After watching Iowa’s defense carry an anemic offense through the first four games of the season, Hawkeye fans were surprisingly treated to a high-scoring affair last weekend against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Between an offensive explosion from Iowa’s tight ends and a Gopher offense content to pick on Iowa’s green starting cornerbacks until the true freshmen (eventually) proved they could stop them, points proved far easier to come by last Saturday than many suspected.
This week the Hawkeyes travel to take on the Indiana Hoosiers and resume a series that has had no shortage of offense in recent meetings (Iowa has scored at least 35 points in five of the last seven matchups). The Hawkeye offense will look to continue its hot play in only its second road game of the year while the defense hopes to overcome the absence of a number of key contributors and turn in a performance reminiscent of Iowa’s early season contests.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s linebackers hold serve against the Hoosier offense?
Iowa’s defense entered the season with a great deal of uncertainty at the linebacker position, and that uncertainty has unfortunately continued through the first five games of 2018. Injuries to Jack Hockaday and Nick Niemann will likely deprive Iowa of their two most consistent starters against Indiana while a suspension triggered by a dubious targeting penalty against backup middle linebacker Amani Jones will keep him out of the game until the second half. Meanwhile, Iowa has been a revolving door at the weakside linebacker spot, oscillating between Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert on nearly a weekly basis.
To make matters worse, Iowa’s linebackers will be asked to play a crucial role in stopping Indiana’s offense. The Hoosiers have one of the best freshman running backs in the country in Stevie Scott, a player who can obliterate arm tackles and plays much quicker than his 6’2, 230 lb. frame suggests. Additionally, quarterback Peyton Ramsey appeared to come into his own during his strong three touchdown performance against Ohio State last week, and his ability to make plays with both his arm and his legs will demand discipline and awareness on the part of the linebacking corps.
If Iowa’s depth chart is any indication, the Hawkeyes plan on rotating Kristian Welch to the middle linebacker slot during Jones’ absence while playing Colbert and sophomore Barrington Wade on the outside. However, one option that worked fairly well against the Gophers involves moving starting safety Amani Hooker to outside linebacker while replacing him in the secondary with Geno Smith, a move which dramatically increases the speed of Iowa’s back seven. Parker flirted with this idea last season and may have deployed it earlier had Brandon Snyder opted to stay with the Hawkeyes this fall. As difficult as it is to justify moving a safety of Hooker’s caliber from his natural position, it may be Iowa’s best option this week should the little-used Wade struggle against the Hoosier’s offense.
2. Can the passing game build on its recent success?
Iowa’s passing attack finally seems to have found its footing after an inconsistent start to the season. Iowa’s wide receivers appear to be growing into their roles, as Nick Easley, Brandon Smith, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette all accumulated over 50 receiving yards last week. While Noah Fant is still underutilized, he continues to be one of the most dangerous red-zone weapons in the nation, and TJ Hockenson has established himself as the most reliable player on the offensive unit.
Additionally, despite throwing what might be the worst interception of his career against Minnesota, Nate Stanley has elevated his play considerably of late. Against conference opponents, Stanley has been averaging a fantastic 9.2 yards-per-attempt and has a passer rating of 162.39, compared to 7.4 yards-per-attempt with a 132.75 passer rating against non-conference foes. Despite playing only two of his five games against conference opponents, Stanley has thrown for only 13 fewer yards against Big Ten foes (570) than he did in three games against teams from outside the conference (583).
Iowa will hope to build on this trend going into its matchup against Indiana this weekend. The Hoosiers showed vulnerabilities in pass coverage against Ohio State while giving up six touchdowns and over 400 passing yards, but their secondary has otherwise played fairly well this season, and seven Hoosier defenders have already recorded interceptions. For Iowa to replicate its offensive output from last week, Nate Stanley and the passing game will need to continue to thrive.
3. Can Iowa improve its run blocking?
While the Hawkeyes found a great deal of success passing the ball against the Gophers, the running game left much to be desired. Iowa averaged only 2.7 yards per carry last weekend, and while some of that blame certainly falls on the performance of the running backs, the offensive line must also shoulder considerable responsibility. Iowa’s running backs had little room to operate once the Gophers began stacking the box, and the Hawkeye linemen frequently struggled to get any significant push at the line of scrimmage.
Indiana’s run defense is comparable to Minnesota’s; the Hoosiers have surrendered more yards-per-game on the ground (157.5 for Indiana compared to 127.40 for Minnesota) but allow slightly fewer yards-per-carry (4.14 compared to 4.19). It remains to be seen whether the Hoosiers will stack the box and dare Stanley to beat them through the air as Minnesota did, but considering Iowa’s reputation as a run-first offense it seems likely that Indiana’s defense will be prepared to handle the Hawkeyes’ zone blocking scheme. Indiana’s defensive line played well early against Ohio State before wearing down by the fourth quarter, so it will be interesting to see whether the Hawkeye front can impose its will more effectively against the Hoosiers than it could against the Gophers.
4. Can either defense improve its red-zone performance?
As strong as Iowa’s defense has been through five games, they have displayed uncharacteristically poor play once their opponents cross the Iowa 20-yard line. The Hawkeyes have allowed opposing offenses into the red-zone only twelve times this season, but have surrendered touchdowns on ten of those occasions, the eighth-lowest rate in the country. The Hawkeyes are currently allowing points on 91.67% of their opponents’ trips to the red zone, a number that is far too high for comfort. While Iowa’s defense has done an excellent job stopping opponents between the twenties (due largely to the ability of its defensive line to pressure and sack the quarterback), it is rather odd to see a bend-don’t-break defense become so brittle when backed against its own endzone.
Fortunately for Iowa, the Hoosiers suffer from the same affliction, surrendering points on 88.89% of their opponents’ trips to the red zone and giving up touchdowns slightly more than 75% of the time. In a matchup between two offenses that appear to be coming into their own, multiple red-zone trips seem likely for both teams. Which defense manages to hold its opponent to field goals or deny them points entirely may play a big role in determining the outcome of the game.