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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Purdue

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The Boilermakers are coming off a bye week and are itching to spoil Iowa’s season yet again. Can the Hawkeyes stave off Purdue’s upset bid?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

How do Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes get to celebrate one of the program’s biggest wins in decades? By being forced to deal with one of the largest thorns in the program’s side.

Fresh off its thrilling home victory over Penn State, Iowa will play host to Jeff Brohm and the Purdue Boilermakers, a team that has beaten the Hawkeyes in three of the last four meetings, with Iowa’s one victory being a far closer game than it had any business being. If the Hawkeyes had any intention of resting on their laurels, the team’s prior battles against Purdue should serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of doing so. That the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1 in conference play) are one of the few teams with any chance to prevent the Hawkeyes from winning the Big Ten West should add further fuel to the fire and prevent Iowa from looking ahead to its bye week and its upcoming matchup against Wisconsin.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in Saturday’s game:

1. Can anybody cover David Bell?

The junior wide receiver chose to attend Purdue over Iowa and has absolutely scorched his spurned suitor over the past two seasons. Bell has put up video game numbers against Iowa: 26 catches for 318 yards and four touchdowns.

Iowa has one of the best secondaries in college football, but does it have anyone on the roster who can stop Bell this season? Arguably the only Hawkeye corner who has shown any prior success against the talented Boilermaker wideout is Riley Moss, the highest rated cornerback in college football according to Pro Football Focus and a player who covered Bell successfully during the second half of Iowa’s 2019 victory.

However, with Moss set to miss Saturday’s game with a knee injury, it will fall on his teammates to contend with the Boilermaker Bogeyman. Matt Hankins seems the natural candidate: he has the size to plausibly contend with Bell at 6’0” and has been playing the best football of his career this year, allowing only one first down in 229 coverage snaps, being named a midseason All-American by ESPN, and ranking behind only Moss as the best cornerback in the sport per PFF. Yet there is reason to doubt Hankins’ ability to cover Bell, as the Iowa DB was absolutely torched by the then-freshman during their first meeting before being benched. Terry Roberts (pressed into the starting lineup due to Moss’ injury) is another option but is surrendering four inches to Bell and may not be an ideal matchup. The 6’1” Jermari Harris has looked promising in limited action and could be looked to should either Roberts or Hankins falter, as could the highly touted but largely unutilized UNI transfer Xavior Williams. If Bell has another strong game, each of these defensive backs could get their shot at trying to cover him, as Phil Parker has never been shy with the hook when a cornerback is underperforming.

Iowa should be even more concerned by the prospect of Bell lining up against a Hawkeye defender that ISN’T a cornerback. Jeff Brohm has excelled at targeting mismatches in previous meetings against the Hawkeyes by manufacturing scenarios in which Iowa defenders are asked to cover players who are faster than them. Case in point: Bell’s game-clinching touchdown last season came when he was being covered by backup linebacker Barrington Wade.

Can Iowa avoid being lured into mismatches by the Boilermakers and their creative play designs? Can Phil Parker finally solve the riddle that is David Bell? History shows that the answer to these questions could decide the outcome of the game; since 2020 the Boilermakers are 4-1 when Bell has 120+ receiving yards and 0-6 when he doesn’t. David Bell isn’t Purdue’s only weapon, but if the Hawkeyes find a way to blunt him in this game, they should be able to keep the Boilermaker offense in check.

2. Can Iowa’s passing attack overcome a stingy Purdue defense?

While Jeff Brohm’s Purdue teams are more closely associated with throwing passing touchdowns than preventing them, the Boilermaker pass defense has emerged as the strength of the 2021 squad. Purdue is allowing fewer passing yards per game than any team in the conference at 175.2 and is the only Big Ten team to surrender fewer than four touchdowns through the air this season.

The strength of the Purdue pass defense lies not in the secondary but in the front seven. Junior defensive end George Karlaftis is a terror off the edge who has accounted for two sacks, five QB hurries, 4.5 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles through five games this season and will be a serious test for Iowa’s young offensive tackles who struggled mightily against Penn State. Like Iowa, Purdue’s front seven also excels at batting down passes when they are unable to get to the quarterback; Karlaftis and linebacker Jalen Graham are first and second on the team in deflections this season.

Can Iowa’s aerial attack stand up against a formidable Purdue pass defense? The Hawkeyes’ inconsistent passing game was on full display against Penn State, where Spencer Petras started 1-9 for 14 yards and an interception before completing 16 of his next 22 attempts for 181 yards and two touchdowns. The Hawkeyes rank 100th in the country in passing yards per game with 194.2, yet Petras has made big throws in critical moments and has played at times like a quarterback capable of commanding a more explosive passing attack. Whether the play of Petras and his receivers more closely resembles the beginning or the end of the Penn State game could dictate how much success the Iowa offense has in this game.

3. Can Iowa continue to dominate the turnover battle?

The Hawkeye defense is forcing turnovers at an astounding rate, leading the nation with 20 takeaways through six games. Yet while the Hawkeyes boast the Big Ten’s best turnover margin (15), the Boilermakers have one of the conference’s worst (-5). While quarterback Aiden O’Connell has thrown five interceptions this season, the Boilermaker defense has failed to produce a turnover in the past three games.

Iowa’s loss to Purdue last year was defined by self-imposed mistakes. Iowa committed ten penalties for 100 yards (with the flags frequently being thrown at the least opportune moments in the game) and committed two costly fumbles which helped the Boilermakers secure the victory. Yet the shoe may be on the other foot this season. Jeff Brohm’s willingness to play quarterback roulette with O’Connell (TD:INT ratio of 4:5) and Jack Plummer (TD:INT ratio of 7:0) instead of sticking exclusively with the steadier option in Plummer speaks to the Boilermakers’ willingness to risk turnovers in pursuit of dynamic scoring opportunities, a philosophy that can be fatal against a defense as opportunistic as Iowa’s. Purdue will have to throw early and often to move the ball against Iowa; they are dead last in per-game rushing among Big Ten teams with 88.8 yards and are without Zander Horvath, the running back who cut through an Iowa defense that was missing both Jack Campbell and Seth Benson last season. If the Hawkeye secondary can continue to do what Purdue’s defense cannot and create turnovers, Iowa should be able to avoid yet another crushing defeat at the hands of the Boilermakers.