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Iowa Football: Previewing the Hawkeyes vs. Rutgers

Cooper DeJean posted a pick-six against Rutgers last season. Forcing more turnovers could give Iowa the edge in this year’s game, as well.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Rutgers used to be bad at football?

Since arriving in the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers has been the conference’s doormat in every season other than their first one. The Scarlet Knights won only 25 games between 2015-2022, with their only bowl appearance coming in 2021 despite them failing to post a winning record. In Rutgers’ three games against Iowa during this stretch, they have yet to secure a win and have been outscored 71-17. If you were a Big Ten team that needed an easy win at any point in their schedule, Rutgers was always a safe bet to provide you with just that.

The 2023 Rutgers team is not the same squad that has been the conference’s cannon fodder over the past decade. Head coach Greg Schiano has rebuilt Rutgers into a quality football team in his second stint in Piscataway and has the Scarlet Knights sitting at 6-3 and bowl eligible for the first time since 2014. While the prospect of Rutgers coming into Kinnick Stadium and escaping with a win may seem preposterous, this team is more than capable of beating the Hawkeyes, particularly if Iowa’s offense continues its long streak of dismal play. A Hawkeye win this weekend would go a long way towards helping Iowa secure its lead in the Big Ten West and would be an encouraging sign of the team’s ability to beat a quality opponent in what promises to be a hard-fought, physical game.

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

1. Can Iowa contain the formidable Rutgers run game?

Rutgers has one of the few passing offenses in the country that can rival Iowa’s in futility. Quarterback Gavin Wimsatt is completing only 49% of his passes on the season, and his 1263 passing yards are the fewest of any Big Ten quarterback that has started all his team’s games. However, Rutgers has compensated for this weakness with one of the conference’s best rushing attacks. The Scarlet Knights rank second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry (4.59) and per game (184.67) and have the third-most rushing touchdowns in the conference with 19. The engine of the Rutgers rushing game is junior tailback Kyle Monangai, a powerful but deceptively fast runner who leads the conference with 903 rushing yards. Monangai is an extremely patient back, but once he hits the open field, defenders are not likely to catch him before he reaches the end zone.

However, Monangai is not the only weapon in the Scarlet Knights’ rushing arsenal. Wimsatt may not be an efficient passer, but he is an extremely dangerous runner on both designed rushing plays and when escaping the pocket. Wimsatt has 411 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this year, and his ability to beat defenses with his legs will prevent Iowa from keying in exclusively on the running back.

Three dynamics could determine whether Iowa can stop the Scarlet Knights rushing attack. The first is whether Iowa’s defense can limit big plays on the ground. While Rutgers has more rushing plays of 10+ yards this season than all but one Big Ten team, Iowa has allowed only a single rushing play of 20+ yards the entire year. If Iowa’s linebackers and safeties can prevent the Rutgers ballcarriers from reaching the third level of the defense, they can force the Scarlet Knights to grind for four quarters against a physical Hawkeye defense in order to move the ball. The second consideration is whether Iowa’s defensive line can win at the point of attack. Rutgers’ offensive line have been the unsung heroes of their team this year and have paved the way for several big runs against excellent defenses. If the Hawkeye front four can get a consistent push up front, it could make Monangai and Wimsatt have to work harder than they are used to in order to gain positive yards. Finally, Iowa’s decision about whether to play more 4-3 or 4-2-5 will have a major impact on the game. Sebastian Castro has been solid enough against the run for Iowa to spend most of the season in their 4-2-5 set, but Iowa may consider giving Kyler Fisher more snaps and shifting Castro back to strong safety if they are concerned with stopping the Rutgers run game. If Iowa does decide to stick with the 4-2-5, they may need to consider playing Castro in the box and leaving Quinn Schulte and Xavier Nwankpa as the sole centerfielder in the Hawkeye defense.

2. Can Iowa’s defense create turnovers?

Few teams can consistently win games when they lose the turnover battle, but Rutgers’ success is particularly tied to their ability to maintain possession of the football. While Rutgers has impressively surrendered only eight turnovers this season, they are also approaching Ricky Stanzi territory when it comes to throwing pick sixes. Three of Gavin Wimsatt’s five interceptions have been returned for touchdowns this season, including this pinball pick-six last week that gave Ohio State a lead they never surrendered.

However, Rutgers has been a very tough out whenever they manage to hang onto the ball. The Scarlet Knights are 12-1 since 2020 in games in which they commit no turnovers, which emphasizes the importance of the Hawkeyes creating takeaways in this matchup. Despite having one of the best defenses in the country, Iowa has generated surprisingly few turnovers this year, coming down with only eight interceptions and recovering only three fumbles through nine games. However, Iowa has proven ballhawks in the secondary in corners Cooper DeJean and Jermari Harris, and players like Sebastian Castro, Jay Higgins, and Nick Jackson can all deliver serious hits capable of jarring the ball loose. If the Hawkeyes can recapture some of their turnover magic from last year’s win over Rutgers (one fumble recovery and two interceptions, including a Cooper DeJean pick-six), they should have a good chance to win this game.

3. Can Iowa get ANY real production from its passing game?

Iowa’s passing game has been a disaster in nearly every game this season, but quarterback Deacon Hill deserves credit for making a big play in a critical moment in last week’s victory over Northwestern. With the game tied at 7-7 late in the 4th quarter, Hill connected with fellow transfer Kaleb Brown for a 23-yard completion that set the stage for a game winning field goal from Drew Stevens. Hill accounted for only 65 passing yards and threw an ill-advised interception on a deep shot to Nico Ragaini in the endzone, but he also completed 66.7% of his passes against the Wildcats in what was easily his most efficient outing since taking over as a starter.

However, Hill has a tough task ahead of him to produce in the passing game against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have one of the best cornerback duos in the conference in Robert Longerbeam and Max Melton, and safety Desmond Igbinosun provides a physical presence on the back end of the defense. Rutgers is allowing only 159.9 passing yards per game this year and trails only Iowa and Ohio State with the fewest yards surrendered per pass (5.4). Between Hill’s inconsistent passing and Iowa’s struggles to get receivers open in a timely manner, it could be tough sledding in the passing game.

The smart money says that Rutgers will stack the box to prevent Iowa from running the ball; the ground game is basically the only way Iowa can sustain drives, and virtually every team has done this against Iowa since former starting QB Cade McNamara went down with an injury. If Rutgers commits that heavily to stopping the run, Iowa will need to make some plays through the air if they hope to score. If Deacon Hill cannot find a way to make more throws like his pivotal completion to Kaleb Brown last week, it could be tough sledding for the Iowa offense.