Five weeks into the 2023 football season, Iowa has already undergone a year’s worth of turmoil. From injuries to their starting quarterback, running back, and leading receiver, a 31-0 primetime shutout loss at Penn State, and a gutsy 4th-quarter victory over Michigan State, the Hawkeyes have seemingly had to scratch and claw for every step forward in a season that was supposed to be a bounce back campaign of sorts. With a 1-1 record in conference play, Iowa needs a win this week to get back on the right track to contending in the Big Ten West.
Iowa’s opponent this week is also at a crossroads. Purdue is the defending Big Ten West champion, but holds a 2-3 record with a .500 mark in conference play. The Boilermakers have often been a thorn in Iowa’s side in recent years, most notably their 24-7 victory over the second-ranked Hawkeyes in 2021. However, Purdue’s recent run of success against Iowa came under former coach Jeff Brohm, an offensive mastermind who excelled at targeting the weak points in Iowa’s defense in a way few opposing tacticians have in recent years. Whether Purdue’s new coach (defensive wunderkind Ryan Walters, who shut down Iowa’s offense while serving as Illinois’ defensive coordinator) can replicate that same magic remains to be seen.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s matchup:
1. Which team can best adapt to their new circumstances?
Last week brought major changes for both teams playing in this week’s game. While the Hawkeyes lost starting quarterback Cade McNamara for the season to an ACL injury, Purdue opted to have its head coach take over defensive play calling duties in an attempt to fix the Boilermakers’ sieve of a defense. Both teams managed to emerge as victors, and this week’s game will pit Iowa’s backup quarterback-led offense against a Purdue defense benefiting from Walters’ more hands-on approach.
There is too little data on Iowa’s offense under quarterback Deacon Hill and Purdue’s defense with Walters calling plays to say whether the results from last week (an inconsistent offensive performance from Iowa and arguably Purdue’s best defensive showing of the season) are sustainable. Looking at season-long statistics, this game should involve a matchup between the Big Ten’s worst offense and one of the conference’s weakest defenses. Iowa is dead last in the Big Ten in total offense (240.8 yards per game), first downs (thirteen per game), and long scrimmage plays 10 yards or greater (41 on the season), while Purdue has the conference’s second worst scoring defense (29.6 points per game) and total defense (398.2 yards allowed per game).
While Iowa’s offense has struggled this year in the same ways it has over the past several seasons, there is still reason to expect Deacon Hill to look more comfortable under center after a full week of preparation than he did when unexpectedly forced into the starting role mid-game. Meanwhile, if Iowa’s receivers can cut down on the epidemic of drops that impacted them against Michigan State (the Hawkeyes had six drops against the Spartans), they could perhaps take advantage of a Boilermaker secondary that has been vulnerable this season. Yet Walters’ reputation as a defensive wizard is well-earned after his Illini defense allowed an NCAA-low 12.8 yards per game in 2022. Purdue has one of the best pass rushes in the Big Ten, averaging 3.2 sacks per game thanks to strong play from linebackers Nick Scrouton and Kydran Jenkins. If Walters and the Boilermakers can dial up the blitz and make Deacon Hill uncomfortable in the pocket, Iowa’s offense could face some of the same struggles it encountered last week.
2. Can the Hawkeye run game get back on track?
With a backup quarterback pressed into starting duty, Iowa will need to jumpstart its dormant running game to help move the ball consistently against the Boilermakers. Poor offensive line play and injuries to running backs Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson have slowed the Hawkeye ground attack for much of this season. Iowa is averaging only 107 rushing yards per game (the fewest in the conference aside from the lowly Northwestern Wildcats) and are allowing 5.6 negative rushing yards per game.
However, there is reason to believe Iowa could have better luck on the ground against Purdue. The Boilermakers have surrendered 11 rushing touchdowns this season and gave up 195 rushing yards to Syracuse’s Garret Shrader in Week Three. Iowa may also be bolstered by the possible return of Kaleb Johnson who was injured early in Iowa’s Week Two win over Iowa State. As a true freshman, Johnson torched Purdue for 200 yards and one touchdown on the ground. A similar performance would go a long way towards taking pressure of Deacon Hill to win the game solely with his arm and helping Iowa secure a victory.
3. Can the Hawkeye secondary continue its strong play against a potent Purdue passing attack?
Iowa’s pass rush has been a huge letdown this season, producing a conference-low three sacks through five games. Yet Iowa’s pass defense has held up in spite of this thanks to exceptionally strong play from the secondary, allowing one of the lowest opposing quarterback ratings in the Big Ten (104.54). Cooper DeJean has emerged as one of the nation’s most dynamic players, and the Hawkeyes boast an excellent trio of safeties in Xavier Nwankpa, Sebastian Castro, and Quinn Schulte as well as two capable supporting cornerbacks in Jermari Harris and Deshaun Lee. Despite suffering a few breakdowns communication in the secondary early in the season, Iowa’s back five have tightened up and are allowing fewer passing plays of 20+ yards than any team in the conference (five).
The Hawkeye secondary may face their toughest test of the season in a Purdue passing game that has not lost its potency despite the dearture of Jeff Brohm to Louisville during the offseason. Texas transfer Hudson Card picked apart his head coach’s former defense while completing nearly 70% of his passes last week, and Purdue boasts one of the best wide receiver duos in the conference in Deion Burks and Abdur-Rahmaan Yaseen. Between these two players, veteran TJ Sheffield, and excellent tight end Max Klare, Purdue has so much depth among their pass catchers that former Iowa receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. was shifted over to running back this season. Tracy and fellow running back Devin Mockobee are both capable backs, but the Boilermaker offense is fundamentally driven by the passing game. If Iowa’s corners can hold up against Purdue’s excellent stable of pass catchers, the Hawkeyes should be able to keep the Boilermaker offense in check.