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Iowa vs. Western Michigan Football Preview

Can Cade McNamara and the Iowa passing game find a consistent rhythm before the Big Ten season begins?

NCAA Football: Utah State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Next week, the Iowa football team will face its most difficult challenge of the regular season: a trip to Happy Valley to face #7 Penn State in a whiteout game. However, the Hawkeyes still have one opponent to go through if they hope to be undefeated when they square off against the Nittany Lions. Western Michigan, which enters this week’s game with the nation’s 113th ranked offense and 112th ranked defense, should provide the Hawkeyes with an opportunity to get right before next Saturday’s pivotal game.

While Iowa has a huge talent advantage over Western Michigan, history says they cannot afford to take the Broncos lightly. Iowa shockingly has a 1-2 all-time record against Western Michigan, with Iowa’s first defeat coming in a 27-21 loss during Kirk Ferentz’s second season with the program and their second loss coming in the final game of 2007 season and costing the team a bowl bid. If there is any positive signs for Hawkeye fans who look to history to predict future success, Iowa’s last game against Western Michigan was a 59-3 beatdown featuring two pick-sixes and two punt return touchdowns. After two uneven performances to open the year, a win like that would have Hawkeye fans feeling confident about the direction of the team coming into this season’s statement game.

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

1. Can Iowa’s passing attack find its rhythm?

Cade McNamara struggled against Iowa State, going 12-22 passing for 123 yards and an interception. However, McNamara was only a few plays away from having an excellent game. His third-quarter overthrow of Seth Anderson robbed McNamara of a 91-yard touchdown, while his two tight ends crashing into each other in the end zone deprived him of a second. Both plays were indicative of an issue that has plagued the Iowa passing game so far this season: a lack of timing between quarterback and receiver. The Hawkeye wide receivers have been particularly absent thus far aside from a few nice plays by Seth Anderson. Diante Vines and Kaleb Brown, two receivers expected to make a major impact this year, have combined for only one catch for 7 yards. These issues are understandable since both McNamara and several of his targets are new to the team this year and Iowa’s quarterback missed significant time this fall due to injury. However, unfixed, they could threaten to undermine Iowa’s passing game throughout the season.

Western Michigan could be just the opponent to help Iowa get its aerial attack back on track. The Broncos have one of the worst pass defenses in the country, allowing 286.5 passing yards per game and 9.1 yards per attempt. Western Michigan surrendered 230 yards through the air to FCS school St. Francis and was absolutely picked apart by Syracuse quarterback Garret Shrader. The Broncos’ best chance to stop Iowa’s passing game (outside the Hawkeyes themselves) is cornerback Keni-H Lovely who earned third-team All-MAC honors last year. However, if Iowa’s wide receivers are ever going to have a breakout game, they may not have a better opportunity to do so than this matchup.

2. Can Iowa contain Jalen Buckley?

The Hawkeye run defense has been solid so far this season, holding opponents to just over 100 yards per game. However, Iowa will face its most difficult challenge yet in trying to contain Western Michigan’s fabulous freshman running back Jalen Buckley. As of Thursday night, Buckley is the nation’s third-leading rusher with an average of 140.5 yards per contest. Buckley ran for 194 yards in Western Michigan’s opener and averaged 10.9 yards per carry against Syracuse thanks in large part to a 75 yard touchdown run against the Orange. While Buckley hasn’t shown himself to be much of a threat catching the ball out of the backfield (he has only one career reception for four yards), he runs with a great mix of speed, power, and vision which make him a dangerous weapon.

Can Iowa’s front seven dominate up front and slow down Buckley and the Western Michigan ground game? The Hawkeye defensive line has not been as disruptive in the pass game as many fans expected, but aside from the reserves struggling in the fourth quarter against Utah State, they have done a good job keeping opposing running backs in check. Western Michigan does have an experienced line led by center Jacob Gideon, but the Hawkeye defensive line should certainly have the advantage of superior strength and athleticism. A strong performance by the Iowa front four should create plenty of opportunities for the Hawkeye linebackers to quickly close any available running lanes and would bode well for Iowa’s ability to shut down the many talented running backs this will face over the course of the Big Ten season.

3. Can Iowa find a way to unleash Kaleb Johnson?

Speaking of talented running backs, Iowa has an excellent one that they have struggled to get going so far this year. Sophomore Kaleb Johnson, who many believed would be in the running for All-Big Ten honors in 2023, has averaged only 2.7 yards per carry through two games. Not all of Johnson’s struggles are on him, as he has frequently been cursed with poor run blocking by Iowa’s offensive line. However, Johnson managed to average nearly twice as many yards per carry last year (5.2) despite running behind similarly poor blocking. Iowa’s blocking woes also do not fully explain why Johnson’s backup Jaziun Patteson is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and played the best game of his young career against Iowa State last week.

Part of Johnson’s struggles compared to Patterson lie with Johnson’s running style. While Patterson has shown an excellent burst as soon as he touches the ball, Johnson does not have the same quick acceleration and generally takes longer to reach his top speed. Given Iowa’s blocking deficiencies upfront, this slow-starting style has frequently led to running lanes vanishing by the time Johnson is ready to hit them. Furthermore, Johnson has looked less decisive this season than he did during his freshman campaign. Whether he is struggling to quickly diagnose the available running room or waiting in vain for bigger holes or cutback lanes to open, Johnson has often found himself hesitating just a beat too long and getting hit at or near the line of scrimmage rather than gaining positive yardage.

As good as Patterson looked against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes will need to get Johnson going again to help jumpstart a ground game that has been the worst in the conference in terms of yards per carry this season (3.08). Could Western Michigan be Johnson’s breakout game? The Broncos run defense is only allowing 3.46 yards per carry this season, but has surrendered five rushing touchdowns through two games. A strong game from Johnson would be huge benefit to Iowa’s offense and would allow the Hawkeyes to establish a balanced attack to complement a passing game that should have a strong performance against the Broncos. More than that, a breakout performance for Johnson could set him and the Iowa ground game up for success for the rest of the year. Before emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen last season, Johnson averaged only 1.8 yards per carry over Iowa’s first two games but exploded for 103 yards and two touchdowns on only seven carries in Week Three against Nevada. Another performance of that caliber would assuage any concerns about a sophomore slump and give Iowa a solid one-two punch at running back heading into next week.