Ross of Black Heart Gold Pants has been kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Iowa football and basketball. I have done the same over at his site.
1. From what I read on Twitter and your site, Iowa fans are becoming increasingly fed up with Kirk Ferentz, who has in recent years been producing mostly mediocre results despite being among the highest paid coaches in the game. Is he actually in any trouble? What do you think Iowa should do?
No, he's not in any real trouble. There's definite fan discontent with the team's performance this year -- and thus, with Ferentz's performance -- but talk radio and the internet are an echo chamber in situations like this and they amplify the negativity beyond the actual level of discontent. I think the vast majority of Iowa fans are disappointed with this season (as well as the last few mediocre years), but they're not yet willing to toss Ferentz to the curb. Attendance has remained strong (even last week, in an away game in Evanston on the heels of Iowa's worst loss in five years, there was a pretty solid crew of traveling Iowa fans) and Ferentz still enjoys a considerable amount of goodwill from the good seasons he's had. That said, the patience of Iowa fans is not infinite and if the losing continues, interest and attendance will wane -- and that's when Ferentz will find himself in hot water.
That said... there's also not a whole lot Iowa can do at the moment. They signed Ferentz to a gargantuan contract extension after the Orange Bowl triumph three years ago, which locked him up until 2020. It would cost Iowa roughly $21 million to buy him out and while corn prices were really good this year... um, they weren't that good. Short of Ferentz himself electing to move on, it's difficult to see how Iowa would replace him at this point, so he's almost certainly going to get an opportunity to pull Iowa out of this downward spiral. Again, though, if the losing doesn't let up and the attendance and interest in Iowa football continue to decline, the Iowa administrators will have no choice but to find the money to replace him. Football is the lifeblood of the Iowa athletics department and they can't afford to let it fall apart.
2. Speaking of underachieving after showing early promise, James Vandenberg is having a rough season. Do you have any explanation for his struggles? The fact that he is the only Hawkeye to attempt a pass this year suggests that there is no obvious successor, but is that the case?
I wish we knew what was going on with Vandenberg. His production has actually been trending down ever since the back half of last season; at the time we chalked it up to some tough road games and tougher opponents in general. Unfortunately, it's continued this year even with more home games and easier competition. Adjusting to the new offense that Greg Davis is trying to run at Iowa has been part of his problem -- he just doesn't look remotely comfortable running this offense and he seems to spend far too much time thinking about what he should be doing rather than actually making plays and just doing things. Mentally and physically, he just looks very stressed out on the football field these days, too -- his mechanics have looked very shaky at several times this year and he hasn't been seeing the field very well this year at all (we've lost count of how many open receivers he hasn't seen).
As far as his successor... that's been a pretty sore point among Iowa fans the last few weeks. True to the cliche, the backup quarterback has been the most popular player on the team for a while now, but there really is something to that sentiment right now, given Vandenberg's struggles. It was particularly baffling that no other quarterbacks got any snaps at all in the blowout loss to Penn State. Honestly, we have no idea what our backup quarterbacks are capable of because the only quarterback to get any snaps the last season and a half has been James Vandenberg. You can interpret that to mean that the other quarterbacks are that bad or you can interpret it to mean that Kirk Ferentz is an inordinately stubborn man, especially when it comes to sticking with a struggling quarterback.
3. Your top running back, Mark Weisman, is out this week. Tell us about Damon Bullock.
We're going to miss the Hebrew Hammer, there's no doubt about that. He was a punishing runner and a joy to watch. Bullock is a very different runner -- he's quicker and shiftier. Weisman usually opted for brute force as his preferred method for dealing with opposing defenders; Bullock is more likely to try to slither around a tackle attempt than to bull rush through it. Bullock is also a bigger asset to the passing game than Weisman; he has solid hands and provides a nice option coming out of the backfield for Vandenberg. I would not be surprised to see him have 5-7 catches on Saturday.
4. The defense has been pretty solid. What are the unit's strengths, and do you have any specific concerns about IU's reasonably proficient offense?
The defense had been pretty solid, but it's sprung some pretty concerning leaks over the last two games. Matt McGloin carved up Iowa like a Christmas ham two weeks ago and Northwestern utterly emasculated Iowa and ran for over 300 yards on Iowa, so... things have been better for the defense, for sure. The fact that Indiana doesn't have a real scrambling threat at QB (at least, I don't think either Coffman or Sudfeld are real threats to pick up a lot of yards with their feet) helps a little, but I'm still a little concerned about what Indiana's fleet of running backs could do... and I'm downright terrified of the IU pass offense. It's given us fits in plenty of past years and I see no reason why that won't be the case again this year. Add in the fact that Iowa has had extreme difficulty dealing with offenses that push the tempo this year (something IU appears to be very good at under Wilson) and I'm petrified of what the IU offense could do to this Iowa team.
5. A basketball question. Fran McCaffery seems to be doing a nice job with your program, but the Big Ten is incredibly deep this year. What are you expecting this season?
Why, yes, we ARE already looking forward to basketball season even though the calendar just turned to November. This is an unsettling feeling for Iowa fans, both because we haven't had a basketball team worth getting excited about for several years (although last year was certainly fun) and because the football team has typically been good enough to hold our interest deep into November. It's a brave new world out there now.
I think "cautious optimism" best sums up my mindset for this season. I'm very excited about what McCaffery has done to build the program so far -- he just brought in his best recruiting class yet and he's managed to stem the tide of attrition out of the program -- and I really like the potential of this team. On the other hand, I have to temper that excitement by remembering that a) Iowa did lose its best player from a year ago, Matt Gatens, and we're not going to be able to just snap our fingers and replace him and b) the Big Ten looks outrageously deep and competitive this year. I would love to see Iowa make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years and I think there's an outside chance of that happening if they can take care of business with their paper-thin non-conference schedule and surprise a few folks in the Big Ten... but I also wouldn't be that bummed if they wound up back in the NIT and were able to make a solid run in that tournament, either. The NCAA Tournament might be a bridge too far for this team, especially given the strength of the Big Ten.