Football Hawkeyes aim high

BY CHARLIE GREEN | JULY 20, 2015 5:00 AM

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Iowa’s football season doesn’t kick off for 47 days, but the eagerness to get back to action was palpable at the Iowa football media availability July 16.

Although fall camp doesn’t start until Aug. 6, players have their sights set on what can be done to win the Big Ten West Division.

“I think we just need to execute at a level we know we can,” center Austin Blythe said. “I think with guys being excited as they are this summer and this spring and going into this fall camp, it’s going to be huge for us.”

Blythe leads an offensive line that lost tackles Andrew Donnal and Brandon Scherff to the 2015 NFL draft. Ike Boettger and Boone Myers are expected to fill those voids, while returning starters senior Jordan Walsh and sophomore Sean Welsh are slated at the guard spots.

The line accounts for three of five returning offensive starters, and Blythe comes into 2015 on watch lists for the Rimington Trophy for the nation’s top center as well as the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman.

The group will be pivotal in Iowa’s hopes of winning the West, a task that right now does not appear out of reach.

National champion Ohio State is the heavy and obvious favorite to win the conference, but the Buckeyes play in the East. Michigan State has arguably been the top program in the Big Ten over the past five seasons, and the Spartans, too, could only meet Iowa in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 5.

Even seemingly up-and-coming programs with high-profile coaches such as Michigan and Penn State are in the East, leaving the Hawks with a golden opportunity in the other half of the conference.

Since the 2011 season, when the Big Ten originally aligned into two divisions, the “Leaders” and the “Legends,” Ohio State and Michigan State have each taken the Big Ten title once, but a team currently in the West has won it twice: Wisconsin.

“In the West Division, I believe Wisconsin’s been the team to beat for the past two or three years,” Hawkeye senior Jordan Lomax said. “They’ve been to the Rose Bowl, they’ve been playing in the Big Ten Championship, so that’s the team that everybody’s shooting for.”

Granted, the Badgers had no business being in the Big Ten Championship in 2012. After going 4-4 in the Leaders group, they earned a spot in the title game because of sanctions against Ohio State and Penn State, both of which finished ahead of the Badgers in the standings.

Wisconsin proceeded to trounce Nebraska, 70-31, to earn its third-consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl. Even now that the Big Ten has turned the alignment from a competitive balance to geographic layout, Iowa still needs to get past the Badgers, who won the West last season.

Although they no longer have Heisman candidate Melvin Gordon at running back, the last time they did not have a 1,000-yard rusher in a season was in 2004, when Anthony Davis came up 27 yards short. In all likelihood, they’ll have another one this year.

But Nate Meier and Drew Ott provide playmaking upfront for the Hawks, which cannot be undervalued against Wisconsin’s physically imposing offensive counterparts.

“We just need to be sound with our techniques; we need to know our defenses, know our adjustments,” Ott said. “We’ve got a good scheme … so it’s just a matter of repetition, and getting the lingo down, and being able to adjust quickly in game-time situations.”

At 5-3, Minnesota also finished above Iowa and handed head coach Kirk Ferentz’s crew a 51-14 beatdown on Nov. 8, 2014. Nebraska also stands in the way, as a 37-34 double-overtime victory over the Hawks on Black Friday gave the Huskers second place in the West in 2014.

Iowa has work to do, but the division looks winnable compared with its eastern counterpart. As of now, the Hawks look forward to making each other better when camp starts.

For Lomax, it starts in the seven-on-seven battles with wide receivers.

 “You win some, you lose some,” he said. “Iron sharpens iron.”

Follow @CharlsGreen on Twitter for news, updates, and analysis about the Iowa football team.

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