Entering the 2023 season, optimism among Hawkeye fans was high. When we polled the community pre-season, consensus was somewhere around a 9-3 finish for this season. In fact, nearly 75% of respondents expected Iowa to win at least nine games in 2023.
A lot of that optimism was driven by Iowa’s haul in the transfer portal. The Hawkeyes brought a number of players on the offense ahead of this season, headlined by former Michigan QB Cade McNamara. After struggling mightily on offense a season ago, the addition of McNamara, as well as his former teammate Erick All and a pair of wide receivers.
Through the three games of Iowa’s non-conference slate, that optimism has begun to wane. McNamara has flashed, including throwing a touchdown on his first pass as a Hawkeye - making him the first player to do so since legend Chuck Long. But McNamara is completing just under 54% of his passes through three games and is averaging fewer than 6 yards per attempt. He has four passing TDs, which is a marked improvement from Spencer Petras’ pace a season ago, but has tossed a trio of interceptions.
The result has been concern among the majority of Iowa fans as the Hawkeyes prepare to kick off Big Ten play on Saturday.
It’s not just concern over McNamara’s performance either. The issues on Iowa’s offense run deeper than simply the starting QB. His performance has been up and down, but the offense as a whole has been largely down relative to expectations.
Iowa is averaging over the 25 point per game threshold, but that number was boosted meaningfully a week ago when the Hawkeyes topped that mark for the first time all season. It did so against what will likely be the worst defense they face all season in Western Michigan. Even so, it too a strong day running the ball to get there while McNamara had his worst performance as a Hawkeye.
Coming out of the week three win, the Hawkeyes have respectable offensive stats on the season, but now enter the heart of the schedule. They’re doing so without star tight end Luke Lachey and with starting running back Kaleb Johnson sidelined for the second week in a row.
That’s driving a decrease in fan expectations on the season.
While nearly 75% of Iowa fans were expecting at least 9 wins on the year before the season started, that number has fallen to just over 55% three games into the year. Perhaps more notably, while only 5% of fans were calling for Iowa to win fewer than 8 games in the preseason, that number has now risen to nearly 20%.
Again, the answer here is concern over the offense. The bar was so incredibly low a year ago that it was hard not to expect offensive improvement this year. While we have seen a slight improvement statistically, it hasn’t lived up to expectations and thus, expectations are falling.
But does that mean Iowa is doomed as they head to Happy Valley for a showdown with #7 Penn State? Our staff has thought so since the preseason, with 100% of writers picking the Nittany Lions to win both before the year kicked off and again this week.
Surprisingly, however, the fanbase has grown more optimistic about this matchup.
While only 18% of the fanbase is expecting the Hawkeyes to emerge victorious Saturday night, that’s actually a meaningful jump from the 4% of fans who picked Iowa to knock off Penn State preseason.
What could be causing such a jump? Clearly it’s not the offensive production. But Penn State struggled in week three at Illinois. Despite the final score (30-13), the Nittany Lions needed five Illini turnovers to get to that result and new starter Drew Allar struggled mightily facing his first real defensive test.
Toss in the expectation of a rainy night in State College and the recipe for Iowa to play its favorite game of muddy rock fight is there for the making. Can the Hawkeyes actually capitalize and shock Penn State? We’ll know in just a few hours.
Iowa and Penn State kick off at 6:30pm CT. Today’s game will be broadcast on CBS.