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Matchup to Watch: Utah State’s Hale Motu’apuaka vs Logan Jones

It’s very important Iowa show progress quickly at center

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 18 Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl - Oregon State v Utah State Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to matchup to watch. Before we dive into the details on Saturday’s game, we have some business to attend to with Nebraska v Minnesota, Ponk-wise.

Nebraska Cornhuskers +7 | +225 at Minnesota Golden Gophers -278 | O/U 42.5

First games are a little tough to get a sense of, and while I simply trust Minnesota more than Nebraska, I can’t help but think tonight’s game is going to get weird. History doesn’t provide much too telling from Minnesota’s perspective (3-2 overall, 2-2-1 ATS, 3-2 O/U) in FBS games but I think it does provide some insight into how Matt Rhule will approach the season. In his first season at college football outfits, his teams went (against FBS teams):

2013 Temple: 2-9 overall, 8-3 ATS, 4-7 O/U

2017 Baylor: 1-10 overall, 5-6 ATS, 4-7 O/U

It’s incredibly against the type Nebraska has been the last … however many years, but I do think Nebraska is a team that’s gonna punch above their weight ATS vs overall, and Rhule’s style is likely to keep a lot of these games under. UNDER 42.5 and Nebraska +7

Over the last couple seasons, I’ve come to the realization that while having a good-to-great tackle (left or right) is important along Iowa’s line, the most important position is almost certainly the center position. Iowa has been blessed with an assembly line of high performers at the position dating back to at least Austin Blythe’s tenure. James Daniels and Tyler Linderbaum were similar in recruiting accolades to Blythe and all three have had really nice careers in the NFL. Keegan Render, the odd man in that bunch, was center of perhaps the best line of the last 12+ years (2018).

It’s a long way to say that what Iowa got from the position last year is not what they need both individually and if they wish to build a passable (and runnable) unit. Iowa can probably stomach a lower echelon center when there are positives everywhere else a la 2018 but if the center is bad and nobody else is dependable? Last year’s going to happen.

Re-enter Logan Jones.

The kid remains an absolute workout warrior and is by all accounts a great kid with a great story. But was Kirk Ferentz getting cocky with trying to run back the defensive tackle-to-center pipeline without a backup plan? Sure felt like it throughout last year. Jones struggled with protections, struggled with snaps, struggled with blocks, but did have some moments where that workout warrior tapped into his potential.

By many accounts, he’s better in all areas* but will be facing about as stout a test as he could in the first matchup.

*a pet theory I have re: the snaps is that Spencer Petras was so used to receiving snaps from Linderbaum as they would practice snaps in dorm hallways, the snap issue was placed entirely on Jones when Petras bore some responsibility

Hale Motu’apuaka is a 6th year defensive tackle who has had an impressive career along the Aggies’ defensive front. The world champion fireknifer had 5 sacks and 35 tackles last year; 8 tackles for loss in each of the last two seasons. The preseason first-team all-conference tackle (Phil Steele) will allow the Iowa coaching staff to understand very quickly whatever growth Jones experienced was game-ready.

The importance of Jones growth is compounded by the fact that Iowa is rolling out a transfer quarterback in Cade McNamara who, in my estimation, just doesn’t have that many reps while in the black and gold. When pressure breaks through the middle, there’s very little help to send that way outside of an overmatched running back. Considering McNamara experienced an injury requiring weeks of rest on a fairly routine scramble, keeping him healthy is item #1 on the checklist for success coming out of Saturday.

Unlike last year, Iowa does have some semblance of a net under the high-wire act at center in Rusty Feth, who started for Miami (OH) 20+ times at the position. Kirk Ferentz was forthright that their plan for him looks like a truly break-in-case-of-emergency scenario: “he can play both guards and probably could play center in a pinch, too.”

Given that, Jones will need to be the guy and show it for 60 minutes.