranked team in the country, travels to Austin early on to try to avenge last season's loss to the national champion Longhorns. If the Buckeyes return with a win, and Iowa keeps its end of the bargain, that September 30th matchup in Kinnick could be a very special game indeed, with major potential ramifications. It has the makings of a September to remember in Iowa City.


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