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Matchup to Watch: Jahan Dotson vs. Iowa’s Secondary

The Nittany Lion wideout notched a touchdown against Iowa last year and has had a stellar 2021

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1: Ty Fryfogle vs. Iowa’s corners
Week 2: Charlie Kolar/Chase Allen vs. Iowa’s linebackers
Week 3: Kent State’s corners vs. Iowa’s wide receivers
Week 4: Thomas Pannunzio vs. Tory Taylor
Week 5: Maryland’s offensive line vs. Iowa’s defensive line

While Iowa was not able to notch a sack against Maryland, the Hawkeye defensive line played a very clean game. They were constantly in Taulia Tagovailoa’s passing lanes with their hands up and pressured him into some really bad throws. The 55.2% he left the game with was the second worst of his career, to say nothing of the five interceptions. He did add 4 rushes for 24 yards as Maryland found some success in the run game - 97 yards on 17 carries. They were just very quick to get away from their rushing offense. Additionally, Maryland’s OL had two key penalties which put the kibosh on first quarter 4th & 1 and 3rd & 1 opportunities.

In trying to come up with a unique matchup, I thought for certain I had selected Jahan Dotson as the Nittany Lion portion from last year’s column ahead of Iowa’s game against Penn State. Turns out, I did not. So that makes it easy to select Dotson v. the Hawkeye secondary as the obvious choice for the top four matchup between the #3 Iowa Hawkeyes (5-0, 2-0) and the #4 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0). Sure, it may be a bit of a redux from the first game of the season but when Kirk Ferentz offers the praise to Dotson we have heard so far this week, it warrants repeating:

I’m as impressed with No. 5 as anybody we’ve seen this year. I say that with all due respect, we’ve played against some really good players so far, but he’s outstanding.

Dotson enters the game as one of the most prolific receivers in the conference. His six TDs & 35 receptions are first in the Big Ten while his yardage is 5th. He’s also featured in the return game and has a couple 20-yards passes to his name. The Nittany Lion has scored a TD in each game this season, a streak which stretches to 7 games when factoring in 2020.

Mel Kiper recently considered him a top 10 prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft and it is easy to see why. PSU used him in a variety of ways against Indiana last week but he continually shows an ability to get behind defenses and make them pay. Against both Villanova & Wisconsin, Sean Clifford connected with him on very deep routes where he was able to take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups to break down the coverage.

Villanova opens with a 2-high safety look Iowa is likely to throw at them all day but puts one into conflict with the route combination of Dotson (post) & tight end Theo Johnson (deep cross). This turns it into a footrace Dotson wins 100 out of 100 times.

While the Hawkeye secondary has not yet been burned deep by opposing passing attacks, this group has shown susceptible years ago. Riley Moss, in particular, was isolated against Purdue time and again his true freshman season (2018) as his “trail technique” was taken advantage of to great aplomb.

(and again at the 8:00 of the above video)

Now, Moss has grown into a very good cornerback since then but has shown some tendencies (eyes a little too focused in the backfield) this season which could be taken advantage of by the chemistry between Sean Clifford & Dotson. Against the Hawkeyes last season, he used a double move to get between Matt Hankins & Kaevon Merriweather for a long touchdown:

While Kiper noted in his writeup that the average distance of passes to Dotson is 12.2 yards, he has supreme ability to turn routine plays into big gainers - a number of plays in his 2020 highlight package is a testament to that. Iowa must be sure tacklers or else the wrong play could go the wrong direction and be the difference in the game.

Along those lines, I’m reminded of KJ Hamler’s touchdown in Kinnick Stadium two seasons ago where a very routine out pattern was turned into the first TD of the game. While LB Nick Niemann was isolated here, it was Dotson who served as the top-opener as he took Hankins out of the play before and after the catch.

He also returns punts.

None of this is to undersell what Iowa’s defensive backfield can throw at Penn State to make life difficult for Dotson & the rest of Penn State’s aerial attack. Iowa’s secondary has been great and a recent social media product shows it isn’t just one guy for opponents to avoid.

There’s the added element that a lot of what makes Dotson great is unlocked with really good pass protection in longer-developing routes, so Iowa’s defensive line with play a factor as well.

Yet Dotson is a truly unique talent that Iowa has faced and warrants requisite fear in terms of what he can do against the Hawks. It only takes one play to turn the tide of a game - and potentially a season. Let’s hope Jahan Dotson isn’t involved in it for the Hawkeyes.