- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Record: 4-2, 2-0 Big Ten
Hard-core Hawkeyes fans might have expected Iowa to be tied for the Legends Division lead in mid-October, but even their faith was shaken by how the team played in the nonconference schedule. Iowa needed a late score to escape against Northern Illinois, failed to produce a touchdown in a 9-6 home loss to rival Iowa State, and was beaten by 2-4 Central Michigan.
Critics were jumping all over Kirk Ferentz after that shocking upset by the Chippewas. But the Hawkeyes bounced back to blow out Minnesota in their most complete performance. And last week, they went to East Lansing and out-toughed Michigan State for a 19-16 overtime win. Suddenly, somehow, this team looks like a legit contender in the Big Ten.
What's most surprising about it is that defense and the running game -- the two biggest questions in the preseason -- have led the way. Despite a young and inexperienced defensive line, Iowa has been terrific most of the year up front, getting good quarterback pressure and stuffing the run. And after a seemingly endless series of running back casualties, walk-on former fullback Mark Weisman caught everyone off guard by seizing an opportunity and starring with it. Weisman has run for 631 yards and eight touchdowns in four games as the main back, and is one of the great stories in college football this season. Kicker Mike Meyer (14-for-15 on field goals) has also been huge.
Not every story angle is great for the Hawkeyes, however. Senior quarterback James Vandenberg hasn't progressed as hoped, and the receivers have had a hard time getting open. Iowa has only two passing touchdowns this season; New Mexico is the lone FBS team with less than that. It will be hard to keep winning in the Big Ten without a more balanced offense.
But for now Iowa is undefeated in league play, even if very few people saw that coming.
Offensive MVP: Weisman. Where would the Hawkeyes be without Weisman's out-of-nowhere emergence? His hard-nosed running style gave this offense an identity and sense of toughness. Iowa can only pray that the ankle injury he suffered against Michigan State isn't serious.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker James Morris. The defensive line's surprising stoutness deserves recognition, especially Joe Gaglione (four sacks, eight tackles for loss). But Morris has been a beast most of the season, leading a very strong linebacker crew. He nearly brought the Hawkeyes back against Iowa State with his long interception return, and is on pace for 120 tackles this season.
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