In college football a team’s fortunes can change in the blink of an eye. Two weeks ago, the Iowa Hawkeyes were sitting at 4-0 and eying back-to-back matchups against marquee programs Michigan and Penn State as an opportunity to announce their return to the national stage and their contention for the Big Ten title. Two weeks and one scored touchdown later, the Hawkeyes have fallen to 4-2 and much of what they hoped to accomplish this seems perilously at risk.
As down as Hawkeye fans may be feeling, rest assured that it could always be worse. The Purdue Boilermakers had ambitions of making their third straight bowl game this season and possibly making some noise in a wide open Big Ten West, but have seen their season derailed by some of the worst injury luck of any Big Ten team in recent memory. Purdue is missing their two biggest offensive stars (quarterback Elijah Sindelar and game-breaking wide receiver Rondale Moore) and their two best defensive players (linebacker Markus Bailey and defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal) in addition to having several other injured players who were expected to contribute this season.
This week’s game between the Hawkeyes and Boilermakers is a matchup of two teams looking to rediscover their identity as they enter the second halves of their season, and the loser of this contest could very well see many of their preseason goals fall completely out of reach.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can either offensive line find its footing?
Iowa and Purdue have both been disasters up front of late. On same day that Iowa gave up eight sacks against Michigan, the Boilermakers surrendered ten against the Nittany Lions. Both teams rank near the bottom of the conference in sacks allowed (Purdue is 12th, Iowa is 11th), though Iowa has allowed substantially fewer tackles for loss than the Boilermakers have, partly due to Purdue’s struggles in the running game (Purdue has surrendered 46 TFLs to Iowa’s 35). Both teams have solid skill players on the perimeter, but it remains to be seen whether either line can consistently give their quarterback enough time to get the ball to them.
Iowa’s interior offensive line has been its main weakness this season, but there’s reason to believe its guards and center might have an easier time against Purdue than they have over the past two games. The loss of Lorenzo Neal deprived Purdue of their biggest mismatch along the defensive line and an absolute space-eater up front, and the subsequent injuries to Anthony Watts and Branson Deen have only made matters worse. Purdue may try to stunt with their defensive ends and send their linebackers to attack the middle of the defense, but they lack the defensive weapons that Penn State and Michigan had which allowed them to so easily exploit Iowa’s weakness up front. Purdue’s best pass rushers are George Karlaftis and Derrick Barnes, both of whom will primarily match up against Iowa’s tackles which should give the Hawkeyes a much better chance of containing them off the edge.
Iowa’s defensive line may not be racking up the sack numbers this season (their ten sacks on the year currently have them tied at 90th in the nation), but A.J. Epenesa and crew have been undeniably disruptive through during their past two games, and seemed to channel the home crowd’s energy in last week’s night game against Purdue. With Iowa’s offense struggling, don’t be surprised if you see the defensive line take it upon themselves to elevate their game while their teammates work to right the ship on the other side of the ball. Chauncey Golston was quoted this week as saying that the defense needed to pitch more shutouts in the coming weeks, and a strong performance up front to take advantage of the vulnerabilities along Purdue’s offensive line would certainly increase the chances of that happening on Saturday.
2. Can Iowa’s defense avoid falling victim to schematic mismatches?
The past two seasons, Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm and his younger brother/offensive coordinator Brian have accomplished something that few coaches in the Big Ten can claim to have done: gotten the best of Phil Parker. The Boilermakers have found ways to isolate some of their fastest receivers against Iowa’s linebackers and most inconsistent corners and repeatedly attacked these mismatches, leading this plays like this
There are a few reasons to hope that Iowa might not fall victim to this strategy a third time. First, while the Boilermakers have picked on young and inexperienced Hawkeye corners in the past, Iowa’s secondary finally has its veteran playmakers healthy again, which should reduce the likelihood for miscommunications and blown assignments. Secondly, there is talk of Iowa working in its 4-2-5 defense this week, which will increase the overall speed of the unit and remove one potential weak link for Purdue to target in coverage. Third, Purdue is playing without big-armed quarterback Elijah Sindelar or heady veteran David Blough, and while freshman Jack Plummer played well in last week’s win over Maryland, his track record doesn’t suggest that he can repeatedly beat Iowa’s defense with his arm.
Finally, the absence of Rondale Moore will make it harder for Purdue to get as many clean one-on-one matchups against Iowa’s defenders deep. Even though Moore had a quiet statistical game against the Hawkeyes last year, his presence on the field has a gravitational impact that forces the defense to constantly be aware of him, a threat that will not exist this weekend.
However, there is still plenty of reason for concern. First, Iowa’s switch to the 4-2-5 likely means that Riley Moss will get plenty of action this week. Moss is a talented young player with a lot of upside, but he features VERY prominently in the highlight videos posted above, so there’s reason to be nervous about him being a key cog in Iowa’s defensive scheme this week. Secondly, Iowa ran the 4-2-5 last year against Purdue and was still repeatedly torched in the passing game, so this schematic change doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Finally, Purdue still has plenty of weapons in the passing game even if Moore misses Saturday’s contest due to injury. Newcomer David Bell, who was heavily recruited by the Hawkeyes, already looks like a star, and players like Anthony Mahoungou and Terry Wright were hardly household names, but that didn’t stop them from posting career numbers against the Hawkeyes in years past. How Iowa adjusts to Purdue’s vertical passing game and willingness to pick on weak links in coverage will have a lot to say about whether the Hawkeyes can hold the Boilermaker offense in check.
3. Can Nate Stanley get his groove back?
Let’s face it, it’s been a rough couple of weeks for Iowa’s quarterback. Not only has Stanley been sacked ten times and hit countless others over the past two weeks, but he has thrown four interceptions to only one touchdown and has missed a few throws he’d certainly love to have back.
This week’s matchup against Purdue is an opportunity for Stanley to regain his form. The Boilermakers’ secondary has been atrocious this year; Purdue gave up three passing touchdowns to freshman Nevada quarterback Carson Strong en route to a comeback win for the Wolfpack, surrendered four touchdowns and nearly 400 passing yards to Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, and has only performed well against two schools in TCU and Maryland whose passing games have been virtually nonexistent for much of the year. The Boilermakers give up an average of 278 passing yards per game, making them the nation’s 112th ranked passing defense and putting them less than two yards per game away from being the worst in the conference.
With Iowa’s offensive line in disrepair and the running game starting to stall out, Nate Stanley will be asked to carry a larger offensive load this season than at any point in his career. The Purdue game may be a chance for his swagger to emerge once again and put him on the path towards greater offensive production in the weeks to come.