After a tumultuous offseason that included an athletic director retirement, an aggressive transfer portal strategy, a sports betting controversy, and one of the most bizarre coaching contract amendments in recent memory, it is finally time for the Iowa Hawkeyes to play football again. When Iowa takes the field against Utah State tomorrow morning, all the offseason stories surrounding the program will cease to be relevant; the only thing that will matter is how the team looks on the field. While Iowa has a clear talent advantage over its Week One opponent, Blake Anderson’s Utah State team is not to be taken lightly. The Aggies have won 17 games over their last two seasons and are just two years removed from upsetting a solid Washington State team on the road to open the 2021 campaign. Even after losing significant talent to the transfer portal, the Aggies remain a well-coached team. While Iowa managed to survive an abysmal offensive performance against South Dakota State in their 2022 opener, a slow start against Utah State could result in something that has been a rarity under Kirk Ferentz: a loss to start the season.
Here are three key factors to watch for in this game:
1. Can Iowa show growth in the passing game?
Iowa’s passing game was absolutely atrocious last season, with the Hawkeyes ranking in the bottom ten nationally in both passing yards and passing touchdowns. The program was active in addressing this issue during the offseason by bringing in transfer quarterbacks Cade McNamara and Deacon Hill, along with pass catchers Erick All, Seth Anderson, and Kaleb Brown. However, it remains to be seen whether these new additions, combined with the development of returning players like tight end Luke Lachey and wide receiver Diante Vines, can overcome the schematic problems which have plagued the offense over the past several years, including poor play-calling, the lack of a qualified QB coach on staff, and a route tree that seems to be missing several branches. Adding further uncertainty to the mix is the health of McNamara, Iowa’s starting QB who suffered a non-contact soft tissue injury during the team’s August scrimmage. McNamara seems likely to play, but with Music City Bowl starter Joey Labas having just returned to practice after dealing with an injury of his own, it would likely fall to Hill (who has zero collegiate game experience and threw three interceptions during the last scrimmage) to take over QB duties if McNamara is limited or cannot go.
The first true test of the new and hopefully improved Iowa passing game will come against a Utah State secondary that is arguably the strength of the team. The Aggies’ opponents completed only 54.8% of their passes against them last season, which was the 10th lowest opponent completion rate in the country. Safety Ike Larsen and cornerback Michael Anyanwu are experienced returners, and transfers Javar Strong and Jaylen Martin round out a solid back four for the Aggies which should make this secondary a good barometer for where Iowa’s passing game stands at this stage. If Iowa’s quarterbacks lack chemistry with their new teammates, show the level of recklessness they displayed at times during the summer open practice, or find themselves waiting in vain for receivers to get separation from their defenders, it could show that further growth is needed in the Hawkeye passing game. If, however, Iowa can move the ball effectively through the air, it could be a sign of a genuinely improved passing attack in 2023.
2. Will Iowa’s offensive line show progress?
Much like Iowa’s passing game, the Hawkeye offensive line left much to be desired in 2022. The Hawkeyes rotated returning linemen Mason Richman, Connor Colby, Nick DeJong, Gennings Dunker, Logan Jones, Beau Stephens, and Tyler Elsbury all last season, but never managed to find a collection of five players that clicked. The program brought in transfer Daijon Parker to compete at right tackle and Rusty Feth to slot in somewhere along the interior, but the Week One depth chart does not list either newcomer as a starter. Whether this is a sign of the growth experienced by Iowa’s returning players, a classic move by Kirk Ferentz to show deference to veterans over new roster additions, or an indication that Feth and Parker are not the type of plug-and-play solutions Hawkeye fans were hoping for remains to be seen. However, regardless of who the Hawkeyes eventually settle on up front, the offensive line must show significant improvement if the Iowa offense is to take the necessary steps forward this year.
As was the case with the passing game, Utah State should be a formidable opening test of the offensive line’s growth. The Aggies return veteran tackles Hale Motu’apuaka and Poukesi Vakauta who are disruptive forces in the middle of the defense and will pose a challenge to center Logan Jones and the rest of Iowa’s interior linemen. Meanwhile, although Iowa’s tackles will avoid the Aggie’s former standout pass rusher Daniel Grzesiak due to his offseason defection to Cincinnati, Utah State did add standout defensive end Cian Stone from the JuCo ranks to give them a bit of menace off the edge.
On paper, Iowa’s offensive line should hold the edge in the battle of the trenches, particularly when the Hawkeyes run the ball. Utah State had the 113th-ranked rushing defense in 2022 and surrendered a whopping 194 yards per game on the ground, which should give Kaleb Johnson and the Iowa running game plenty of opportunities for success. However, if the Hawkeyes struggle to run the ball against Utah State, it will likely be a sign that the team still has more work to do to improve upfront. Poor pass protection from the Hawkeyes would be a similar cause for concern, while also raising worries about whether the already injured McNamara can survive a full season playing behind the Hawkeye line.
3. Can Utah State move the ball on Iowa’s defense without committing turnovers
All football teams struggle to win when they turn the ball over, but few teams’ success in 2022 were more dependent on their ability to limit giveaways than Utah State’s. The Aggies went 4-1 last season during a five game stretch in which they committed only four turnovers, but went 2-6 during the other eight games on their schedule in which they committed 23 (which happens to be the same number of turnovers the Hawkeyes forced in 2022). Quarterback Cooper Legas was particularly turnover-prone, throwing ten interceptions against only 11 touchdowns last year. Iowa, meanwhile, has consistently been among the best teams in the country at forcing takeaways. The Hawkeyes scored six defensive touchdowns last season (seven if you count Jack Campbell’s phantom pick six against Minnesota, which you should!) and return cornerbacks Cooper DeJean and Jermari Harris who intercepted a combined nine passes during their most recent seasons of college football. Iowa’s terrific depth and talent among its defensive front seven should be enough to overwhelm Utah State’s offensive line, even with Noah Shannon serving a suspension for wagering for his NCAA sports betting infractions. Consistent pressure from Iowa’s defense should create opportunities for Iowa’s defensive backs to create turnovers in the passing game. Whether the Hawkeyes capitalize on those opportunities could determine if this game stays competitive or turns into a route for the home team.