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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Rutgers

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If I told you ten years ago that Iowa football would be playing a conference game against Rutgers on September 7th, would you have believed me? Well, here we are anyway!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 Miami OH at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Iowa Hawkeyes managed to take care of business during their season opener against Miami (OH), but the stakes for their second game are much higher. Iowa kicks off conference play on September 7 with a Week 2 matchup against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a game which marks the earliest date Iowa has played a conference opponent in program history (at least until they play Indiana on September 4, 2021).

As unnerving as it may be for Iowa to start conference games early in the season when the team is still working to establish its identity, the Hawkeyes couldn’t pick a better opponent to kick off Big Ten play. Chris Ash’s Rutgers squad was absolutely abysmal last season, finishing 1-11 with an average margin of defeat of 22 points and boasting the nation’s worst scoring offense. While the Scarlet Knights looked halfway decent in last Friday’s 48-21 win over UMass, they also started that game with a 14-0 deficit, and this is still the team that was predicted to finish last in the Big Ten by most experts. The Hawkeyes will be looking to capitalize on their huge talent advantage to start the conference season off on the right note.

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

1. Can Iowa’s secondary find its footing?

As phenomenal as Phil Parker has been at developing talented secondaries, it was easy for Iowa fans to take for granted that the Hawkeyes would be elite in the defensive backfield once again in 2019. Afterall, this is the program that snagged more interceptions (41) over the past two years than any team in college football and produced three of the past four winners of the Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year Award.

There’s plenty of time for Iowa’s secondary to live up to the sterling legacy of previous seasons, but last Saturday’s game showed exposed plenty of warts that will need to be addressed before that can happen. Iowa’s D-Backs frequently struggled to track the ball in the air and properly position themselves to deflect or intercept defendable passes, something which FS1 commentator Robert Smith noted a few times during the broadcast. DJ Johnson bit on a fake pitch which led to a long completion to Luke Mayock

…which set up a touchdown pass to Jack Sorenson when Geno Smith lost track of his man.

The RedHawks’ second touchdown pass came when Kaevon Merriweather positioned himself poorly in coverage against tight end Andrew Homer.

Even veteran cornerback Matt Hankins suffered a few mistakes, including giving up two first downs, being flagged for pass interference, and missing a golden opportunity to record his first collegiate interception.

Iowa’s miscues in the defensive backfield ultimately cost them very little in this game, as the Hawkeyes won comfortably, picked off quarterback Brett Gabbert once, and held Miami to 186 passing yards. But with Iowa set to take on dynamic offenses with more skilled and athletic receivers as the year progresses, they will need to clean up these mistakes to avoid having them exploited. Iowa’s 2018 secondary benefited not only from having an elite safety in Amani Hooker, but also from a defensive line that could consistently generate pressure without the blitz. Now that Hooker and many of Iowa’s premiere pass rushers have moved on, the returning members of the secondary must pick up more of the slack.

Rutgers is a perfect opponent to test how well Iowa’s D-Backs can internalize Phil Parker’s teaching over the next week. On one hand, Rutgers’ receivers flashed some talent last week. Junior Bo Melton was consistently able to beat the Minutemen defenders deep and running back Raheem Blackshear is a dangerous weapon catching the ball out of the backfield. The Scarlet Knights threw for 340 yards in their season opener, and unless sophomore Isaih Pacheco can dominate on the ground the way he did against UMass, Rutgers will likely need to continue throwing to stay in the game as Iowa steadily wears down their overmatched defense.

On the other hand, Rutgers is SUPER turnover prone and threw 22 interceptions to only five touchdowns last season, so Iowa’s ballhawks should have plenty of opportunities to feast. While Texas Tech transfer McLane Carter should bring some stability to the QB position, he still tossed three interceptions last week, two of which were thrown into double coverage. Iowa’s defensive backs should be able to rebound against Rutgers but continued struggles in coverage might be a sign that Parker needs to hit the panic button.

2. Can Iowa’s offensive line continue to dominate without Alaric Jackson?

The good news is that the knee injury suffered by Hawkeye left tackle Alaric Jackson does not require surgery and will not cause him to miss the rest of the season. The bad news is that Iowa will have to go at least two games without its chosen protector of Nate Stanley’s blindside, starting with this weekend’s contest. Iowa has already reworked their offensive line to account for Jackson’s absence with Tristan Wirfs shifting from right to left tackle, Levi Paulsen filling Wirfs’ role at right tackle, and sophomore Kyler Schott entering the lineup at right guard. Cole Banwart is still questionable to play this week, but could potentially take Schott’s spot.

Despite losing Jackson, Iowa’s offensive line played well last week, continuing to open running lanes and provide strong pass protection for Nate Stanley late into the 4th quarter. Tyler Linderbaum looks like a natural at center, and Wirfs’ excellent pass protection skills should allow him to thrive on the left side of the line. However, Schott is unproven having seen limited action in only one game before this year, and as high as the coaches are on Levi Paulsen, Sean Welsh’s experience moving from guard to tackle under duress in 2017 showed how fraught with difficulty that transition can be. Unlike Miami, Rutgers will have a full week to prepare blitz schemes for an offensive line missing its star left tackle. Rutgers managed to record six tackles for loss against UMass, and Iowa’s new offensive line unit will have to gel quickly if it wants to replicate the dominance it showed at the line of scrimmage last week.

3. Which team can most consistently win on third down?

My colleagues wrote last week about the importance of Iowa converting consistently on third down, and the Hawkeyes appear to be off to a great start on that front, having gone 9-14 against Miami while holding the Miami offense to a mere 33% conversion rate. Unfortunately for Rutgers, third down has often been a struggle on both sides of the ball. Last year the Scarlet Knights converted only 32.37% of their 3rd down opportunities (the seventh worst percentage in football) while allowing opponents to convert on 48.65% of theirs (the sixth worst percentage in football).

Rutgers’ hopes for ending their offensive 3rd down woes rest with running back Isaih Pacheco, who flashed a strong combination of speed and vision during the Scarlet Knights’ opener. If Pacheco can consistently gain solid yardage on first or second down, it will keep Iowa’s front seven honest on 3rd down and prevent players like AJ Epenesa from going after the quarterback like heat seeking missiles. Similarly, if Iowa’s running backs can gouge the Rutgers defense the way UMass’ did en route to 183 yards rushing, and if Stanley can replicate his excellent performance on 3rd down (he completed 5-6 passes and also managed two conversions with his legs), the Hawkeyes should be able to keep their offense on the field and wear down Rutgers’ defense and expose their lack of depth.

The Hawkeyes still have plenty of wrinkles to iron out before they’re ready to compete for a Big Ten championship, but a conference win this weekend would be an important first step towards that goal.