After a season in the wilderness of transition, Iowa's offense found itself this fall. The next step is to find out what it could be.
The possibilities are exciting for a unit that will lose only three starters and bring back valuable pieces at running back, line and quarterback. While Iowa's offense might not make as dramatic a jump as it did this season -- when it vaulted from 114th nationally to 79th -- it certainly could move into the top half of the Big Ten.
"We have a good understanding of what the identity is," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com this week. "We're a zone, slant team with the tight ends that tries to use play-action. The players understand how we need to play, and that's how we try to go about game-planning."
Davis had three objectives for the offense entering the fall: play faster by incorporating a no-huddle element; maximize the strength at tight end by using two or three on the field together in many sets; and create more explosive plays.
Although few would confuse Iowa with Baylor, the Hawkeyes achieved the first objective by improving their tempo. Senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz became the team's top red-zone threat (six touchdown catches), while Jake Duzey emerged during Big Ten play with 16 receptions and Ray Hamilton had eight. Iowa recorded 41 offensive plays of 20 yards or longer, including eight passes of 40 yards or longer, though Davis admits, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw."
But the Hawkeyes created some progress after floundering in Davis' first season at the helm. The outlook was bleak for a unit that finished near the bottom of the FBS in so many categories, couldn't keep its running backs healthy and had no quarterbacks with game experience on the roster. Sophomore Jake Rudock performed the best in practices, but as Davis knows, things change when the hitting begins.
"He's an extremely bright person, he takes courses I can't spell the name of," Davis said of Rudock, a microbiology and premed major. "We ask a lot of our quarterback at the line. We thought he would handle all that, but we didn't know for sure. There's still that apprehension going into the year."
Rudock's numbers hardly jump off the page (2,281 pass yards, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 60.2 percent completions), but he steadied the ship and helped the Hawkeyes more than he hurt them. Although Rudock left the regular-season finale against Nebraska with a knee injury, he'll be ready for next week's Outback Bowl clash against LSU.
"He's a real even-keeled guy," Davis said. "Sometimes it's hard to tell if he threw an interception or a touchdown. That serves him well playing quarterback."
Iowa's offense in 2012 essentially consisted of two ball-carriers in Mark Weisman (159 attempts) and Damon Bullock (135 attempts) and three pass-catchers in Kevonte Martin-Manley (52 receptions), Keenan Davis (47) and Fiedorowicz (45). The touches were spread around much more this season.
Four Hawkeyes have more than 60 rushes, including Jordan Canzeri, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Seven players have 12 or more receptions, including Tevaun Smith, who led Iowa in catches during conference play with 21, and Damond Powell, a junior-college transfer who averages 24.2 yards per reception.
"The more guys you can depend on, the harder it is for the defense," Davis said. "That's what we've tried to do."
The bowl game is a final exam of sorts, and Iowa faces an LSU defense ranked 20th nationally despite having only three seniors on the two-deep. Davis went against LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis during the early to mid 1990s when Davis coached in the SEC and calls the Tigers a "huge challenge."
It's also a huge opportunity for Iowa, not just for now but for the future. Aside from Fiedorowicz, guard Conor Boffeli and right tackle Brett Van Sloten, Iowa returns every other starter, including standout left tackle Brandon Scherff, who recently announced he's passing up the NFL draft for one more year in Iowa City.
"With two years under their belt," Davis said, "we have an opportunity to take another step going into 2014."