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October 19, 2009

Monday with Mike: Iowa in driver's seat

Iowa isn't exactly a go-to vacation spot. While there is some fun stuff to do, the corn fields seem to cover every inch of usable space and it gets bone-chilling cold in the winter.

The Iowa football team is about as exciting as the state itself. But you know what -- the Hawkeyes have become the team to beat in the Big Ten.

On Sept. 26, the Hawkeyes won by 11 at Penn State. They didn't do anything exceptional offensively; they just hung around, then seized control in the decisive fourth quarter.

Last week, they edged Michigan by two in Iowa City. They managed 319 yards -- their second-highest output of the season -- but forced five turnovers and made just enough plays to win.

This past Saturday, the Hawkeyes went to Wisconsin and emerged a 10-point victor. As usual, there was nothing special offensively -- 283 total yards -- but the defense dominated, holding the Badgers to a season-low 230 yards and stifling what had been a powerful rushing attack. Wisconsin, which led 10-0 early in the second quarter, finished 3-for-12 on third downs and averaged just 2.6 yards on 33 rushes (that's 87 yards for those who don't want to pull out the calculator).

Iowa also rallied from a 10-0 deficit to win at Penn State.

Iowa is 7-0 and has won 11 in a row dating to last season, yet it ranks 93rd in rush offense, 79th in total offense, 81st in scoring offense and 53rd in rush defense. But it also is a heck of a lot better than people think in pass offense and pass defense, and -- most important -- it's fourth in the nation in turnover margin (plus-1.57 per game). Iowa has turned it over 11 times, but it has forced 22 turnovers, including 15 interceptions by a ball-hawking unit.

"We're certainly not the prettiest car in the lot," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told reporters after Saturday's win. "But that's OK."

Ferentz also warned that the Hawkeyes still have a lot of work to do.

"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves," he said on the Hawkeye Radio Network. "There's five weeks in the season, and I guarantee there are twists and turns out there that we haven't even begun to think of."

Iowa still must play at Michigan State this week and at Ohio State on Nov. 14. Michigan State has won three in a row, but beating Illinois and Northwestern doesn't really mean much. And the game against the Buckeyes looks a lot less scary after they fell at Purdue on Saturday. Ohio State's offense remains a work-in-progress, and nothing the Buckeyes are going to do offensively is going to truly worry the Hawkeyes.

Plus, Ohio State will be coming off a game the preceding week against Penn State. If the Buckeyes win in Happy Valley, the game against Iowa likely will be for the Big Ten title. But if the Nittany Lions win, Iowa's game against Ohio State will have less meaning in the Big Ten race because the Hawkeyes hold the tiebreaker over the Nittany Lions.

Going on the road doesn't seem to faze the Hawkeyes, either. They have won their past five games away from Iowa City, holding their foes to a combined 33 points in those games. In addition, Iowa is 3-0 away from home this season despite their opponents scoring first in each of those games.

Finally, this is a coaching staff that knows what it is doing. Iowa has outscored foes 101-41 in the second half this season, including 43-14 in the three Big Ten games.

"Credit starts in the locker room," Ferentz said after Saturday's victory. "On both sides of the ball, our coaches made some good adjustments. Our players do a great job of regrouping when it's going tough and it was going tough."

Iowa hasn't been to a BCS game since 2002, when it lost in the Orange Bowl to USC as the Big Ten co-champ, and it hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 1990, under Hayden Fry. But don't be surprised if the Hawkeyes and their passionate fans leave dreary Iowa for a New Year's Day hot spot this season.

Transitive property doesn't apply
On Sept. 17, host Miami easily handled Georgia Tech, rolling to a 33-17 victory. On Sept. 26, host Virginia Tech easily handled Miami, rolling to a 31-7 victory. Then, this past Saturday, host Georgia Tech rumbled past Virginia Tech, winning 28-23.

The Yellow Jackets held the ball for 38:22 against the Hokies, and ran the ball on 33 of their final 34 plays in the game. In the second half, the Yellow Jackets held the ball for an astounding 22:28.

"They did a couple of things a little different and we tried to adjust a little bit different," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "It got to be a little bit of a guessing game."

In all three division matchups, the rushing attack was the key. Miami ran for 184 yards and held Georgia Tech to 95 in whipping the Jackets. Virginia Tech fan for 272 yards and held UM to 59 in hammering the Hurricanes. Georgia Tech ran for 309 yards and four TDs and held the Hokies to 175 in dispatching Virginia Tech. It was the first 300-yard rushing day against the Hokies since Syracuse did it in 1996.

All three are tied for second place in the ACC Coastal Division, along with Duke, with one league loss. The team in first place? Virginia, which has beaten North Carolina -- which is last in the division with two league losses -- and Maryland in its only conference games.

The Cavaliers get Georgia Tech at home this week, play at Miami on Nov. 7, then play host to Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale on Nov. 28.

But let's get serious: This also is a Cavs team that opened with a loss to FCS member William & Mary, so to expect them to win the division is delusional.

If you go strictly by tough conference road games, Miami has the roughest schedule, with games at Wake Forest on Oct. 31 and at North Carolina on Nov. 14. Georgia Tech's remaining league road games are Duke and Virginia; Virginia Tech's are Maryland and Virginia. Virginia Tech also has a tough home game remaining against North Carolina. Miami still has a tough one this week against Clemson. Georgia Tech's toughest is against Wake.

There still are too many conference games left to be played to be too worried about a three-team tiebreaker just yet, but it is worth noting that tiebreaker No. 7 is best BCS ranking. This week, that's Miami.

Grid bits
Last week, Texas Tech put the hammer down on Kansas State, winning 66-14. On Saturday, K-State turned the tables and hammered Texas A&M 62-14. This week, Texas Tech plays host to Texas A&M.

A few weeks ago during a news conference, Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked about Tide quarterback Greg McElroy possibly being a long-shot Heisman contender. Saban deftly sidestepped the issue, and he likely knew McElroy's solid stats at the time were a result of going against pitiful defenses. McElroy has played against three "good" defenses -- Virginia Tech, Ole Miss and South Carolina -- and is 40-of-84 for 469 yards, one touchdown and three picks against that trio. Against the likes of Florida International, North Texas, Arkansas and Kentucky, McElroy is 63-of-89 for 856 yards, eight touchdowns and no picks. Thing is, Alabama's defense and strong rushing attack mean McElroy doesn't have to be razor-sharp for the Tide to win.

Through the first four games of the season, N.C. State's defensive statistics were something to be proud of. The Wolfpack had allowed 59 points and 805 total yards, and were 3-1. Since then, the bottom has fallen out. NCSU has lost three in a row and the defense has been torched, allowing 131 points and 1,373 yards. In that stretch, the Wolfpack have allowed 10 touchdown passes and six rushing touchdowns. Saturday's game saw NCSU lose 52-20 at Boston College, thanks to 293 rushing yards by BC. "We certainly have a lot of work to do," NCSU coach Tom O'Brien told reporters. "We're not a very good football team right now." The Wolfpack have five games left and must win four of them to go bowling; they have two wins over FCS members and only one of those can count toward bowl eligibility.

One week after Washington pulled out an improbable victory over Arizona -- scoring on an interception return in the final two minutes after the ball bounced up in the air off an Arizona player's foot -- the Huskies were the victims of an inexplicable defensive meltdown in the final seconds against Arizona State. The Sun Devils won 24-17 when Danny Sullivan hit a wide-open Chris McGaha on a 50-yard pass with five seconds left. McGaha lined up in the slot and streaked downfield, with a Huskies defensive back veering off to cover a crossing route, presumably because he thought there was a safety behind him. There wasn't. "They ran four [receivers] vertical and we had three people deep," Huskies cornerback Adam Long told The Seattle Times. The game was extremely chippy, with 21 penalties; eight were personal fouls, including three on Sun Devils freshman linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Western Michigan's Tim Hiller threw for 410 yards and two touchdowns, but Central Michigan counterpart Dan LeFevour accounted for three touchdowns and led his team to a key MAC victory, 34-23. This looked to be the toughest conference road game for the Chippewas, who also look to be the best team in the conference. LeFevour already holds MAC career records for total offense and pass completions, and his 30 attempts Saturday helped him tie the league record in career attempts. He also has a chance to pass Byron Leftwich for the conference career passing yards record (Leftwich had 11,903, while LeFevour is at 11,016) and pass Chad Pennington for the conference TD pass record (Pennington had 100, and LeFevour has 88). Hiller has a great chance to surpass Pennington, as well. Hiller's two TD passes Saturday gave him 89 for his career, tying him with Leftwich for second place in league history.

Colorado's quarterback switch paid dividends, as sophomore Tyler Hansen led the Buffs past previously unbeaten Kansas 34-30. It was Hansen's first start of the season. Coaches had planned to redshirt Hansen, but changed their plans in the second half of last week's loss to Texas when Cody Hawkins -- the son of coach Dan Hawkins -- was benched. Against the Jayhawks, Hansen went the whole way. He threw a TD pass and also scored on a run. And while the Buffs are just 2-4, a bowl remains a possibility. This week's game at Kansas State is huge in that regard; a victory means the Buffs can hope. They also have eminently winnable games against Texas A&M (at home) and Iowa State (on the road), but would have to steal one against either Missouri, Oklahoma State or Nebraska to get the necessary six victories. Mizzou and Nebraska have to travel to Boulder.

Perhaps the most entertaining game Saturday was Arizona prevailing 43-38 over Stanford in a key Pac-10 matchup. Stanford led 38-29 going into the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats scored on two long runs in the period to come away with the victory. Stanford finished with 584 yards of offense, Arizona with 553. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns; he also had an interception returned for a score. Arizona's Nick Foles threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns. Stanford also got 123 yards and two touchdowns from running back Toby Gerhart. The Cardinal (4-3) have lost two in a row in Pac-10 action and now have four big ones in a row: vs. Arizona State this week, vs. Oregon on Nov. 7, at USC on Nov. 14 and vs. California on Nov. 21. They close out the regular season with a home game against Notre Dame. While Stanford's fast start got a lot of people talking about the Cardinal, it's conceivable they don't win another game. They need to get to a bowl to show true growth as a program. Arizona, meanwhile, improved to 4-2 and gets UCLA and Washington State at home in its next two games, meaning the Wildcats should be able to nail down bowl eligibility.

Who needs to throw? Air Force was 1-for-5 passing for 2 yards in a 10-0 victory over Wyoming, and Georgia Tech was 1-for-7 for 51 yards in its 28-23 victory over Virginia Tech.

Idaho's dream season continues. The Vandals beat Hawaii to move to 6-1 and clinch bowl eligibility. Idaho hasn't been to a bowl since 1998. The WAC is guaranteed only three bowl slots, and Idaho's spot in the league's pecking order still is to be determined because it has games left against Boise State, Nevada, Louisiana Tech and Fresno State. Still, you have to like Idaho's chances for landing a bowl slot, especially if Boise State is in a BCS game.

This quote is from Illinois coach Ron Zook, whose team fell to 1-5 overall and 0-4 in the Big Ten after losing at Indiana: "If we need to change people, we'll change people." Hmmm -- wonder if Illinois AD Ron Guenther is thinking the same thing.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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