Iowa football has played 1,269 games since 1889, but this Saturday it will take the field to face off against an opponent it has never played before. Colorado State will make its first ever trip to Kinnick Stadium tomorrow with an eye on pulling a major upset and bringing its record to .500 on the season. While the Rams may be a new opponent for the Hawkeyes, the program is acquainted with Colorado State head coach Steve Addazio whose Boston College team fell to the Hawkeyes in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl.
Colorado State has had success in recent decades under coaches like Sonny Lubick and Jim McElwain, but the 2021 squad is far from the school’s best team. The Rams have not won more than a third of their games in any season since 2017 and started 2021 0-2, including a 42-23 home loss to FCS South Dakota State. While Colorado State did go on the road and trounce a Toledo team that took Notre Dame to the wire only a week before, they enter tomorrow’s game at a significant talent deficit at nearly every position. With Iowa’s Big Ten season about to start in earnest, its Week 4 matchup against Colorado State should provide the Hawkeyes with a nice tune-up game to get the team’s confidence up before a tricky road trip to Maryland next Friday.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1.Can Iowa shut down Trey McBride?
Iowa’s Week 2 game against Iowa State forced the Hawkeye defense to contend with two of the country’s most dangerous tight ends in Charlie Kolar and Chase Allen. Now, Iowa must matchup against a tight end who tops Todd McShay’s 2022 NFL Draft Big Board at his position and may well be even better than the Cyclones’ dynamic duo.
Colorado State senior Trey McBride is a matchup nightmare at 6’4”, 260 lbs. He is a powerful run blocker but does most of his damage as a receiver who uses his size and strength to overpower opposing defensive backs and his deceptive quickness and athleticism to burn linebackers. McBride is an excellent route runner with soft hands and has been the focal point of the Colorado State passing game this season, easily leading his team in receptions (21) and yards (230) through three games. He is also a proven red zone weapon who has amassed nine touchdowns during his career.
If the CSU offense hopes to keep this game competitive it will have to be on the back of McBride and, while the tight end poses a serious matchup challenge for the Hawkeyes, there is reason to believe the Iowa defense can rise to meet it. Iowa held Kolar and Allen to only 36 combined yards against Iowa State, limited Wisconsin’s star tight end Jake Ferguson to 14 yards on three catches last season, and has given up only four receiving touchdowns to opposing tight ends since the start of the 2019 season. Linebacker Jestin Jacobs will be the key man to watch in this matchup, as he displayed the coverage skills and athleticism necessary to cover top-tier tight ends during the Cy-Hawk game, something which was discussed in-depth in a recent video breakdown by our very own Rob Donaldson.
While Iowa has transitioned to a 4-2-5 base defense in recent years, McBride’s athleticism combined with the Rams’ tendency to run heavy sets on offense could force Phil Parker to go the 4-3 defense early and often in this game. If Jacobs and the Iowa linebackers can lock down McBride and prevent him from making any big gains, the Rams offense should struggle to move the ball. If McBride proves a difficult cover, Colorado State could manage to keep things close longer than many Iowa fans will be comfortable with.
2. Can Iowa’s offense sustain long drives?
For casual fans, Iowa’s 2019 30-0 drubbing of Rutgers was an unremarkable game that was soon relegated to the dustbin of college football history. To the learned and cultured writers of BHGP however, this game will forever be remembered for a riveting matchup between two special teams players that later came to be dubbed the Greatest Punter Battle in History.
While the exploits of Michael Sleep-Dalton and Adam Korsak stand alone as the pinnacle of punting excellence in a college football game, Hawkeye fans should not be surprised to see the field position battle play a similarly compelling role in tomorrow’s otherwise unremarkable contest. Both Tory Taylor and CSU punter Ryan Stonehouse (a three-time first-team All-Mountain West selection and honorable mention All-American) excel at flipping the field and pinning their opponents deep. Stonehouse boast an impressive career average of 47.2 yards per punt and is averaging a whopping 51.9 yards per kick this season, the third-highest average in college football. Iowa can trust its defense to consistently get stops, but Stonehouse, who pinned opponents within their own 20-yard line eight times in only four games last year, has a strong enough leg to ensure that Iowa’s offense will have to drive the length of the field to put points on the board.
Can Iowa’s offense show enough consistency to regularly sustain long scoring drives? The Hawkeyes have mustered six scoring drives of 50+ yards this season with four of them coming last week against Kent State, including a 20 play, 95-yard drive that lasted nearly nine minutes before culminating in a Sam LaPorta touchdown. However, consistent execution has been a lingering issue for the Iowa offense this season, as fumbles, errant throws, missed blocks, and dropped passes have short-circuited several otherwise promising drives. Three of Iowa’s 50+ scoring drives were built in large part on explosive plays from Tyler Goodson, and it remains to be seen whether Iowa can consistently move the ball without relying on huge chunk plays. This week’s game against Colorado State should provide the Hawkeyes with ample opportunities to practice this task before Big Ten season begins.
3. How much action will Iowa’s starters see?
No disrespect intended to Colorado State, but this week’s game should be the easiest on the Hawkeyes’ schedule. Barring devastating injuries or an upset of historic proportions, Iowa should expect to exit Saturday’s matchup with a 4-0 record. Accordingly, one of the most interesting questions about tomorrow’s game is not how well Iowa’s starters will play, but how much they will play.
If the Hawkeyes establish a commanding lead early in the game, the coaching staff will have a difficult decision to make about what to do with the Hawkeye starters. On one hand, the first-team offense needs all the game reps in can get heading into conference play; the offensive line is still in flux, Petras is still struggling to get on the same page as his receivers, and the running backs need to work on ball security after committing four fumbles in three games. The more reps the starting offense takes against a team like Colorado State against whom the Hawkeyes have a huge talent advantage, the better rhythm they will have as they enter conference play.
That being said, there is also a compelling case for giving Iowa’s backups some extended play. Not only do starters risk injury by playing deep into a game that is no longer competitive but doing so deprives the backups of valuable game reps which could come in handy should injuries force them into action at some point in the year. Recruiting hype and practice gossip aside, Iowa fans don’t know what they have in backup quarterbacks Alex Padilla and Deuce Hogan, true freshmen wide receivers Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV, and other young players on both sides of the ball who have yet to see meaningful game action. This week’s game could create an opportunity to remedy this problem.
More than anything, Iowa’s coaches will enter tomorrow’s contest focused on winning the game; questions about playing time for the backups will and should come secondary to that. However, if Iowa’s starters play up to their potential and put the Rams away early, it could create invaluable opportunities for Iowa’s younger players to develop in ways that could pay dividends later this year and in seasons to come.