Hawkeyes Sharper on Monday

Dec. 26, 2011

Insight Bowl Practice (Monday, Dec. 26) | Monday’s Video Package

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Notorious for “breaking the rock,” in the three practices since the University of Iowa football team has been in the Valley of the Sun, the Hawkeyes have also been sharpening the sword.

“We were a little sharper today,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said Monday after the team’s workout at Chaparral High School. “We still have a long way to go. Hopefully we’ll be better with each day as the week goes a long, and hopefully good enough on Friday.”

Friday, Dec. 30, of course, is the Insight Bowl matching the Hawkeyes (7-5 overall, 4-4 Big Ten Conference) and the No. 19 Oklahoma Sooners (9-3, 6-3 Big 12). Kickoff from Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe is 9:05 p.m. (CT).

“For us to win this game, it’s going to take about a perfect performance on our part,” Ferentz said. “That’s what we’re trying to work on.”

Following practice, Ferentz, offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe, and several offensive players were available to media. O’Keefe said the Sooners feature a great defense with several different fronts.

“Oklahoma is the challenge,” O’Keefe said. “They have great athletes and great speed everywhere. We have to play mistake-free football and we have to play physical every snap of the ball game.”

One thing is certain: the Sooners have no idea who will see the most playing time in the UI offensive backfield. That’s because no one on the Hawkeye staff even has that answer.

“Nobody knows yet,” sophomore Brad Rogers said, when asked how the playing time will be divided Friday. “Nobody knows.”

“We go out and play with the next man in philosophy that we’ve always had,” O’Keefe said. “The line remains the same and they’ll do a fine job, and the young guys that have to step up and play will be ready to go.”

Missing from the UI offensive package is second team All-Big Ten running back Marcus Coker, who rushed for 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Coker burst onto the scene in the 2010 Insight Bowl, running for 219 yards and two scores during a 27-24 win against No. 12 Missouri.

“You keep going, you can’t let it hold back the team,” O’Keefe said of Coker’s absence. “You don’t even blink and you don’t even think about it. Our guys are good at working through anything that occurs, whether it’s something like this or injury. Our guys have been able to do that over the years and we need to have them do it one more time this year.”

Among those contending for a prominent role against the Sooners is Rogers, a running back-turned fullback-turned running back/fullback. Against Ball State as a freshman, Rogers ran for 66 yards on nine carries with a long of 16. This season he has two carries for 15 yards; in high school he gained 1,228 yards with 18 touchdowns.

“We have confidence that he knows what he’s doing,” O’Keefe said. “He was a great running back in high school. Once you’ve carried the ball you don’t forget what it’s like. He’s done a remarkable job coming back working himself to the point where he’s a key factor in what we’re doing.”

UI junior quarterback James Vandenberg says the candidates to replace Coker are embracing the opportunity.

“We have plenty of guys who can fill that spot,” Vandenberg said. “They’ve been working hard every day to get comfortable and they’re doing a nice job.”

Vandenberg said when a team receives a bowl bid, it wants to face a quality opponent. That is certainly the case with Oklahoma, a team that was the preseason No. 1 pick in the nation.

“We have a quality opponent in Oklahoma,” Vandenberg said. “We’ve had a good three weeks of work and we have to finish the week before Friday comes.”

Ferentz was asked if the Hawkeye no-huddle offense would be effective against the Sooners.

“(Their defense) faces it every year in camp and spring ball,” Ferentz said. “Nobody runs it faster than Oklahoma, they have the fastest-paced offense we have seen. If we use it, it won’t anything that rattles their cage at all — they would probably be back there yawning.”

Marvin McNutt, Jr., a first-team All-Big Ten receiver, said the team has experience in respodning during times of trial.

“As an offense, we know what happens when people get hurt; we’ve been through those types of seasons,” McNutt said. “It’s just like this situation (playing without Coker). We have to continue to move forward.”