Like many Iowa fans, I entered this season concerned about how the team’s difficult early slate of games would impact its fortunes during the rest of the year. I believed that an 0-2 start would be a foreboding, but not necessarily debilitating sign of things to come, a 1-1 start would show that the team was on the right track, and a 2-0 start would mean the Hawkeyes are capable of winning the Big Ten and competing for a national championship. The rationale behind this 2-0 optimism was based on history; Iowa tends to start the season slow but improve dramatically as the season progresses. If the Hawkeyes could start 2-0 against two pre-season playoff dark horses, imagine what that team would look like once it really got its legs under it midseason?
This week’s matchup against Kent State provides Iowa fans with their first opportunity to watch their team take the field against the type of opponent the Hawkeyes typically open their season with and a team the program has beaten by a combined score of 80-7 in its previous two matchups. Yet the Golden Flashes demand to be taken seriously; Kent State is a MAC team, but one that has found a high degree of success in recent seasons under head coach Sean Lewis, the architect of last year’s highest scoring offense in college football. Iowa should have a clear talent advantage but will need to play sharp and execute well if it hopes to avoid a letdown game and continue to justify its #5 national ranking.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s passing game find its footing?
Iowa’s passing game has been a huge statistical disappointment. Iowa currently ranks last in the Big Ten in quarterback rating (98.74), completion percentage (49%), and passing yards (125.5). Some of the blame for Iowa’s anemic passing attack falls at the (happy) feet of Petras, who has made several errant throws, failed to spot open receivers, and taken critical sacks on third down. However, Iowa’s pass catchers also deserve an equal share of the criticism for dropped passes and for failing to consistently create separation.
Iowa’s inability to mount a consistent aerial threat has also hampered the running game. With the exception of a few big runs during the Indiana game, the Hawkeye rushing attack has largely been bottled up this season, ranking second to last in the Big Ten in yards per carry (3.0) and dead last in yards per game (112.50). Opposing defenses have felt free to key in on Tyler Goodson whenever he is in the game without fear of being beaten over the top, resulting in few running lanes whenever the All-Big Ten back touches the ball.
Still, there are several reasons to expect improved play from the passing game tomorrow. Although Iowa fans have watched Petras start ten games, they have never seen him play against a non-Power Five defense. Petras should face less pressure from Kent State defensive front and the Hawkeye receivers should find a far easier time getting open than they have in their first two games. Spencer Petras has shown that he can make big throws at key times this season and could have an opportunity to flex his muscles a bit against a MAC defense this week.
Kent State’s pass defense is something of a statistical mixed bag. Kent State did give up the third fewest yards per game in the air last season (162), but that was because they were so aggressively bad at stopping the run that few opponents felt the need to throw against them (the Golden Flashes surrendered a whopping 262 yards per game on the ground in 2020). This season, Kent State is giving up 219 yards per game through the air, but also improved this average by playing the FCS’ Virginia Military Institute last week. Meanwhile, Kent State is the only team in college football with more interceptions than Iowa (8), and defensive backs Montre Miller and Elvis Hines each already have three picks on the season.
If Iowa’s passing game continues to struggle against Kent State, there will be real reason for concern. However, this game could also provide an opportunity to get juniors Tyrone Tracy (four catches for 27 yards) and Nico Ragaini (three catches for 21 yards) and highly touted freshmen Keagan Johnson (14 snaps played) and Arland Bruce IV (seven snaps played) more involved in the offense and to see whether Petras can develop some rapport with this talented group of pass catchers.
2. Can Iowa’s defense contain Dustin Crum?
Kent State’s All-MAC quarterback Dustin Crum is the type of player capable of giving fits to many past Iowa defenses. The fifth-year senior is a dual-threat quarterback who has compiled over 4,000 passing yards and nearly 1,500 rushing yards in his career. He is extremely accurate (he completed 73.5% of his passes last year) but can also throw an excellent deep ball. He is savvy enough to extend plays with his legs and rarely throws interceptions (he has a career 36:8 TD:INT ratio).
Crum is also the engine that powers a Kent State running game that averages 360 rushing yards per game, the second most in the nation. Crum is deadly when he escapes the pocket and has a gravitational effect on the defense in the read-option game that creates opportunities for running backs Xavier Williams and Marquez Cooper. He will look to push the pace of the game in an effort to keep the Hawkeye defense on its toes and prevent the Hawkeyes from rotating in players and capitalizing on its relative depth advantage.
Crum is an extremely dangerous weapon with the skill and experience needed to play giant killer, but will face an uphill battle doing so against Iowa’s defense. The Hawkeyes will look to keep Crum in the pocket and force him to beat them with his arm, while the secondary will look for any opportunities to help them surpass the Golden Flashes as the nation’s interception leaders. Crum struggled as a passer in his season opener against Texas A&M (12-26 for 89 yards and two interceptions), and the Hawkeyes should be able to similarly flummox him if they continue playing the smart, disciplined defense they have shown thus far.
3. Can Iowa’s offensive line assert its dominance?
Iowa is perhaps best known for producing elite offensive linemen, but the unit has had major struggles early in the season. The Hawkeyes have failed to get a consistent push up front, forcing Goodson dance around the backfield waiting for running lanes that never open. Iowa’s young guards have struggled to match Tyler Linderbaum’s work on the interior, while its tackles have shown considerable vulnerability in pass protection. Spencer Petras is the 2nd-highest graded quarterback in the conference when throwing with a clean pocket according to Pro Football Focus, yet poor offensive line play has allowed him to be sacked six times already this season.
Highest-graded Big Ten QBs in a clean pocket— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 14, 2021
1. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland - 90.8
2. Spencer Petras, Iowa - 85.9
3. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State - 84.6 pic.twitter.com/qAAKDV6Wxt
However, there is reason for optimism when it comes to Iowa’s offensive line, and things should begin to look considerably better starting this week. Senior guard Kyler Schott is listed on this week’s depth chart for the first time after sustaining an offseason injury, and the Washed Up Walkons podcast broke the news that Schott intends to play against Kent State. His return to the lineup will provide a steadying presence to the interior line and add another veteran leader to a unit ripe with freshmen and sophomores whose experience simply has yet to catch up with their talent. Kent State’s defensive line is a major area of weakness (the unit was ranked the second-worst in the MAC by Pro Football Focus during the offseason), and the Hawkeye line should be able to impose its will up front, create more opportunities in both the running and passing game, and give the coaching staff opportunities to look for the ideal starting five it can ride going forward. Simply put, if the Iowa line struggles against Kent State, it may be time to raise the alarm.