- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The red pens have come out again, as we continue to hand out season grades to every Big Ten team. We're judging them on offense, defense, special teams and overall performance.
Up next: the Iowa Hawkeyes.
After Ken O'Keefe's offseason departure, Kirk Ferentz had to hire a new offensive coordinator for the first time in his long Hawkeyes tenure. And it's safe to say that Greg Davis is not the most popular man in Iowa these days. Davis' preferred horizontal passing scheme seemed a bad fit for receivers who struggled to get separation and make plays after the catch and for senior quarterback James Vandenberg. Following a 3,000-yard season as a junior, Vandenberg struggled and the team managed a preposterously low seven touchdown passes for the season. The Iowa running back curse kept busy, though former walk-on and converted fullback Mark Weisman was a revelation early in the season as a bulldozing main back. Naturally, he got injured and lost his effectiveness. The offense was further damaged when it lost starting offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal to season-ending injuries in the Penn State game. Iowa averaged just 19 points a game and ranked 114th out of 120 FBS teams in total offense. Even those numbers don't tell the full frustration Hawkeyes fans had in watching their team throw well short of the first-down marker on third downs over and over again.
Most of the anxiety coming into the season rotated around the defense, not the offense. Iowa was extremely young on the defensive line and had a new coordinator in Phil Parker. The Hawkeyes actually played pretty well defensively for large parts of the season and the defensive front was serviceable. Linebacker Anthony Hitchens led the Big Ten in tackles, though he was probably the team's third best linebacker behind Christian Kirksey and James Morris. Cornerback Micah Hyde should never have won the league's defensive back of the year award, but he did have a very good senior season. That said, Iowa's defense suffered too many breakdowns, from the Central Michigan embarrassment early on to the Penn State game in which the Nittany Lions scored 38 straight points, and certainly in Ann Arbor when Michigan piled up 42 points with shocking ease. The Hawkeyes finished 34th nationally in scoring defense (22.9 ppg), but they were hardly ever confused with a dominant, championship-level unit.
Special teams: B-minus
The kicking game was for the most part solid all the way around for Iowa in 2012. Mike Meyer was named a Lou Groza semifinalist after making 14 of his first 15 attempts, though he finished just 3-of-6. The Hawkeyes were among the best in the Big Ten in punt and kick coverage and were third in kickoff returns thanks to some nice work by Jordan Cotton. Punting was lacking as Iowa finished just 10th in the league in punt average and were by some measures the worst in the conference at that, while the team lacked much explosiveness on punt returns.
No one expected greatness from this year's Iowa team, but many thought the Hawkeyes were a lock for seven or eight wins with a very manageable schedule. Instead, they finished 4-8 for the program's worst season since 2000. It was a baffling year in which Iowa scored the Big Ten's only nonconference win over beat a BCS bowl team (Northern Illinois), won at Michigan State and took Nebraska to the wire but also somehow lost at home to Central Michigan and fell to Indiana and Purdue. The Hawkeyes lost their final six games and were simply painful to watch at times. They will return a whole bunch of running backs and most of the offensive line in 2013 but don't have any experience at quarterback or many real explosive playmakers. Many things need to change for Iowa to avoid a second straight disappointing season.
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