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Thanks to Coronavirus, Iowa’s Football Season May Be Decided by its Depth

It’s inevitable that Iowa players will miss time this season due to COVID-19. Do the Hawkeyes have the depth to recover from these absences?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s November 13. Iowa is undefeated and preparing to play Minnesota in a road game that may determine who wins the Big Ten West, and the Hawkeyes are at risk of having their season derailed. COVID-19 has struck the team once again, this time hitting the quarterback room. With both the first and second-string options ineligible to play as a result of contract tracing, Iowa has turned to true freshman Deuce Hogan to keep its hopes of a division title alive. However, Iowa is also without its starting center for this game, an inevitable consequence of him being the roommate of the starting QB. An errant snap from the reserve center midway through the 2nd quarter forces Hogan to scurry after the loose ball, but instead of falling on it, the inexperienced gunslinger scoops it off the turf and looks downfield in hopes of salvaging the play, completely unaware of the outside linebacker bearing down on him. As Hogan limps off the field, Iowa’s offensive staff now faces the choice of whether to call upon sophomore walk-on Connor Kapisak or to throw Ihmir Smith-Marsette under center and ask him to do his best Lynn Bowden impression for the rest of the game.

Iowa isn’t likely to lose three quarterbacks in a matter of hours, but the threat of the coronavirus is certain to hang over the Hawkeye squad for the rest of the year. Outbreaks of the virus are inevitable on college campuses; as of October 8, the New York Times reported over 178,000 cases on college and university campuses across America. Thirty-three games have already been cancelled or postponed due to COVID outbreaks, and while positive testing data is not publicly available for all FBS programs, there have been several reported cases of coaches and players contracting the virus, including the head coach of Iowa’s opening opponent. As the first seven weeks of the college football season have shown, it’s a question of when, not if, the coronavirus will impact Iowa’s season.

Iowa will be forced to play without any players who test positive for the coronavirus for a considerable amount of time. The Big Ten’s COVID-19 protocol guarantees that all athletes will be tested for the virus daily, and those with positive tests will be deemed ineligible to return to action for at least 21 days, likely resulting in those players missing three or more games. Furthermore, team-wide outbreaks could threaten to cancel games altogether, as it will only take 5% of players or 7.5% of all team personnel testing positive for the Big Ten to pull the plug on any given Saturday and mandate that the infected team cease all practices for a minimum of seven days. Even a 2% positive test rate among Hawkeye players could result in the altering of weekly practices and meetings to prevent the rise of the test rate, threatening to disrupt preparation for the upcoming contest.

The Big Ten’s testing measures are extremely important and appropriately rigid. However, from a pure Xs-and-Os perspective they could absolutely threaten the participation of key Hawkeyes in critical games throughout the season, especially with coronavirus cases expected to continue rising throughout the fall. Last minute positive tests could necessitate coaches changing their game plans with little notice, while COVID-related absences of Iowa’s star players could force the team to play with one hand tied behind its back.

Players who test positive for and recover from COVID-19 during the season may also struggle to contribute once they return. Even if a player is cleared to resume play after precisely 21 days, it could take far longer for his body to fully recover, as a study from the Center for Disease Control found that roughly 20% of young adults ages 18-34 without chronic medical conditions report not returning to their “usual state of health,” within 2-3 weeks of diagnosis. To make matters worse, “15% of healthy college athletes show signs of heart inflammation as they recover from COVID-19,” according to a September study conducted by researchers at Ohio State, which could cause serious long-term health complications. In other words, Hawkeye fans should not expect a player to be at full health even if they catch and recover from COVID-19 midseason.

Finally, the chaos created by the coronavirus could cause an uptick in the normal injuries experienced by Iowa players this season. The stop-and-start nature of the offseason has disrupted Iowa’s normal spring, summer, and fall conditioning schedules, and it was only a few weeks ago that the Hawkeyes completed their first padded practice since before the Holiday Bowl. While the experience of Iowa’s coaching staff and its vaunted strength and conditioning program would normally be cited as proof that the Hawkeyes were uniquely positioned to weather this storm, Iowa fans have not had a chance to evaluate the conditioning program since the departure of its architect Chris Doyle in June. The NFL’s shortened offseason has been blamed by some for the rash of early-season injuries, and it’s not unreasonable to fear that Iowa could experience similar problems over the coming weeks.

Is Iowa prepared to survive the threat of in-season chaos caused by the coronavirus? The Hawkeyes wouldn’t need to lose three quarterbacks to face a serious test of their team’s depth, as a rash of injuries or illnesses at virtually any position group besides wide receiver could turn Iowa from a legitimate Big Ten West contender to a struggling also-ran. Iowa is perilously thin at linebacker, and much of the depth it boasts in the secondary and along the defensive line is entirely unproven. On offense, the Hawkeyes have nothing but freshmen and a walk-on behind Petras at quarterback, saw their line depth take a hit due to offseason departures, and have plenty of athleticism, but no game experience behind Sam LaPorta and Shaun Beyer at tight end. Iowa’s starting lineup is as talented as any team in the Big Ten West, but there are serious questions about how big a drop-off the Hawkeyes could expect if they see an above-average number of injuries, or even an average number of COVID cases this season.

Still, Iowa’s coaching staff has plenty of experience navigating through injuries and absences that might have decimated other teams. Kirk Ferentz and his staff adapted Iowa’s offense to a pass-first attack to survive the great running back apocalypse of 2004, managed a constantly rotating offensive line throughout the 2009 season, weathered a slew of injuries and absences in Iowa’s secondary early in 2019, and have made careers out of taking overlooked players and giving them the tools to succeed within the Hawkeye system. Furthermore, every team on Iowa’s schedule will likely be similarly impacted by the coronavirus this season. Iowa doesn’t have to be perfect at navigating the COVID minefield, just better than its opponents. Yet it is also true that while programs like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin can afford to play without their star players for a few games, the Hawkeyes simply lack the same margin for error.

Iowa football has long prided itself on embodying the “next man in” mantra, demanding that second-string players forced into the lineup perform at the same level as the injured starters they replaced. Iowa’s coaching staff needs that principle to remain true now more than ever. Injuries are an inevitable part of any college football season and tend to punish teams who lack the depth necessary to weather them, but the coronavirus adds an entirely new level of complexity to the equation. If the Hawkeyes manage to win the West this year, the coaching staff will deserve tremendous credit for their ability to smartly keep the team afloat under exceptionally different circumstances. However, if Iowa fails to live up to expectations in 2020, chances are a look at the list of injured and infected players will tell the story of why.