It feels wild to be just two days away from college football involving the Iowa Hawkeyes (0-0). They’ll head to the scene of the defense’s worst performance (tied) of the last three seasons in West Lafayette, Indiana to face on the Purdue Boilermakers (0-0).
Rondale Moore sat out last season’s meeting, a 23-20 Hawkeye victory, with a season ending knee injury and was planning on sitting out the 2020 season to prepare for the 2021 draft before the season came back. Such is life amidst a pandemic.
In the 38-36 Purdue win referenced above, Moore had just 31 yards on 6 receptions and no rush attempts. And while he was largely contained on offense and the return game, he did have a single punt return for 24 yards which set Purdue up for an 18-yard touchdown drive.
(Iowa’s punting game isn’t a part of the matchup to watch, but they certainly need something better than that on Saturday!)
Anyways, Moore’s relatively quiet day - the 31 total yards were the least in a game from his freshman year - went against a Hawkeye defense which featured Big Ten DB of the year Amani Hooker in the newly formalized cash position.
It was in this matchup last year when Dane Belton asserted himself as the heir apparent, notching his first significant action as he tallied a career-high six tackles against the Boilermakers. He went on to start four of Iowa’s final six games and lock down the position, or so we thought.
In Scott Dochterman’s preview of Iowa’s back seven, he threw a bit of sand into the gears of Iowa’s projected lineup when he declared Riley Moss the starter at Iowa’s hybrid defensive back/linebacker, a position he has played very little. Further, it is a position which requires a varied skillset and while Moss has shown strength in matching burners outside*, his nose for the ball as a tackler is a little more unproven. This issue is complicated for all defenders by the lack of nonconference season and limited training camp.
* a recent stat from tnels20 I can no longer access in the site slack had passes against Moss as something like 4/15 for 100+ yards. When he gets beat, he gets beat, but it is not as often as it feels like.
Anyways, in what felt like a forgone conclusion at Iowa’s most complex defensive position is thrown into flux against a team who is more capable than any of exploiting a weakness in Iowa’s armor. Perhaps it is just covering all bases to build depth and Belton really is the guy when Iowa lines up in a 4-2-5, but the uncertainty seems a little unnecessary.
What may ease the pressure Iowa’s back seven faces is the development of Jeff Brohm’s COVID-19. Though Purdue is appealing for the Boilermaker head coach and playcaller to be able to communicate with his team remotely, his absence would be impactful as he would turn the playcalling over to an inexperienced playcaller: his brother, Brian.** Additionally, Purdue has yet to name a starting quarterback, which feels like both a bit of gamesmanship and a potential liability with the in-game decision to rotate QBs out of Jeff’s hand on Saturday.
** a reminder that nepotism is not an Iowa problem but a football problem!
While Iowa’s cash is the most important position, the waffling highlights the uncertainty Phil Parker faces in constructing a defensive backfield - namely, is Julius Brents better than Kaevon Merriweather? Is Riley Moss really better than them both? These are questions we’ll likely find out on Saturday, as Purdue has consistently challenged Iowa’s secondary under Jeff Brohm and force Parker to make a number of in game substitutions and adjustments well after the damage was done.
All of this is said without describing the issues David Bell (13 catches for 197 yards against Iowa last year) poses on the outside...