Iowa football is finally back after one of the most tumultuous offseasons in program history, but in typical 2020 fashion, both contestants in Saturday’s opener against Purdue will enter the game dealing with significant outside distractions. Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm and a handful of Boilermaker coaches tested positive for the coronavirus and will have to miss Saturday’s tilt, shifting head-coaching and play calling duties to Jeff’s brother Brian who has never performed either function. Meanwhile, news of eight former Hawkeye players threatening to sue the university over alleged racial discrimination cast a black cloud over the program right when fan excitement about Iowa football should be peaking. The re-emergence of the racial disparity story will test the cohesion of Iowa’s locker room and the coaching staff’s ability to maintain focus and shut out outside noise. Will the Hawkeyes be bound closer together in response to challenges to the program’s character, or will this story stir sleeping fault lines inside the locker room?
If Iowa fans can look beyond the headlines, they should be treated to an intriguing matchup against the most challenging opening game opponent the Hawks have faced in several years. Both Iowa and Purdue have clear advantages over one another in key areas, as well as several question marks surrounding unproven players which could decide the outcome of the contest.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Which team can best contain their opponent’s wide receivers?
The Hawkeyes have struggled mightily to cover Purdue’s wide receivers in all three of Iowa’s games against the Boilermakers since Jeff Brohm arrived in West Lafayette, and given the production Purdue returns at that position in 2020, things aren’t likely to be different on Saturday. Not only will Iowa have to contend with David Bell who torched the Hawkeye defense for 197 yards on thirteen receptions last year, but the Boilermakers also return Rondale Moore to the fold after missing 2019 to injury. Moore is one of the fastest receivers in college football and was the first true freshman in Big Ten history to earn consensus All-American honors. Bell and Moore form one of the most dangerous receiving duos in college football, and both players are capable of beating Hawkeye defensive backs deep or doing damage in the short to intermediate passing games.
Fortunately, the Iowa wide receivers present a major matchup challenge to the Boilermakers as well. Ihmir Smith-Marsette has the speed to take the top off the Boilermaker defense, Tyrone Tracy is a proven game changer after the catch, Nico Ragaini is a reliable and deceptively quick weapon in the slot, and Brandon Smith was having a career day against Purdue before going down to injury last season (nine catches for 106 yards). Purdue will rely on former Hawkeye cornerback D.J. Johnson to stop the Iowa passing attack, but not only should his former teammates know Johnson’s tendencies and weaknesses, but he also proved prone to surrendering the occasional big play downfield. With Purdue breaking in a new defensive coordinator in former Hawkeye Bobby Diaco, it’s not unreasonable to expect occasional schematic breakdowns which Iowa’s receivers can exploit.
Iowa and Purdue should be able to damage one another in the passing game, but the advantage may well go to the team that can best contain their opponent’s wideouts. Iowa will likely play with 5-6 defensive backs for most of the game to help deal with Purdue’s speed on the outside, but it’s unclear whether Iowa has a single cornerback who can cover Bell and Moore. Iowa’s best chance may come if it can consistently pressure the quarterback with its front four, which would allow the linebacking corps to spend more time assisting in coverage. Purdue’s offensive line was a weak spot last season after surrendering 28 sacks over 12 games, but Iowa’s defensive line is also a question mark with the departure of star defensive end A.J. Epenesa to the NFL. If players like Chauncey Golston, Daviyon Nixon, and NIU transfer Jack Heflin can apply an effective pass rush, it will prevent Purdue from targeting its big play threats downfield and give Iowa’s defense a chance to do what it does best: force a completion short of the first down marker and swarm to the ballcarrier.
Meanwhile, Iowa’s wide receivers can only be effective if the quarterback can get them the ball, and Purdue will likely try to get creative with its coverages and blitzes to confuse first-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras. Petras has the physical tools to give Iowa a dominant passing game, but the Hawkeye coaching staff can’t really know what they have in him until he shows that he can make plays in live game action. If Petras can get the passing game going, Iowa’s receivers will have an opportunity to prove they are every bit as talented as Purdue’s.
2. Can Iowa’s front five dominate in the trenches?
Perhaps the best way for Iowa to keep Purdue’s passing game in check is to keep them off the field. If Iowa can use its ground game to sustain long drives that produce points, it can keep the Hawkeye defense rested and put more pressure on first-time play-caller Brian Brohm to make every Boilermaker drive count. The Hawkeyes will need strong performances from the offensive line to accomplish this, but with a veteran group led by two four-year Big Ten starters at tackle, a strong rotation at guard, and one of the most promising centers in the league, they have the horses to make that happen.
Purdue proved vulnerable against the run last season and posted some of the conference’s worst numbers in rushing yards allowed per carry (4.74) and per game (192.5) in 2019. The Boilermakers have reason to expect improvement in this area, however; star defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal is back in action after missing last season to injury, and George Karlaftis should be even better at snuffing out run plays from his defensive end spot after posting 17 tackles for loss as a freshman. If Iowa’s offensive line can win the battle upfront, it should give Tyler Goodson, Mekhi Sargent, and Ivory Kelly-Martin plenty of opportunities to make their mark on the ground, which could give the Hawkeyes a real edge in this contest.
3. Are Iowa’s linebackers ready for prime time?
Iowa’s linebacking corps was destined to be an area of concern as soon as Djimon Colbert opted out of the 2020 season, but the news that middle linebacker Jack Campbell will miss the Purdue game only amplified these worries. Nick Niemann will shift to the middle for this game, and while Barrington Wade and Seth Benson are both intuitive picks to fill in at the weakside spot, freshmen Jestin Jacobs, Jay Higgins, and Yahweh Jeudy are also in the running to see snaps.
Iowa’s linebackers HOPEFULLY won’t be tasked with guarding Purdue’s star wideouts one-on-one, but they will play a huge role in defending against both the passing and running games. Niemann is a proven commodity on the outside, but will that translate to production at middle linebacker? Can Iowa’s unproven young weakside linebackers hang in pass coverage? Can the linebacking corps make plays while avoiding any defensive breakdowns? Defensive coordinator Phil Parker recently called the linebackers the strength of the defense. For Iowa to start its season with a win, they may only need to avoid being a weakness.