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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Middle Tennessee State

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Can Iowa finish with a perfect non-conference record for the third season in a row?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa football is back after an early season bye week, and not a moment too soon. As the whole of Iowa becomes consumed with ugly stories about the mistreatment of marching bands and the twitter history of someone named Carson King, we could all stand to turn and wave towards the Stead Family Hospital to remind everyone that, at their core, college sports were meant to bring out the best of the best in one another, not the worst.

Enter Iowa’s home matchup against Middle Tennessee State, which pits two of college football’s classiest and longest-tenured coaches against one another. Kirk Ferentz and Rick Stockstill have a combined 35 years spent coaching at their current institutions and both coaches have repeatedly turned down offers to bolt for greener pastures, choosing instead to stay and build their programs the right way. Stockstill’s Blue Raiders have quietly become one of the better programs in Conference USA, earning bowl bids in five of their six seasons since relocating from the Sun Belt. While Stockstill has beaten a handful of Power Five teams during his tenure as head coach, he has yet to defeat a ranked opponent, and will be looking to check that item off his coaching bucket list this Saturday.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this week’s game:

1. Can Iowa’s offense exploit an overmatched Blue Raiders defense?

MTSU’s defense has been a disaster so far this season. Through three games the Blue Raiders have allowed 35.7 points and 460.7 yards per contest, ranking 114th in the nation in both categories according to SportSource Analytics. Although MTSU returned a solid veteran linebacking corps including DQ Thomas and Khalil Brooks, they have been particularly porous against the run, surrendering 220 yards-per-game and over 5 yards-per-carry on the ground.

All of this points to the Hawkeye offense having a banner day against the Blue Raiders. Nate Stanley has shown an improved accuracy so far this season (up to 62.9% from 57.1% in 2018) and has proven himself willing and able to spread the ball to Iowa’s surprisingly deep stable of pass catchers. MTSU’s corners will likely struggle to match up against Iowa’s receivers, and should be particularly vulnerable should Iowa deploy the four or five-wide sets they’ve shown a few times this season. If Stanley can get into a rhythm early and consistently hit the open man, Iowa’s passing game has the potential to explode.

If not, the Hawkeyes should have little trouble moving the ball on the ground. Even without Alaric Jackson and Kyler Schott in the lineup, the Blue Raiders’ front seven will likely struggle to get much of a push against Iowa in the trenches, creating ample opportunities for Iowa’s running backs. Iowa will need to run the ball effectively against Michigan if it hopes to escape the Big House with a win next weekend, and its matchup against Middle Tennessee could give all four of its talented running backs a chance to find their rhythm and shake off any bye week rust.

2. Does Iowa have an answer for Asher O’Hara?

The Blue Raiders may struggle to stop Iowa’s offense in this game, but they do have a dynamic offensive weapon of their own. Sophomore quarterback Asher O’Hara has been an absolute revelation so far this season, leading his team in both passing (785 yards) and rushing (202 yards) and scoring nine of the Blue Raiders’ eleven touchdowns. O’Hara doesn’t attack downfield frequently but completes just over 70% of his passes and can use his legs to run for the first down or buy time to find an open receiver, as he did on this touchdown pass against Michigan:

Iowa’s defense will face a real challenge in containing O’Hara on Saturday. With four defensive backs out due to injury, Iowa’s young secondary had its share of growing pains last against Iowa State, including two costly blown assignments by freshman D.J. Johnson which resulted in Cyclone touchdowns.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker praised Johnson’s response to these struggles during the bye week, and he is skilled enough to have a bounce-back performance on Saturday. But Middle Tennessee’s spread offense, led by offensive coordinator and former Hal Mumme disciple Tony Franklin, deploys four wide receivers in its base package. This will either force Iowa’s linebackers into frequent coverage roles or cause Iowa to give newcomers Terry Roberts and Jermari Harris some serious playing time in the secondary. Iowa will also have to match someone up against O’Hara’s favorite target in Ty Lee, who leads all active FBS players with 225 career receptions and does most of his damage on quick hitters in the passing game, which Iowa often struggled stop against Iowa State.

Iowa’s defensive line will play an essential role in limiting O’Hara’s effectiveness on Saturday. Not only will Iowa’s front four need to keep O’Hara in the pocket to limit his playmaking ability, but they will also need to dial up enough pressure to make him uncomfortable. Iowa’s pass rush has been disappointing through three games, but may have an opportunity to regain its swagger against a Middle Tennessee team that has surrendered ten sacks on the year, including six against Duke. Still, O’Hara’s running ability makes him difficult to bring down, as Michigan found out the hard way during week one.

O’Hara won’t be the most dangerous offensive weapon Iowa faces this season, or even the best quarterback. But O’Hara captures much of what made Brock Purdy such a frustrating opponent for the Hawkeyes two weeks ago and watching how Iowa’s defense plays against him this week will be a nice barometer to measure the growth they made over their week off.

3. Can Iowa FINALLY make it through a week without any new injuries?

Everyone knows that injuries are inevitably a part of football, but this is getting ridiculous. While Hawkeye fans were hoping to see names like Alaric Jackson, Matt Hankins, and Kaevon Merriweather return to the depth chart this week, it appears that they’ll have to wait until next week at the earliest to see these players back in action.

The Hawkeyes may be holding some of these injured players out as a precaution since their next two games (at Michigan and at home against Penn State) are two of the most important matchups of the season. But Iowa can ill afford to suffer any more injuries going into these games, particularly in the secondary or along the offensive line where depth has already become a major issue. Michigan and Penn State may appear less intimidating than they did at the start of the season, but both teams are still loaded with talent and are more than capable of giving Iowa their first loss of the season. If Iowa can leave this game 4-0 without another one of its players going down, the Hawkeyes will feel like they just won twice.