The Indiana Hoosiers were the surprise team from last year’s Big Ten only schedule. They finished 6-1 in conference and lost to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, 26-20. Michael Penix, Jr. returns from an ACL injury along with plenty of talent from a stout defense (20.3 PPG, 4th in conference) which helped them maintain top 15 status for much of the season.
The Hoosiers will be the Iowa Hawkeyes toughest opening season opponent since, well, Purdue last season. But before that, you have to extend to 2000 to find another Power 5 opponent Iowa faced in Game 1 (Kansas State).
It has all the makings for a delightful early September overreaction for whatever result may happen. Let’s get into it.
Michael Penix, Jr. (QB, 6’3”, 218 lbs, RS Jr):
I have never been more convinced that a team pulled a Freaky Friday than IU’s body-swapping win (and game of the Big Ten season?) against Penn State which saw the two squads head in very different directions. Yet that just showed how little I’ve paid attention to what Allen built at IU and the guy who’s been the dude for much of the past two seasons. In 12 games in injury-shortened 2019 & ‘20 campaigns, he’s completed 62% of his passes for 8.0 yards per completion. He’s tallied 25 TDs (includes 1 his true freshman year) to 8 interceptions and finished as a second team all-Big Ten performer in 2020.
Adding to it, the Hoosiers have won 10 of his 12 starts the last two seasons.
Though he’s dialed back the running a smidge, he still has that capability. He also adds nice arm strength & capability for accuracy which is a condescending-sounding way to say he threw for 69% in 2019 and 58% in 2020.
Ty Fryfogle (WR, 6’2”, 214 lbs, RS Sr): After a couple solid seasons of production, Fryfogle burst onto the scene last year, tallying 721 yards on 37 receptions (19.1 YPC) and added 7 touchdowns. PFF likens him to David Bell in his ability to use his size and “physicality at the catch point.”
(Is this a good time to remind everyone Bell has caught 26 passes for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns in TWO GAMES against Iowa?)
He’s featured extensively in the above highlight package - his 7 catch, 218 yard output against OSU is straight out of a video game - and will be tricky for any Hawk to cover.
Tiawan Mullen (CB, 5’10”, 175 lbs, Jr): En route to a first team All-Big Ten sophomore year, Mullen tallied 3 interceptions, 37 tackles, and 3.5 sacks. This was after leading the conference in passes defended his freshman campaign. In his highlight package, he shows a nose for the ball in the most sensational way. I mean, look at this:
He sets the edge in the run game, blankets his receiver (PFF has him allowing no more than 40 yards in over 90% of his games), and can be featured as a blitzer. He, and the rest of the Hoosiers secondary, can make life really tough for Spencer Petras.
Does Kirk Ferentz treat this game like every other opening game he’s had the last two decades?
IU is probably the best week 1 opponent Iowa has had since Nebraska came to town in 1999. It will not be easy. Tom Allen is a willing participant in low scoring slogs which makes me think Kirk will be all-to-ready to engage in that type of game plan. It’s worked before - Iowa/ISU 2018 comes to mind - but it’s backfired in the most undesirable way - Michigan 2019.
Maybe Iowa can put forward a minimum viable product and beat a presumed top 15ish team but the likelihood of that happening hinges way too much on winning at the margins.
Did having spring actually matter?
Much was made of Spencer Petras having a spring as Iowa’s starter despite going into this season with more on-campus time as a redshirt junior than Nate Stanley had as a senior but I digress. In open practices, he ran back the Spencer Petras experience with some good throws, some bad throws, and some ugly throws. If the tune doesn’t change despite the extra work in New Jersey, then seriously - what are we doing here?
But if he shows real improvement, with 20 extra bodies on the field but especially against the Hoosiers vaunted secondary, we’re cooking with fire. There’s reason to be optimistic about his AND Iowa’s trajectory in 2021.
Iowa has two stars in the trenches in Tyler Linderbaum and Zach VanValkenberg but outside of them, there’s a fair number of question marks. Heck, even as it pertains to ZVV, I harbor some fear that his success was a result of having three other guys along the line who could warrant double teams.
Part of the reason Iowa has played better as the season has progressed, of late, is that interior development. The Hawks won’t be granted that leeway on September 4th and will need guys to immediately step into holes left by Alaric Jackson and Mark Kallenberger.
Defensively, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic with plenty of bodies looking the part. Yet injuries hampered the spring & general turnover adds uncertainty to what Iowa will have in three short months.
How much did Keith Duncan matter?
Part of what made his 2019 season so compelling was the sheer volume of kicks he took, and made. His ability to consistently hit kicks inside of 50 yards enabled a conservative offense which felt all-too-willing to take the three points. It didn’t really burn Iowa but it certainly made them more boring.
With Caleb Shudak as the primary kicker, all we know is he has the leg - I still think about his 60 yard field goal against Northwestern which went up the uprights - but does he have the accuracy? Does Kasino Kirk return with a little more leniency in going for it on fourth down or turn the boot loose? Given the way Iowa plays games, a field goal can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Hell, it was twice last season.