Three games into the 2022 season, Iowa’s standing in the Big Ten West hierarchy is even more muddled than before the year began. While the Hawkeyes appear to have assembled yet another championship-caliber defense, the offense remains very much work in progress even after showing its first signs of life in last week’s 27-0 victory over Nevada. Still, a team’s fortunes are determined as much by the quality of their competition as their own skill level. Wisconsin was the preseason betting favorite to win the division but looked underwhelming in its week 2 loss to Washington State and is not on the level of many of the Badger teams that have gotten the best of the Hawkeyes in recent years. Minnesota is the division’s only 3-0 team but has yet to play an opponent capable of putting up a fight. Purdue, a sleeper to win the division, is 1-2, as is Northwestern, who won its first conference game in week 0 before proceeding to lose to Duke and Southern Illinois. Nebraska is in full meltdown mode and Illinois is…well…Illinois. Iowa’s offensive growth may be significantly behind schedule, but all the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten ambitions remain very much in play.
Iowa needs to start its conference play on a strong note with this week’s road trip to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are far from world beaters but are 3-0 this year and are no longer the doormat they used to be thanks to the return of coach Greg Schiano. With difficult conference games against Michigan and Ohio State on the horizon, Iowa cannot afford to leave New Jersey with a loss if it hopes to contend for the Big Ten West crown this season.
Here are three key factors to watch for in Saturday’s game:
1. Can Iowa establish the run?
There is reason for slight optimism surrounding the Iowa running game. Freshman running back Kaleb Johnson put together the Hawkeyes’ best individual offensive performance last week, rushing for 103 yard and two touchdowns against the Wolfpack. Meanwhile, Iowa will have its full stable of backs healthy and available for the first time all season this week, with Gavin Williams finally at full speed and Leshon Williams back in the fold after missing the Nevada game. Yet there is also reason for caution. Watching Johnson’s long touchdown runs (0:38 and 4:40 in the clip below), it’s noticeable just how much better the blocking is on these plays than basically any others Iowa has run this season. Iowa’s offensive line struggles are very apparent when studying the team’s running plays, and the Hawkeyes averaged only 2.03 yards per carry against Nevada outside Johnson’s two big plays.
Iowa’s ground game will face its toughest test of the season so far this week, as Rutgers statistically has the 2nd best rushing defense in the country. The Scarlet Knights have allowed only 97 rushing yards through three games and are surrendering a mere 1.09 yards per carry. Unlike some teams whose rush defense statistics are inflated by sacks, Rutgers has been a middle-of-the-pack pass rushing team so far, bringing the quarterback down only six times. Rutgers’ ranking as an elite run defense has been earned the hard way: by grinding opposing running games to a halt. Linebacker Deion Jennings has led the way as a run stopper and has really grown into his own as a senior, and defensive linemen Aaron Lewis and Ifeanyi Maijeh have been disruptive as well. Rutgers will likely look to overload Iowa’s offensive line with creative blitz packages and a healthy dose of safety Avery Young crashing the box. Whether Iowa’s running backs can make plays against a disciplined run defense, or whether Iowa’s line can create running lanes for them in the first place, remains to be seen.
If Iowa can run the ball effectively, it will make life significantly easier for quarterback Spencer Petras as he works to develop chemistry with Iowa’s healthy(ish) receiving corps. Defensive end Wesley Bailey has emerged as an effective pass rusher who will pose a challenge for Iowa’s tackles, and the Rutgers secondary led by Robert Longerbeam has proven adept at picking off passes, snagging five interceptions through three games. If Iowa’s running game stalls out, the Hawkeyes could become reliant on Petras to win the game with his arm, a prospect that has generated less than desirable results so far this year.
2. Can Iowa’s front seven dominate the game?
Fortunately for Iowa fans, their team won’t be the only squad taking the field in Piscataway with lingering questions along the offensive line. The Scarlet Knights’ front five looked overwhelmed against Temple, surrendering eight tackles for loss and allowing consistent pressure on the quarterback. The offensive line was a major question for Rutgers entering the season, and Schiano’s patchwork unit built in part through the transfer portal could struggle to contain a Hawkeye defensive line that has wreaked havoc on opponents through three games.
Iowa’s linebackers will similarly play a big role in containing the Scarlet Knight attack. Rutgers is averaging the third most rushing yards in the conference with 227.33 per game thanks to a solid group of running backs and the creative deployment of jack-of-all-trades player Johnny Langan. No matter who starts at quarterback on Saturday (Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral, freshman Gavin Wimsatt, and Evan Simon are all in the mix due to several injuries at the position), the Scarlet Knights will have signal caller who can run the football. Still, Iowa’s linebacking corps, which should be boosted by the return of Jestin Jacobs, should have plenty of opportunities to disrupt Rutgers’ offense, particularly if the front four does their job.
3. Which team can win the game at the margins?
Special teams, field position, and penalties play important roles in every football game, but could be especially critical to this matchup given the similar styles of play of both teams. Iowa’s last matchup against Rutgers produced what we at BHGP christened as “The Greatest Punting Battle in History.” Rutgers’ star punter Adam Korsak is still with the team and still excelling at pinning opponents deep, having not allowed a touchback in “roughly 136 attempts,” while Iowa’s Tory Taylor his had an impressive 13 of his 23 punts downed inside the 20 this year. Both teams’ punters and gunners should be able to create long fields for the opposing offense, meaning the team that can control field position by forcing turnovers and sustaining drives that escape the shadow of their own endzone will have the advantage. Both teams have thrived on creating turnovers in recent years, and while Iowa has struggled to put together long scoring drives, Rutgers has not proven they can go the length of the field against a defense of Iowa’s caliber.
The intangible that most favors Iowa in this game is arguably the disparity in penalties committed by each team. Iowa has been one of the cleanest teams in football, sacrificing only 21.7 yards to penalties per game, the second fewest in the nation. Rutgers, meanwhile, is giving up over 3x as much yardage per game at 73.3, the 107th best in the sport. In a game where field position could be a deciding factor, Iowa’s clear advantage in the penalty department could ultimately give it the edge.