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Iowa Football Preview: The Cy-Hawk Game

Iowa’s offense can’t be any worse than last week, right? RIGHT?!

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NCAA Football: Iowa at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

This season’s Cy-Hawk game can be evaluated through two different lenses which will produce radically different predictions about the outcome. One lens examines the game by evaluating how the Hawkeyes have matched up against the Cyclones in their past several meetings. This lens would likely lead to tremendous optimism about Iowa’s chances against the Cyclones; the Hawkeyes are 5-0 against their in-state rival since Matt Campbell took over the program and have outscored the Cyclones 144-81 during that time. Iowa has twice beaten Iowa State on the road in games billed as “the biggest game in Cy-Hawk history,” and has not surrendered more than 20 points at home to the Cyclones in over a decade.

Another lens might look at the Cy-Hawk game not by examining recent outcomes in the series, but by comparing the performances of both teams’ 2022 squads against one another. Iowa looks like a clear underdog against its rival from Ames when viewed from this perspective. The Hawkeye offense was almost impossibly bad in its season opener against South Dakota State, scoring only three points (not counting safeties) and compiling only 166 yards against an FCS opponent. The Hawkeye defense may truly be as good as it appeared against the Jackrabbits, but can Iowa really expect a similarly dominant performance (Iowa held SDSU to 3 points and 120 yards of total offense) against a seemingly competent FBS team like the Cyclones? Is Iowa even capable of winning a game when its defense doesn’t play at an elite level? Unless Iowa can prove that its offensive performance in the opener was an exception rather than the norm, the Hawkeyes could easily be forced to watch the Cy-Hawk Trophy return to Ames for the first time since 2014.

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

1. Can Iowa get any consistent production from its passing game?

It’s difficult to put into words just how bad Iowa’s passing attack was against South Dakota State. Sometimes you just have to let the images do the talking for you.

Iowa’s revamped passing attack, supposedly built around quick reads and a simplified scheme, was an abject disaster in its first outing. Starting quarterback Spencer Petras had THE WORST QBR in the FBS after Week 1, posting a number so bad one could be forgiven for assuming it was a typo (1.1). Petras showed none of the attributes that helped endear him to the coaching staff and lead Iowa to 12 consecutive victories during the 2020-21 seasons and instead put his absolute worst faults on display. He was abysmal when pressured (completing only 1-7 passes under such circumstances), regularly overthrew open receivers, rushed his footwork, and zeroed in on his first read and failed to spot uncovered teammates downfield, leaving Iowa’s receivers feeling like this poor schmuck.

Unfortunately, the cavalry is not coming in terms of relief at wide receiver. Keagan Johnson remains unlikely to play with his hamstring injury, Nico Ragaini is not expected back until mid/late September, and it is unclear whether freshmen Jacob Bostick and Brody Brecht are healthy or prepared enough to play big minutes on Saturday. If Iowa hopes to improve its production through the air, it needs much better execution from Petras and more creative play designs to get the ball to the few proven skill players Iowa has healthy at this juncture: Arland Bruce IV, Sam LaPorta, and Gavin Williams. Iowa’s best chance for jumpstarting its passing game may lie in the play action, where Petras completed a respectable 3-4 passes for 44 yards against the Jackrabbits. However, effective play action relies on a credible run threat, and Iowa will need better production from the ground game than it got last week to make the Cyclones respect the play fake (more on that later).

Iowa State did show some vulnerability to the pass in its opener, surrendering 228 yards and a touchdown through the air. Yet Iowa State’s pass defense almost doesn’t matter if Iowa’s quarterback is unable to execute the most basic tenants of the position. Kirk Ferentz seems committed to rolling with Petras against Iowa State, and it’s unclear what it would take for him to pull the plug and insert Alex Padilla. Iowa’s past few seasons have proven that it can when it Petras has even a decent day throwing the ball, but it is tough to imagine the Hawks pulling out a victory if they replicate last Saturday’s performance again. If Petras isn’t dramatically better or relegated to the bench before things get out of hand, Iowa could make the Cyclone defense look like…well…Iowa’s defense.

2. Can Iowa’s offensive line rebound after a difficult opener?

The hype surrounding Iowa’s supposedly improved offensive line was inescapable during the offseason, but the early reviews cast plenty of doubt on whether this supposed progress will translate to the field. The Hawkeye line struggled in nearly every facet of the game against South Dakota State. Iowa’s tackles were overwhelmed in the run game and frequently failed to produce running lanes, resulting in a pitiful 1.6 yards per rush against an FCS opponent. Meanwhile, the interior allowed constant pressure on passing downs, putting Petras in the very types of scramble drills in which he consistently struggles. Iowa’s opener produced shockingly poor games from Mason Richman, Connor Colby, and Logan Jones, the three players expected by most fans to be the cornerstone of the Hawkeye line this year. The only lineman who didn’t appear noticeably overwhelmed was Gennings Dunker, though this may have had more to do with his small snapcount than his actual play.

The Hawkeye line must elevate their game this week and will face a much more challenging opponent in their quest to do so. Defensive lineman Will McDonald is an extremely dangerous pass rusher whose 29 career sacks leave him just four short of Von Miller’s Big 12 record. Whether it is Mason Richman, Jack Plumb, or someone else, Iowa must find a way to neutralize McDonald if it hopes to improve its offensive production. Meanwhile, linebacker O’Rien Vance is an experienced player with a history of making big plays defending both the run and the pass and will provide a real test for an offensive line that was regularly beaten by SDSU linebacker Adam Bock last week.

Iowa’s solution to its Week 1 line play may lie in changes to the depth chart. Connor Colby started at right tackle last week but has been moved to right guard against ISU, a position into which he really grew during his true freshman campaign in 2021. Meanwhile, Jack Plumb and Tyler Elsbury, both largely absent from last week’s game, have returned to the depth chart as the starting right tackles and left guards, respectively. Whether these changes help jumpstart Iowa’s running game and result in better pass protection remain to be seen, but one thing is certain: Iowa cannot beat Iowa State if its offensive line plays as poorly as it did last week.

3. Can Iowa’s defense avoid surrendering big plays?

Under Matt Campbell, the Cyclones have consistently struggled to sustain drives against Iowa. Since 2016, Iowa State has scored only nine touchdowns against the Hawkeyes. Four of those touchdowns came on scoring plays of 30+ yards, with three of them coming from 50+ yards out. All but three of those scoring drives contained plays of 25+ yards, and every one of them featured at least one play from scrimmage that gained 19+ yards. In other words, to score touchdowns against Iowa, the Cyclones need to generate explosive plays.

Can Iowa’s defense succeed in denying big play opportunities to the Cyclones? The Hawkeye defense was suffocating against the Jackrabbits and has historically had little trouble shutting down Matt Campbell’s offense (with the notable exception of 2017). The Hawkeyes will be without starting linebacker Jestin Jacobs and cornerback Jermari Harris and will have to find an answer to big-play wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson, who scored three touchdowns last week and had his third career grab of 30+ yards. If Iowa’s offense continues to struggle, its defense may feel pressured to win the game on their own, gambling to force turnovers while leaving themselves open to a big play.

Yet Iowa made only one noticeable defensive error last week; a single instance of blown coverage the opposing quarterback failed to capitalize on. Will Hunter Dekkers be able to take advantage of the few opportunities Iowa’s defense provides him to make big plays downfield? The sophomore looked sharp in his four TD performance against SE Missouri State but will be making only his second start on Saturday and has never played in a hostile environment anywhere close to Kinnick Stadium. It may be too tall a task to ask Dekkers to beat the Hawkeyes with his arm, particularly if Iowa manages to coax any production at all out of its lethargic offense.