By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - If I were to pick one word to describe the Iowa football team after two lopsided victories against overmatched opponents at home, it would be intriguing, which by definition means to arouse the curiosity or interest of by unusual, new, or otherwise fascinating or compelling qualities; appeal strongly to; captivate.
It’ll take more than being intriguing to win in Ames this coming Saturday, but this Iowa team has piqued my curiosity because it is sort of compelling with at least five receivers who have shown that they’re capable of making an impact, at least four running backs who have shown that they’re capable of making an impact, arguably the best defensive end in college football, the best pair of offensive tackles in the Big Ten when healthy, and a three-year starting quarterback who is on track to break Chuck Long’s record for career touchdown passes at Iowa.
Iowa also has a punter who is capable of shifting field position in 26-year old graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton, who averaged 48.3 yards on six punts in Saturday’s 30-0 victory over Rutgers in the Big Ten opener at Kinnick Stadium.
But it was just one game, and Sleep-Dalton only punted once for 31 yards in the 38-14 victory over Miami of Ohio in the season opener. So Sleep-Dalton also falls under the intriguing category.
We’ve seen enough already to know that Sleep-Dalton is capable of punting at an All-Big Ten level, as he did against Rutgers, but hardly enough to know if the Australia native will sustain that level of performance.
Iowa would be very fortunate should Sleep-Dalton prove to be the second coming of Ron Coluzzi, who filled in brilliantly at punter in 2016 as a graduate transfer, while also handling kickoffs.
Iowa has a history of playing in close games in which field position has a huge impact.
“You know, if we can have him continue to perform like that, that will be a real asset for our football team,” Kirk Ferentz said of Sleep-Dalton after the Rutgers game.
In late July, I picked Iowa to lose to Iowa State by three points and to finish 8-4, and I’m sticking with that prediction despite being intrigued by the individual parts on the current Iowa team.
I picked the Cyclones to win, mostly due to having home-field advantage, and because of the law of averages, with Iowa having won the last four games in the series, and because Iowa State has a formidable defense that is capable of stopping the run.
There is no secret to beating Iowa.
It starts with stopping the run and then forcing Iowa to be one dimensional. That can be said about a lot of teams, but Iowa really seems to struggle when its running game is sputtering.
Consider that Iowa has a 46-22 record since the start of the 2014 season, and in 20 of the losses, Iowa was held below 150 rushing yards, and in 13 of the losses, Iowa was held below 100 rushing yards.
The benefit to having multiple options at receiver, and at running back, besides, of course, the depth factor, is that there are more chances for somebody to have the hot hand.
There are more chances for somebody to make that one big play that often changes the course of a game because there are more options.
In no way am I suggesting that this current group of receivers and running backs are the best during the Kirk Ferentz coaching era, which dates back to 1999, but it might be the most intriguing from a potential and from a style-of-play standpoint.
The hard part is turning potential into performance on a consistent basis. That's the challenge now facing the Iowa receivers.
Juniors Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith complement each other well at the two receiver positions, with Smith-Marsette the speedy, big-play threat and the 6-2, 218-pound Brandon Smith a physical force.
Smith-Marsette already has three touchdown catches in two games, including a 58-yarder against Rutgers this past Saturday in which he blew past the secondary and was wide open when quarterback Nate Stanley hit him in stride.
Smith-Marsette also made the game-winning catch in overtime to defeat Iowa State 44-41 two years ago in Ames.
He already is one of the best kick returners in college football, and now his receiving skills are starting to show.
It isn’t often that Iowa has two receivers as physically gifted as Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, and then combine them with redshirt freshmen Tyrone Tracy and Nico Ragaini and sophomore Oliver Martin, and they become an intriguing group.
Iowa has five pretty talented receivers who are competing for playing time on a daily basis in practice, and that’s what you call a healthy environment, as long as everybody accepts their role.
Tracy credits the addition of Martin, who transferred from Michigan in June, for raising the level of competition in practice.
“We all elevate each other,” Tracy said after the game Rutgers in which he scored his first touchdown as a Hawkeye. “Oliver Martin coming really made everybody go up to the next level because he a great and phenomenal player. He does things that you really don’t see other people doing and he does it so effortlessly.
“So he makes everybody else work harder. He makes everybody else come in and do things that they wouldn’t usually do if he wasn’t here. So I feel like this squad has a lot of potential.”
Iowa's top five receivers have combined for 25 of the team's 40 catches this season, led by Smith-Marsette with eight catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns.
The emeregence of the receivers has sort of come at the expense of the tight end position where junior Shaun Beyer is the only tight end with a catch so far this season. He has three catches for 30 yards.
That is a drastic change from the previous two seasons when former tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant combined for 27 touchdown catches.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is playing to his strengths, and right now, oddly enough, Iowa's strength is at receiver more than tight end.
At some point, though, an opponent will force Iowa to use its tight ends by neutralizing the receivers.
But it'll take a lot to neutralize the Iowa receivers because of how many options there are at that position.
It’s the same at running back where juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young lead a talented group that potentially could be at least five deep.
Sargent leads Iowa in rushing with 150 yards, followed by Young with 107 yards and true freshman Tyler Goodson with 89 yards.
Kirk Ferentz isn’t ready to say publicly that Goodson, a native of Suwanee, Ga., has passed junior Ivory Kelly-Martin on the depth chart, but it sure looks that way, considering Goodson has 19 carries after two games and Kelly-Martin has zero.
It is easy to forget that Kelly-Martin started the 2018 season opener and six games overall last season.
He reminded us why this past Saturday against Rutgers when he turned a short pass into 25-yard gain by eluding several defenders.
Whether Kelly-Martin is third or fourth on the depth, he is an intriguing option when healthy.
There's that word again.