Iowa’s heartbreaking loss to Penn State, the second such loss to the Nittany Lions in two years, sapped much of the positive momentum from the Hawkeye program. Iowa’s offense, which had surprised fans with both its efficiency since week three of the season, collapsed in Happy Valley as the Hawkeye offense failed to find the end zone once. A loss to Penn State would hardly have surprised most Hawkeye fans at the beginning of the season, but the heightened expectations brought about by strong performances against Minnesota, Indiana, and Maryland raised fans’ hopes just high enough for them to be dashed yet again.
Purdue knows a thing or two about dashing the dreams of its opponents. The previously undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes had their defense exposed by the Boilermakers in a 49-20 beatdown two weeks ago that shocked observers as much by the Buckeyes’ margin of defeat as the fact that such a loss came at the hands of a team that started the season 0-3. Purdue, being the mercurial team that it is, followed up this historic win with an uninspired 23-13 loss at Michigan State the next week. Both Purdue and Iowa will look to resume their winning ways in an important Big Ten West matchup this Saturday.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa stop Rondale Moore?
Casual college football fans can be forgiven for not paying adequate attention to Purdue’s talented true freshman before the beginning of the season, but the phenom’s rapid ascension has made every defensive coordinator in the Big Ten take notice. The nineteen-year-old Moore’s statistics are absurd; he currently leads the Big Ten in receptions and is second in receiving yards, kick return yards, yards from scrimmage, and touchdowns from scrimmage. Purdue has wisely structured its offense around getting Moore as many touches as possible and the young star has not disappointed, as evidenced by him being named to Pro Football Focus’ Midseason All-Big Ten Team.
Moore is the exact type of player that would traditionally give the Hawkeye defense fits. He is extremely agile, can make defenders miss in space, and can accelerate faster than almost any player in college football. Moore’s game breaking ability has made him a dangerous decoy at times, commanding the attention of the defense and allowing quarterback David Blough to find other playmakers in single coverage. Purdue’s offensive coaching staff has also done an excellent job scheming mismatches for Moore and targeting him when he is being covered by an overmatched defender, which should ring familiar to Iowa fans who remember the way the Boilermakers abused Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia by repeatedly targeting Anthony Mahoungou in their matchup against Iowa last season.
Still, this particular Iowa defense is better equipped to handle Moore than nearly any unit from the Ferentz era in large part due to the presence of Amani Hooker at linebacker. Iowa is known for sticking with its base 4-3 defense far longer than most teams but playing a defensive back at outside linebacker allows them to defend against Purdue’s speed without switching to its nickel package. Here is Hooker making a play in coverage against Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson, one of the best receivers the Hawkeyes have faced this season:
Michigan State deployed an interesting strategy to contain Moore last Saturday that might be replicable for the Hawkeyes. The Spartans played man coverage against the Boilermakers but switched their coverage assignments like an NBA defense every time Purdue ran a pick play designed to get Moore the ball and swarmed the freshman receiver on each of his touches to prevent him from deploying his dangerous cutback ability. Moore’s eleven receptions for 74 yards still constituted an impressive stat line, but the Spartans prevented Moore from making any big plays and forced Purdue to incrementally move the ball down the field to score, which it largely failed to do. It remains to be seen whether the Hawkeyes will employ a strategy like this to contain Moore, but they will certainly need a well-conceived plan to have any hope of stopping the electric young playmaker.
2. Which quarterback can best bounce back after a terrible game last week?
One could spend an entire column dissecting the myriad of mistakes made by Nate Stanley against Penn State, but this video should tell the reader all they need to know about the star quarterback’s performance:
Purdue’s David Blough had an equally frustrating outing against a strong Michigan State defense. One week after dismantling Ohio State’s defense, Blough threw three interceptions against the Spartans and struggled with his accuracy throughout the course of the game. Iowa’s excellent pass rush has repeatedly shown its ability to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, while freshmen cornerbacks Julius Brents and Riley Moss have made huge strides in pass coverage since their starting debuts against Minnesota. While Blough does return to the comfortable confines of Ross-Ade this week, Iowa’s defense is hardly the unit a quarterback looking for a bounce-back week would select as his opponent.
On the other hand, Purdue’s secondary has struggled in pass coverage all season. The Boilermakers surrender the fourth most passing yards on a weekly basis, giving up nearly 300 per game. However, there is reason to be concerned with Stanley’s ability to appropriately exploit this defensive weakness; he has looked erratic and wildly inaccurate over the past two weeks and injured the thumb of his throwing hand after making contact with Keegan Render’s helmet during the 4th quarter against Penn State. Additionally, Purdue’s defense red zone defense has been surprisingly stout and has allowed opponents into the end zone on only 41.38% of their red zone trips. Iowa can ill afford to repeat the type of red zone miscommunications in its passing game that doomed the Hawkeyes last week.
The Hawkeye offense has been fantastic when Stanley has played well, but pedestrian at best in games in which he has struggled. His ability to put the Penn State game behind him and take advantage of a soft and mistake-prone Purdue secondary will greatly impact Iowa’s ability to move the ball against the Boilermakers.
3. Can Iowa avoid the hangover effect?
Make no mistake about it, last week’s loss hurt. Not only did the Hawkeyes squander an opportunity to put themselves in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West, but they failed to capitalize on multiple mistakes made by the Nittany Lions while instead playing an equally mistake-filled game of their own. However, dwelling too much on the frustration of such a loss can spill over into a team’s performance the following week, something which I believe happened to the Hawkeyes against this very opponent last season.
The 2017 Iowa football team suffered a deflating, physically taxing loss against Wisconsin immediately after its commanding victory over Ohio State, and it followed up that loss with a lifeless performance against the Boilermakers the following week. Iowa’s offense appeared listless, its defense had a number of significant mental lapses which resulted in big plays, and the Iowa line surrendered a whopping six sacks against the Boilermakers. Purdue did what it needed to win that contest, but my immediate assessment of the game was that Iowa had effectively allowed Wisconsin to beat them twice. Ironically, the 2018 Boilermakers find themselves in an eerily similar situation to the 2017 Hawkeyes and will look to ensure that they don’t follow their big victory over Ohio State with a second straight conference loss.
As frustrating as the Penn State loss was, the Hawkeyes remain in the thick of the Big Ten West race. A victory against Purdue is essential to keeping the dream of a trip to Indianapolis alive, and putting last week’s game in the rearview mirror is an essential step towards preserving that dream.