The huge incongruence in this game is right here. Western Michigan allows 245.0 rushing yards a game and is ranked No. 114 in the country. OK, the Broncos did face Kain Colter and Northwestern, albeit without running back Venric Mark, and allowed 332 rushing yards. Still, Northwestern pinned 349 yards on Iowa last fall, so Northwestern can do that to a team. This softening loses steam when you see that Nicholls State piled up 222 rushing in a blindsided upset over WMU on Sept. 7.
The Broncos, who run a 4-3 defense but do shift in and out of personnel groups, are veteran in the front seven with five seniors, including nose tackle Travonte Boles, an active 5-10, 295-pound. WMU is a bit undersized, so it moves around a lot. Freshman defensive end Jamar Simpkins (6-2, 277) had a fun game against Northwestern with his first tackle for loss and sack. Against Northwestern, Simpkins and DE Keion Adams (6-3, 230), also a true freshman, recorded back-to-back sacks. The Broncos, No. 112 in the country with eight rush TDs allowed, have had trouble containing dual-threat quarterbacks. Of course, Iowa doesn't do that.
Iowa counters with the nations's No. 30 rush offense with 239.33 yards a game. Running back Mark Weisman is No. 2 in the Big Ten and seventh in the nation with 141.67 yards a game. Yes, he's on a Herculean pace. The answer to that question is Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels and, maybe, Barkley Hill (Kirk Ferentz mentioned him during his radio show Wednesday as having strong practices this week). That group will help take the load off, yes, but Iowa and Ferentz have a workhorse running back. They will let Weisman carry the load.
"If we’ve got a guy who can run the ball, we’re going to run him,” Ferentz said.
This debate is brought to you by an offensive line that has performed with a little rotation at the guard positions. Senior Conor Boffeli left the ISU game in a couple of different spots. He seemed to be fighting with a leg injury. Junior Andrew Donnal rotated in, and he also rotated in for at least a few plays with sophomore Jordan Walsh struggling with defensive tackle David Irving.
The WMU secondary is terrific. The Broncos are No. 17 in the nation in pass defense, allowing opponents to complete just 54.5 percent of their passes. They allow just 6.2 yards per attempt and just one TD pass with two interceptions. The subtext here is that, yes, the Broncos have faced two Big Ten opponents, they just haven't seen the better passing offenses in the league. WMU opened at Michigan State when the Spartans were in the middle of their QB indecision. Northwestern rushed for 332 yards, so passing was inconsequential.
Corners Donald Celiscar and Ronald Zamort are smallish, but they're also Florida athletes who can run. Free safety Justin Currie had a pick against Northwestern and patrolled the middle with a couple of noticeable hits.
Will Iowa's pass offense challenge WMU, which wasn't afraid of using man coverage against Northwestern? Maybe a better question is when does first-year QB Jake Rudock become less of a concern in the Iowa passing game than the pass catchers?
Rudock's numbers against Iowa State weren't astounding, but they didn't have to be. Iowa rushed 60 times. Still, the sophomore completed 14 of 23 for 160 yards and two TDs. Factor in four drops and two throw-aways, it was an efficient night. Iowa receivers dropped four passes and now have 10 this season.
The receptions skew almost comically toward junior Kevonte Martin-Manley. He has 19 receptions. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is next with six. The WR with the next most is Don Shumpert with five. Pass distribution among wide receivers might be as interesting of a question as carry distribution among running backs. Sophomores Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer made big plays last week. Maybe that's the confidence they need.
Advantage: Western Michigan
The Broncos have a pair of good-looking running backs in Brian Fields and Dareyon Chance. They combine for 368 yards (4.54 a rush) with three TDs from Fields. Chance is undersized (5-5, 161), but has quick feet with some elusiveness. Fields has some pop.
The Broncos' O-line is relatively inexperienced with a senior, junior, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman. The question is whether an inexperienced and sometimes shaky offensive line will open anything up? WMU runs zone read with a lot of deception in its rush offense, including a tricky handoff out of a rolling pocket. The fact of the matter is WMU is No. 91 in the country in rushing and probably won't find a soft place to land in Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa is one of 16 teams in the nation that allows less than 100 yards rushing (97.33) a game and is just one of four that have yet to allow a rushing TD. The Hawkeyes haven't faced a fearsome rush offense yet (certainly not a Northwestern), but the front seven has done solid work. The Hawkeyes haven't allowed a rushing TD in three games. The last time Iowa approached that was in 2010, when it held the first five opponents without a rushing TD.
The bench has shortened on the defensive line in regular rotation. Against Iowa State, DT Darian Cooper was the only sub on the inside. In pass rush situations, DE Nate Meier, DE Mike Hardy and LB Quinton Alston rotated in at end. With three senior linebackers, there is no rotation there.
Quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen is a fifth-year senior with a great arm and is the Broncos' best hope today. The trouble is Van Tubbergen has been erratic. He has completed just 44.6 percent of his passes (46 of 104). He has five interceptions to just two TD passes. WMU's collective pass efficiency (86.1) is 12oth in the country. The collective completion percentage (43.9) is No. 121. And the Broncos yards per attempt (4.9) is No. 118.
WMU fans got a look at Zach Terrell when Van Tubbergen was knocked out of the Michigan State game. Terrell completed 12 of 28 for 120 yards, an interception and two TDs. He moved the team. Van Tubbergen had moments of moving the team against Northwestern, including an easy 75-yard TD pass to freshman wide receiver Corey Davis. WMU first-year coach P.J. Fleck needs Van Tubbergen to be moderately consistent in the new pro-style offense.
Davis is No. 12 in the nation with 324 receiving yards this season. His 108.0 yards a game is No. 18 in the country. The 6-2, 205-pounder went to Wheaton-Warrenville South just outside of Chicago. So, you know he'll come into this with a chip on his shoulder.
Iowa's secondary has given up too many big plays (10 pass plays of 20-plus yards). The Hawkeyes have had trouble generating a consistent pass rush -- blitzing did, however, help last week -- but the secondary has been gashed. The 662 yards Iowa has allowed is No. 81 in the country. The seven TD passes allowed is tied for No. 111 (through three games last season Iowa allowed just one TD pass and 16 all last year).
When Iowa has had a break in coverage, the faults have gone around to everyone. Corners haven't gotten safety help and, at times, they haven't helped themselves. Even coming off senior cornerback B.J. Lowery's incredible one-handed interception, you have to wonder what the confidence level is here.
Sophomore punter J. Schroeder had two punts go for just 12 yards last week. He is No. 68 in the nation with 39.65 yards a punt and averaged just 29.4 yards on seven punts vs. Northwestern. WMU seemed to want to dodge Northwestern's return game with two short kickoffs. Defensive back Jon Turner averages 27.33 yards a kick return.
It's easy to look at Iowa punter Connor Kornbrath's average (37.83, No. 81 in the country) and get jittery, but if you look at where his punts have gone, it's not a bad deal. Eleven of Kornbrath's 18 have been downed inside the opponent's 20. The sophomore had perhaps the best game of his career last week, putting three punts inside Iowa State's 20 and booming a 53-yarder.
Iowa's kick coverage is kind of a mess. The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten last season, allowing just 19.43 yards a kick return. So far this year, Iowa is 11th with 25.0 yards per return. Iowa struggled with lane discipline against ISU, allowing 23.5 on four returns. It didn't end up being a deal-breaker against ISU, but if it doesn't improve, it will be.
After a rough first week, averaging 16.0 on three kick returns, wide receiver Jordan Cotton has bounced back with returns of 35 and 28 yards.
During his radio show Wednesday night, Ferentz fielded a handful of questions about fake punts and onside kicks. By about the third one, he lost his humor.
1) Nothing to be scared of — This is Western Michigan's third Big Ten game this season. The Broncos have been to Spartan Stadium and Ryan Field. WMU has played 22 non-conference games against the Big Ten since 1996, more than any other FBS school. This stretch includes two victories in Iowa City (2000 and 2007). A trip to Kinnick won't brush back the Broncos. 2) Power ball — Northwestern averaged 6.04 yards per carry against WMU. That was kind of expected. The Wildcats are a dervish in the rush game, even without Mark. What you might not have seen coming is Nicholls State averaging 5.5 yards a carry vs. WMU. The Colonels also rushed for three TDs. The Colonels, an FCS team, also won just one game in each of the last two seasons. Is Iowa, more of a pro style vs. speed-option QB, set up to take advantage? 3) Born in 1980 — Fleck is just 32-years-old. He was born in 1980. He played against Ferentz as a freshman for Northern Illinois in 1999. He has super energy and this probably plays really well with his team. It's played really well in recruiting with 27 commitments for the 2014 class. There might, understandably, be a learning curve on the sideline. Fleck is an interesting personality. He's put WMU on the map with slogans and enthusiasm. The winning is wait-and-see.
Iowa's running game does what it has done and the rush defense follows right along. Iowa appears to be stronger on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Ferentz has no score he believes he has to reach, nor does he have any desire to put up any style points. Don't expect fireworks, expect Iowa to do what it takes to have more points than the other team. If that's 28-14 (you know, like the Missouri State game), that's 3-1 going into the Big Ten schedule next weekend in Minneapolis.
It forces turnovers and can somehow stay on schedule on offense. You'd feel better about the Broncos if Van Tubbergen had any sort of consistency or clean performance in the first three games. Against two Big Ten schools and an FCS, he just hasn't been what WMU has needed him to be. After Colter and Northwestern, this is a whole new fight for WMU's front seven. Can it shift gears to trade punches with a power running game?
PREDICTION: Iowa 41, Western Michigan 21