The beginning of every Iowa football season is full of promise, but 2021 has a special feel to it. For the first time since 2019, Kinnick Stadium will be packed to the brim with fans ready to watch the Hawkeyes swarm the newly christened Duke Slater Field. Add in a six-game winning streak from last season and a disappointing end to the 2020 campaign caused by two COVID-related no-contests and one can easily see why the fanbase is alight with anticipation.
However, Iowa will face a serious challenge right out of the gate. The #18 Hawkeyes play host to the #17 Indiana Hoosiers in the earliest conference game every played in Kinnick Stadium and one that could shape the fortunes of two programs hoping to contend for the conference crown. Iowa has a tricky road trip to Ames next week, and the program can ill-afford to start 0-2 for the second consecutive season. Iowa is used to playing cupcakes in its season openers but will have to overcome its lack of a tune-up game this year if it hopes to start 2021 on a high note.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. How will Spencer Petras fare against a veteran Indiana defense?
Spencer Petras’ struggles were inescapable last season, particularly during the early weeks when the first-year starter seemed particularly out of his depth. However, Petras improved dramatically during his final two games of the season; after posting a 4:5 touchdown:interception ratio and averaging a QB rating of 110.6 through his first six games, he was a completely different quarterback against Illinois and Wisconsin, throwing five touchdowns to no interceptions and boasting a QB rating of 159.45. It remains to be seen whether this December surge was a flash in the pan or evidence of sustainable growth, but the fact that one of those performances came against a top 10 Wisconsin scoring defense gives room for optimism.
Fans may know early on this season whether Petras can replicate his season-ending performance against an elite defense. The Hoosiers return ten starters from a top 20 scoring defense from 2020 and while they are breaking in new defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, they have more than enough talent to create headaches for the passing game. Of particular concern is Indiana’s tendency to rush the quarterback; the Hoosier’s blitzed 47% of the time last season, and All-American linebacker Micah McFadden led the conference in sacks in 2020. The Hoosiers employ several exotic blitz packages, frequently rushing defensive backs from unexpected angles to generate confusion up front and throw opposing quarterbacks off their rhythm. Petras often struggled when called upon to improvise last season, displaying poor footwork and decision-making which led to plays like this one:
When Petras does have time to throw, he will still have to contend against one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous secondaries. Tiawan Mullen has the best cumulative forced incompletion rate of any power five cornerback since 2019 (22.9%) and has allowed 40+ receiving yards against him just once in his career when playing 15+ snaps. Fellow cornerbacks Reese Taylor and Jaylin Williams also had strong showings in coverage last season and helped the Hoosiers average more interceptions (2.13) per game than any school in the country.
However, this does not mean the Hoosiers cannot be bested through the air. Indiana gave up 241 passing yards per game last year, and that was before they lost First-team All-Big Ten safety Jamar Johnson to the NFL. Petras practiced getting rid of the ball faster this offseason, as the coaching staff observed that the quarterback was more efficient when playing instinctually. Petras completed 66% of his passes when he threw within 2.5 seconds, and if he can play quick and decisively against the Hoosiers, he can help Iowa’s passing game complement Tyler Goodson and a rushing attack that should be able to move the ball effectively against Indiana’s front four.
2. Can Iowa’s defensive line win the battle up front?
Iowa’s back seven is as strong as any in the conference, but questions abound regarding the front four. The Hawkeye defensive line struggled against the run during this fall’s open scrimmage (particularly the defensive tackles) and must also replace its top two pass rushers from last season. Zach VanValkenburg earned Second-team All-Big Ten honors at defensive end last season, but it is unclear how far he can elevate his game without a trio of NFL defensive linemen drawing the attention of opposing blockers.
A strong game from the Hawkeye defensive line would go a long way towards stopping Indiana’s potent offense. Hoosier quarterback Michael Penix Jr. may be the most dynamic passer in the conference, but he is also coming off an ACL injury last year and it remains to be seen whether that will impact his mobility. There is also reason for concern about Indiana’s ability to protect its quarterback; pre-injury Penix excelled at avoiding the rush, but Pro Football Focus ranks the Hoosier’s line as the worst in the Big Ten and graded its offensive tackles as the second-worst pass protecting unit of any power five team at that position since 2014. If the Hawkeyes can generate an effective pass rush using only their front four, it will free up the back seven to focus more of its energy on covering Indiana’s talented wide receivers.
Furthermore, the defensive line needs to be stout against the run if the Hawkeyes hope to make the Hoosiers one-dimensional. Stevie Scott is gone, but former USC tailback Stephen Carr is an experienced player and a former five-star recruit. If Indiana can run the ball effectively, it will put far more pressure on Iowa’s defensive backs to hold up in pass coverage against a dangerous aerial attack. A strong showing from the defensive line to snuff out the running game would go a long way towards mitigating that threat.
3. Can Iowa’s secondary lock down Indiana’s receivers?
The Hawkeye secondary is arguably the strength of the defense and will look to build off its exceptional 2020 campaign with a strong start against the Hoosiers. Iowa’s pass defense held opposing quarterbacks to the nation’s seventh-lowest passer rating (110.99) and fifth-lowest yards-per-attempt (6.0) in 2020 and should be even better this year with its entire unit returning and the addition of UNI transfer Xavior Williams. Penix is a big play threat, but his struggles with accuracy (he completed only 56.4% of his passes last year) could create opportunities for Iowa’s defensive backs to short-circuit the Hoosier passing attack.
Still, the Hawkeye secondary will have its hands full with Ty Fryfogle, 2020’s Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year who posted 721 yards and seven touchdowns through eight games. Fryfogle isn’t a burner, but he is a big, physical receiver who can make catches through contact and dominate opponents in jump ball settings. Fryfogle had a strong game against Iowa in 2018 (four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown), and the similarities between Fryfogle and Purdue wideout David Bell (26 catches, 318 yard, and four touchdowns in two games against the Hawkeyes) are enough to elicit concern. If the secondary can contain Fryfogle, it should be able to slow down Indiana’s offense. If not, the Hawkeyes could have a track meet on their hands, putting further pressure on Petras and the Iowa offense to perform at a high level if the Hawkeyes hope to start the year 1-0.