After nine excruciating months filled with YouTube clips of Hawkeye highlights, poring over the schedule, and agonizing about whether the NCAA would go out of its way to rob Oliver Martin of a year of eligibility, Iowa football is FINALLY back. On Saturday night, the Hawkeyes will take the field at Kinnick Stadium for the first time since last November to match up against Miami (OH). This will be the fifth time the Hawkeyes have gone head to head against the RedHawks during the Kirk Ferentz era, and coach Chuck Martin’s squad will be looking for their first win against Iowa in program history.
The RedHawks aren’t a bad program by any means and finished the season with a 6-6 record last year. But the talent disparity between Miami and Iowa is considerable, and the RedHawks haven’t put their best foot forward during non-conference play under Martin, going 2-19 against non-MAC opponents during his tenure. An Iowa victory certainly isn’t a foregone conclusion, and all Hawkeye fans can think back to some…uninspired performances the team has had against MAC teams in the past. But this game should mainly be used as a tune-up for the difficult schedule to come, a chance for coaches to evaluate which players can apply practice concepts in a game setting, and an opportunity to determine what the team needs to clean up before conference play starts the next week.
That being said, here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s pass rush pick up where it left off in 2018?
The Hawkeye pass rush was outstanding last season. Boasting a future NFL player in Anthony Nelson, a world-annihilating physical specimen in AJ Epenesa, and maybe the deepest rotation along the defensive line in the Ferentz era, Iowa racked up 35 sacks and a seemingly endless string of quarterback hurries largely based on the strength of their front four. While Iowa is returning considerable talent along the defensive line in Epenesa and Chauncey Golston, they have lost much of their vaunted depth that allowed each of Iowa’s contributors to stay fresh throughout the game. Iowa had five talented defensive linemen during its 2010 campaign in Adrian Clayborn, Mike Daniels, Karl Klug, Christian Ballard, and Broderick Binns, but Iowa’s lack of depth and inability to periodically rotate them out of the game during long drives caused them to become much less effective as the game wore on. Epenesa and Golston have never been asked to consistently play 70 snaps per game, and it’s unclear how well they’d be able to perform if forced to do so.
Saturday night’s game will give Hawkeye fans their first glimpse at how deep Iowa’s bench is along the defensive line and how effectively its role players will be when called upon. Daviyon Nixon isn’t expected to start against the RedHawks but should be able to use his impressive physicality and deceptive athleticism to make a significant impact at defensive tackle coming off the bench. Amani Jones is undersized having moved from middle linebacker during the spring but may be able to provide a burst off the edge. John Waggoner, Noah Shannon, Austin Schulte, and Zach VanValkenburg are also vying for spots in the rotation.
Miami may prove to be a better test of the defensive line’s maturity than their status as a MAC team might suggest. The RedHawks return three starters from a unit that surrendered only twenty sacks last season, and their quarterbacks may not hold on to the ball long as they try to work their short passing game with star slot receiver Jack Sorenson. If Iowa can produce consistent pressure using its front four and show some hints of the depth they enjoyed last season, it will be a welcome sign that this unit could once again be the bedrock of another great Iowa defense.
2. Will Iowa see some grit from its interior offensive line?
With Oliver Martin’s eligibility solidifying the wide receiver corps, Iowa’s biggest question on offense may be its interior line. Tyler Linderbaum is being hailed as a prodigy at the center position but hasn’t played a down of football on offense since his days at Solon High. The Paulsen brothers have gotten the occasional spot starts during the course of their careers but have never really broken out despite being highly regarded prospects. Even Cole Banwart who started seven games at right guard last season has been plagued by injuries during camp and is listed as doubtful for Saturday’s contest.
Iowa’s coaches have spoken at length about their desire to establish a dominant running game this season, and while it seems clear that Iowa’s future NFL tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs are ready to do their part in pursuit of that goal, Iowa fans know much less about what to expect from this portion of the line. On paper, the Hawkeyes should be able to run the ball against Miami’s 4-2-5 defense without much difficulty, and the RedHawks likely do not have a defensive end or linebacker capable of beating Wirfs and Jackson on a consistent basis. Miami’s best hope for slowing Iowa’s running game is by getting disruption up the middle from standout defensive tackle Doug Costin, who recorded six sacks, ten tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles last season and shows impressive quickness coming off the line of scrimmage.
Doug Costin showing why he is one of the best defensive tackles in the league pic.twitter.com/6mZyNa8upx— Miami Football (@MiamiOHFootball) October 4, 2018
It would be extremely encouraging for Iowa fans to see some attitude, toughness, and grit from their center and guards in this opening game. If the Hawkeyes can dominate the line of scrimmage and run the ball down the RedHawks’ throat, it will be an important first step towards establishing the running game as an important and permanent part of Iowa’s offense this season. That starts with strong performances from the men in the middle.
3. Can Nate Stanley and the passing game get off to a strong start?
As great as Nate Stanley has been over the course of his Hawkeye career, his performances in season openers have been somewhat underwhelming. Last year against Northern Illinois, Stanley completed only 11/23 passes for 108 yards with a quarterback rating of 92.9, and he completed only eight passes in total in his 2017 opener against Wyoming (yes, three of those passes went for touchdowns, but his overall performance was still very uneven). Reports on Stanley’s practice play during the Big Ten Network’s bus tour this fall were somewhat discouraging. With the Hawkeyes searching for a replacement for last season’s three leading receivers, it’s important for the passing game to find its footing sooner rather than later.
While Stanley will be going up against former Hawkeye teammates in Manny Rugamba and Cedric Boswell, Iowa’s receiving corps boasts tremendous athleticism and untapped potential, and should be able to beat their RedHawk counterparts in one-on-one matchups more often than not. If Stanley looks sharp and shows a strong rapport with his receiving corps, including the newly-eligible Oliver Martin, it will be a very sign of the state of Iowa’s passing game.
4. How many freshmen see the field?
Hawkeye coaches have raved about the performance of their 2019 recruits during fall practice, and one might naturally expect that, with the new four game redshirt rule, a decent number of Iowa’s young players would see game action this Saturday. However, coach Ferentz put a damper on those expectations with his recent comments that he didn’t anticipate any freshmen to see action on the defensive side of the ball, and that only a few offensive players might play. Freshmen running backs Tyler Goodson and Shadrick Byrd may get their share of carries should the game get out of hand, but could fans also get the first taste of Desmond Hutson, who the coaching staff is very high on? How about their first exposure to Jestin Jacobs, Jack Campbell, or Yahweh Jeudy, players who may represent Iowa’s future at linebacker? Could Dane Belton or Jemari Harris get some early play in the secondary?
These players may not be prepared to make much of an impact as true freshmen, but early exposure to live games can be invaluable to their development, particularly in the kind of environment that a night game at Kinnick Stadium promises to provide. Hopefully the coaches find an opportunity to work a few of these players into the lineup.
Go Hawks, and here’s to (hopefully) starting the season 1-0!