There is no sugarcoating how disappointing last week’s loss was to Iowa football fans. Not only did Iowa lose its first Cy-Hawk game since 2014, but the Hawkeyes wasted yet another stellar performance from their defense and special teams. Iowa’s offense looked just as inept as it did in the season opener, squashing any delusions that the Hawkeyes’ struggles against South Dakota State were caused by rust rather than incompetence. I don’t know how many times a college football team has lost a game in which it blocked two punts and forced three turnovers, but one has to imagine that Iowa finds itself in rare and undistinguished company after letting a winnable game slip through their fingers.
As bleak as things seem for the Hawkeyes in this moment, this week’s opponent could potentially serve as an opportunity to right the ship. The 2022 Nevada Wolfpack may be 2-1, but they are not the same team that was regularly near the top of the Mountain West under Iowa alum Jay Norvell, having suffered a significant talent exodus coinciding with their coach leaving Reno for Fort Collins, CO. If ever there was a time for Iowa’s offense to find its footing, playing a defense that surrendered 55 points to FCS program Incarnate Word last weekend seems to fit the bill.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa muster up even an average offensive performance?
“Average” might seem like too low a bar for a Power Five team playing a school that was just boat raced by an FCS squad most fans have never heard of, but it is actually quite an ambitious goal given the level of futility the Hawkeyes have displayed on that side of the ball this season. Kirk Ferentz’s squad is the worst offense in the country by basically any metric. Iowa is dead last in scoring offense, a statistic made even more incredible when one remembers that the defense scored four of the team’s 14 points. No team in college football is averaging fewer yards per play (2.8) or per game (158) than the Hawkeyes. The team’s only offensive touchdown on the season came on a drive that started on their opponent’s 16-yardline. Starting quarterback Spencer Petras is a game manager who has seemingly lost his ability to manage the game. Petras has the second-worst QBR in the nation behind only D’Wan Mathis, who Iowa fans may remember from his absurdly atrocious outing in relief of Sean Clifford during last year’s Iowa-Penn State game. Meanwhile, Iowa’s offensive line is not only bad at blocking, but apparently has a tell so obvious that opponents can clearly read exactly what play the Hawkeyes are going to run (because Iowa’s offense was been soooooo difficult to predict before this year). On the rare occasions when Iowa’s offensive line manages to hold a block, the team still struggles to complete passes, avoid goal line fumbles, or keeps its players upright when given an opportunity to waltz untouched into the end zone. Iowa’s offense is so bad that I had to cut 2/3 of the anecdotes I wrote detailing the depths of their failure to keep this article at a reasonable wordcount!
While one might expect the architects of such an abysmal offense to pivot to something (anything!) new, Iowa’s coaching staff is seemingly doubling down on the status quo. Spencer Petras is unfathomably listed atop this week’s depth chart, and Kirk Ferentz has made it very clear that he expects the offense to perform better once weapons like Gavin Williams, Nico Ragaini, and Keagan Johnson are healthy. Whether we see any of these players at full strength this week remains to be seen, but Petras will clearly have at least one more opportunity to prove himself worthy of retaining the starting job.
Regardless of which skill players take the field Saturday night, Petras failing to move the ball against Nevada’s defense might be too clear a sign that a quarterback change is needed for even the Ferentzs to ignore. The Wolfpack have surrendered 404.3 yards per game against an exceptionally weak schedule and are allowing the 11th-most passing yards per game at 305.7. No team has allowed more passing plays of 40+ yards this season than Nevada has (7). While Nevada does boast one stout defensive lineman in 6th-year senior Dom Peterson, the Wolfpack gave up 210 rushing yards to Incarnate Word and should be at a clear disadvantage when matched up against Iowa in the trenches. In theory, this game should give Iowa’s offense an opportunity to flex its muscles and show fans what the unit looks like when operating at peak efficiency. Based on Iowa’s first two games, however, Hawkeye fans will likely be thrilled if the offense even manages to look average.
2. Can Iowa win the turnover battle?
Kirk Ferentz has long placed a premium on ball security, but the Hawkeyes have struggled to maintain possession of the ball this season, losing three fumbles and two interceptions over the first two games. While the Hawkeye defense managed to force three takeaways against Iowa State, they are still lagging far behind Nevada when it comes to creating turnovers. The Wolfpack lead the sport with 11 forced turnovers, including a nationwide high 7 interceptions. Senior safety Bentlee Sanders has twice as many interceptions this season (4) as any other player in college football. Equally as important, Nevada has done a solid job maintaining possession of the ball and boasts the fourth-best turnover margin in the country (3.5).
Given Iowa’s struggles sustaining drives, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to squander opportunities to score points by committing the ill-timed turnovers that have plagued them in recent weeks. Similarly, allowing Nevada to force turnovers in Iowa territory could give the Wolfpack offense its best opportunity to score against a stingy defense that has allowed only one touchdown this season. On the other hand, if Iowa manages to create short fields for its offense, it could help make things easier for a unit that could use all the help it can get.
3. Can the Hawkeye defensive line take over the game?
As disappointing as Iowa’s offensive line has been this season, Nevada’s has arguably looked even worse. The Wolfpack’s inexperienced front five are surrendering a whopping 8.67 tackles for loss per game and are allowing an average of three sacks per contest. Iowa’s defensive line will have an opportunity to rebound from a somewhat uneven game against Iowa State which saw them create consistent pressure against quarterback Hunter Dekkers, but occasionally lose ground when matched against the Cyclone’s run blockers. If Iowa’s defensive line performs up to its standard, it should be able to corral the opposing offense and send Nevada’s gigantic quarterback tumbling to the ground like a falling redwood. However, if the unit fails to capitalize on its advantage over the Nevada offensive line, the Wolfpack have a solid one-two punch at running back in Devonte Lee and Toa Taua who are talented enough to keep things interesting, particularly if the Hawkeye offense delivers more of the same this week.