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Iowa Football vs South Dakota State Game Preview

South Dakota State is a dangerous opponent, but Iowa should have an advantage in the trenches. Can the Hawks capitalize?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

One year after winning the Big Ten West, one can understand why so many Iowa fans are brimming with optimism about the 2022 football season. Yet Hawkeye fans can also be forgiven for being nervous about the team’s season opener. South Dakota State has more than a “Dakota” in common with the last FCS team to spoil Iowa’s early season optimism. Much like the Bison of 2016, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits are unquestionably one of the top programs at the FCS level. The Jackrabbits are the 2nd ranked team in the FCS, narrowly lost the national championship game in 2020, made it to the national semifinals in 2021, and have made the FCS playoffs each of the past ten seasons. While the Hawkeyes will clearly boast the more talented roster, South Dakota State has the combination of winning pedigree, excellent coaching, and experience beating (Colorado State in 2021, Kansas in 2015) and nearly beating (Minnesota in 2019) FBS teams to pull an upset. If Iowa repeats the uninspired performance it gave against North Dakota State, the Jackrabbits will jump at the opportunity to ruin Iowa’s season before it really even begins.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:

1. Can Iowa’s running game turn in a dominant performance?

Iowa’s season may not have started yet, but the Hawkeye receiving corps already looks like a unit battered by a season’s worth of Big Ten play. Nico Ragaini, Diante Vines, and Jackson Ritter are all out due to injuries, Brody Brecht has dealt with health issues during fall camp, and even starter Keagan Johnson has “been touch and go” in terms of his availability according to Kirk Ferentz, who said Johnson had “a chance” to see the field on Saturday. This swath of injuries leaves sophomore Arland Bruce IV and true freshman Jacob Bostick as Iowa’s only health scholarship receivers, which could press walk-ons like Alec Wick, Jack Johnson, and Kaden Wetjen into action. While the Hawkeyes can rely on proven pass catchers in tight ends Sam LaPorta and Luke Lachey, there are reasons to be concerned about Iowa’s ability to attack opponents downfield through the air on Saturday, particularly if Keagan Johnson misses the game or sees his snaps limited.

Given the concerns surrounding Iowa’s receiving corps, don’t be surprised to see the Hawkeyes lean on their bread and butter: the running game. Iowa’s ground attack struggled at times last season despite having an All-Big Ten tailback in Tyler Goodson, ranking 11th in the conference in both yards per carry (3.41) and yards per game (123.64). The Hawkeyes regularly suffered from poor run blocking which, combined with Goodson’s tendency to seek out big plays instead of settling for small gains, led to Iowa being stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on 21.6% of their running plays in 2021, one of the worst rates of any Power Five school.

However, there is reason to believe Iowa’s rushing attack could be dramatically improved this year. The young Hawkeye line performed well against a stout Kentucky defense in the Citrus Bowl, paving the way for Iowa’s ballcarriers to rack up 173 rushing yards on 5.8 yards per carry. Reports from the Hawkeyes’ fall camp have been bullish about the growth of this position group, and Iowa’s line should have a clear physical advantage against a relatively undersized Jackrabbits.

If Iowa’s front five manage to do their job, it will be up to a group of young running backs to capitalize. Sophomores Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams both looked like viable ballcarriers in the Citrus Bowl, and true freshmen Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson could compete for carries on Saturday as well. Strong games from any of these four could help Iowa control the clock, wear down the opposing defense, and create opportunities to attack through the air in play action. One potential matchup to watch is between Iowa’s running backs and South Dakota State linebacker Adam Bock. The team’s leading tackler and a Solon, IA native, Bock could be particularly motivated to have a strong game against the school that snubbed him as a recruit, which is exactly the sort of storybook nonsense Iowa needs to avoid to survive a game like this.

2. Can Iowa’s pass defense slow down the Jackrabbit aerial attack?

North Dakota State isn’t the only FCS team in the region who produces elite quarterbacks. Mark Gronowski, who took the Jackrabbits to the national championship as a freshman, is healthy again after missing last season to injury and has plenty of talented targets to throw to, including 6’5 All-American tight end Tucker Kraft, 6’7 tight end Zach Heins, and 6’3 twin wide receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke. This passing attack should be an excellent early test for an Iowa secondary that is replacing three starters from last season and will be without cornerback Jermari Harris due to suspension.

How the Hawkeyes match up against the height of the Jackrabbit receivers could be the biggest factor determining whether South Dakota State scores enough points to stay in the game. Iowa has three experienced linebackers who should be able to credibly guard the enemy tight ends, and 6’4 Jestin Jacobs could be particularly valuable to the Hawkeyes in coverage. Meanwhile, senior cornerback Terry Roberts has played well in spot duty throughout his career but will be at a clear size disadvantage at 5’10 and could be targeted when matched up against the Janke brothers. Finally, with Iowa breaking in two safeties with limited game action in Quinn Schulte and Cooper DeJean, it is worth monitoring whether Iowa suffers any communication breakdowns in the back end of the defense and whether South Dakota State can scheme up a way to challenge them. If Iowa’s secondary plays up to its talent level, the Hawkeyes should manage to contain the opposing passing attack. If not, the Jackrabbits could hang a round long enough to make things uncomfortable.

3. Can Iowa’s defensive line prove it is ready for primetime?

Hawkeye fans have big expectations for the team’s defensive line in 2022. The unit grew considerably over the course of the season and, thanks to several returning players and a major addition in freshman Aaron Graves, seems poised to make a big impact this year.

South Dakota State will be an excellent test case for how far Iowa’s front four has progressed. The Hawkeye defensive linemen will be asked to contend with an FBS-caliber left side of the line featuring All-Americans Mason McCormick and Garret Greenfield, clog up running lanes for a back in Isaiah Davis who is averaging a ridiculous 8 yards per carry over his career, and prevent the dual-threat Gronowski from punishing Iowa’s defense with his legs when the linebackers are back in coverage. If Iowa’s line manages to succeed in all these areas, the Hawkeyes should be able to disrupt the Jackrabbit offense in a way similar to the team’s 2017 performance against Josh Allen-led Wyoming, paving the way for a comfortable win. However, if the line does not jump out on film as having a noticeable advantage over South Dakota State’s front five and fails to slow down the running game of Davis and Gronowski, it could signal that the Iowa defense is in worse shape than fans hoped for, in both this game and for the season at large.