With the season opener against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field just eight days away, Voice of the Hawkeyes began a series on Friday examining eight reasons why Iowa will - or will not - win the B1G in 2012. Be sure to stay tuned, as we will be revealing one reason every day leading up to the opener.
Can Mycah Hyde help the Hawkeye defense force more turnovers in 2012?
REASON NUMBER FOUR WHY IOWA WILL - OR WILL NOT - WIN THE B1G IN 2012: TURNOVERS
Turnovers are a key factor in the outcome of virtually every football game. In most relevant turnover categories, the Hawkeyes finished in the middle of the pack in the B1G in 2011. Not coincidentally, Iowa's record reflected this. In order for the Hawkeyes to become legitimate contenders for the 2012 B1G crown, they need to force more turnovers on defense, and minimize their miscues on offense.
Iowa finished the 2011 season in a three-way tie for sixth in the conference in turnover margin, as the Hawkeyes were +1 overall for the entire season. Iowa lost 10 fumbles and was intercepted eight times, while the Hawkeye defense recovered nine fumbles and snagged 10 interceptions. Iowa's interception total on defense was good for a three-way tie for seventh in the conference.
While sacks alone do not always lead to turnovers, they are often an indicator of the amount of pressure a team is generating on the opposing quarterback. In general, the more pressure a defense generates, the more often the offense will turn the ball over. Iowa was tied for seventh in the B1G in both sacks (22) and sacks allowed (29).
Will: Offensively, there are several reasons why Iowa may be able to cut down on its turnovers in 2012. James Vandenberg was already relatively careful with the ball last season, throwing just seven interceptions next to 25 touchdown passes. With a full season as a starter now under his belt, the game should slow down even more for Vandenberg. If so, he should be able to reduce his mental and physical mistakes as a senior.
By all accounts, the offensive scheme employed by Greg Davis is expected to feature more plays where the quarterback gets the ball out of his hands sooner. With Vandenberg's struggles with pocket presence, this may help reduce the risk of sack-fumbles and/or plays where his accuracy is hindered because he takes a hit right as he releases the ball.
Additionally, while none of the trio of Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz were Vandenberg's go-to receiver last year, he has had a chance to develop some more chemistry with all three over the course of last season, spring practice and over the summer. With everyone now even more on the same page, that should also reduce the potential for interceptions.
Defensively, the most common ways to force a turnover are by pressuring the passer and either forcing a poorly thrown pass or causing a fumble on a sack, and by getting multiple hats to the ball on a running play. Iowa's back seven has the potential to be very good 2012. James Morris and Christian Kirksey should be improved from a year ago, and I like the chances of Anthony Hitchens coming through with a big season as well. With an overall upgrade at linebacker over last season, the Hawkeyes should be able to get more hats to the ball on running plays.
In the secondary, while Sean Prater will not be easy to replace, Mycah Hyde and Tanner Miller both tied for the team lead with three interceptions last year, and both return this year. Tom Donatell and Nico law are battling for the starting spot at strong safety, and both players bring a physical presence to the secondary that may help produce turnovers as well.
Will not: It is well-documented that Iowa is very inexperienced and thin at running back heading into the 2012 season. In general, ball security is more of an issue with younger backs than it is with more veteran backs. While there appears to be sufficient talent in terms of carrying the ball, it will be imperative that whichever back is on the field holds onto the ball.
As mentioned before, Vandenberg has struggled at times with his pocket presence. Having to replace arguably the top three offensive linemen from a year ago will not be easy. And an inexperienced running back is more likely to struggle in pass protection as well. If the pass protection suffers as a result, this may cause Vandenberg to cough up the ball on a sack and/or throw more errant passes.
Additionally, Vandenberg's go-to receiver last year was Marvin McNutt. Without having the luxury of throwing to McNutt, will that cause Vandenberg to hold onto the ball an extra split second at times while he's trying to determine where to go with the ball?
Defensively, Iowa struggled in generating a passrush with its front four last season. Mike Daniels (8.0) and Broderick Binns (5.0) led the Hawkeyes in sacks, and finished third and 11th in the B1G, respectively. So not only did Iowa struggle rushing the passer last year, but the top two on the team in sacks are both now gone.
Similarly, Binns and Daniels were arguably Iowa's two best defensive linemen against the run last year. If this year's Hawkeye defensive line struggles to control the line of scrimmage, then that may negate the ability of Iowa's linebackers and secondary to swarm to the ball and dislodge it in the running game.
The defensive line is clearly the key to the success of Iowa's defense as a whole, and to Iowa's hopes of forcing more turnovers. Multiple players simply must come through with breakout years this season. If that doesn't happen, then the Hawkeyes may force even fewer turnovers than they did last year.