Four games into the 2023 football season, Iowa is a team at a crossroads. The Hawkeyes’ 31-0 loss to Penn State last week, one of the program’s worst defeats of the Kirk Ferentz era, proved that Iowa is far from being able to compete with the best of the Big Ten East. With pessimism swirling and Iowa once again making headlines for all the wrong reasons, it is up to the Hawkeyes to determine whether they will let their loss to Penn State snowball or if they can bounce back to save their season.
Remarkably, Iowa will find an opponent in a far worse situation than they are in Michigan State. The Spartans fired their head coach Mel Tucker for allegedly exercising colossally poor morals and judgement by sexually harassing an anti-sexual harassment advocate. Since Tucker’s initial suspension, Michigan State has gone 0-2 while being outscored by a combined 72-16. Like the Hawkeyes, the Spartans enter this game desperately hoping to right the ship before their aspirations for the 2023 season go up in smoke. While the winner of this matchup may manage to regain their footing, the loser could be looking at a long season with some very hard questions at the end of it.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa finally get its passing game going?
Iowa invested considerable resources into improving its passing game during the offseason, including bringing in two quarterbacks, several pass catchers, and two offensive linemen in the transfer portal. So far, these efforts have been in vain. Iowa’s per-game passing numbers are somehow even worse this season than they were during the offensive disaster that was the 2022 campaign.
Is Iowa’s Passing Game Getting Worse?
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Iowa’s passing game struggled against poor defenses like Utah State and Western Michigan, but absolutely wilted when confronted with a defense of Penn State’s caliber, with Iowa’s quarterbacks completing 6-16 passes for only 56 yards. Unless MSU is completely checked out on this season at this point, the Spartan coaches will likely use Penn State’s defensive gameplan as the blueprint for how to beat Iowa’s offense: load up the box with defenders, knowing the Hawkeyes will struggle to run the ball against an eight-man front or pick up the blitzers and complete a pass when faced with pressure.
In theory, Iowa should be able to jumpstart its passing game against a Michigan State team that surrendered 536 passing yards to Washington and ranks last in the Big Ten in passing touchdowns allowed (nine) and opposing passer rating (149.15). However, that would still require a dramatic improvement over what the Hawkeye offense showed against Penn State, particularly if the Spartans adopt a similar strategy. Iowa’s improvement must start up front, where Iowa’s pass blocking suffered several miscommunications and outright whiffs on opposing defenders last week, resulting in fumbles, sacks, and horribly rushed throws.
Oh man, #PennState pass rusher Chop Robinson (#44) absolutely TOOK OVER midway through the Iowa game.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) September 25, 2023
Your NFL team need explosiveness? These 4 plays came within an 8-play span. pic.twitter.com/JUR166FRlP
While the Spartan pass rush isn’t as formidable as Penn State’s, linebacker Aaron Brule and defensive end Zion Young will still pose a challenge to a Hawkeye line that can expect to be overwhelmed with rushers more often than not on obvious passing downs.
Iowa quarterback Cade McNamara must also exhibit more poise against the pass rush than he has over the past few weeks, including recognizing when and from where the blitz is coming and finding the receiver left uncovered or in single coverage in the event MSU does send extra defenders. Iowa’s wide receivers share some of the blame as well due to their inability to get open quickly enough for McNamara to get them the ball under pressure. A Des Moines Register article this week pointed out that 173 FBS wideouts have as many or more catches than Iowa’s entire wide receiving corps this season (14), and that Iowa’s receivers are targeted on only 37% of passing plays, the lowest rate in the FBS by a whopping 17 percentage points. While some of the blame for this undoubtedly falls on McNamara and on the team’s poor play design, Iowa’s wide receivers must find a way to get separation against a pair of young Michigan State cornerbacks in Dillon Tatum and Chance Rucker for the Hawkeye passing game to show real improvement on Saturday.
However, Iowa’s biggest changes in the passing game this week need to come from the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and OL coach George Barnett must cobble together a protection scheme that gives McNamara enough time to reasonably identify and throw to an open receiver, and Ferentz must dial up plays that can account for Iowa’s troubles up front and anticipate how opponents will attack his offense. Will Iowa finally show some form of quick passing game beyond the occasional tight end screen? Can the Hawkeye offense rejoin the 20th century and get their wide receivers more involved? With running backs Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson set to miss this week’s game, Iowa will need to show some sort of credible passing threat if they hope to avoid Michigan State stacking the box. Another poor passing performance would not only hurt Iowa’s chances at victory but cast serious doubt about whether any number of transfers and new recruits can possibly save the program’s broken offense.
2. Can Iowa (safely) contain Michigan State running back Nate Carter?
Like Iowa, Michigan State also faces some uncertainty in their passing game after pulling starter Noah Kim for redshirt freshman Katin Houser midway through the second half against Maryland. Given these struggles and Iowa’s strength in the secondary, the smart money is on the Spartans riding sophomore running back Nate Carter early and often. A UConn transfer, Carter has 369 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 5.1 yards per carry and is second in the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage with 429. Carter has the strength to run through contact, but also has the speed to make defenses pay if he can break into the open field.
Iowa’s rushing defense has not been bad by any means this season; in fact, the Hawkeyes are one of only three FBS teams that have not surrendered a rushing touchdown in 2023. However, Iowa is currently ranked as the 73rd best run defense in the country based on the 133.75 yards they surrender per game on the ground, an anomaly for a team that has not finished outside the top 20 rushing defenses since 2017. The loss of elite run defenders like Jack Campbell and Noah Shannon has left Iowa’s defense more vulnerable to ground gains than they were last season, which Carter and the Spartans could look to exploit.
However, Iowa must find a way to contain Carter without leaving themselves vulnerable to big plays elsewhere. The Hawkeyes succeeded in holding Western Michigan’s star running back Jalen Buckley to 30 yards on a 2.1 YPC average, but also found themselves getting gouged by the quarterback run game and beaten over the top in the passing game. Michigan State leads the Big Ten in explosive passing plays of 30+ yards with eight on the year, and receivers like Christian Fitzpatrick and Jaron Glover have flashed big play potential at times this season. Iowa’s ability to keep Nate Carter in check without losing defensive discipline elsewhere could determine whether the Hawkeye defense can bounce back after a challenging performance against Penn State.
3. Can Iowa win the turnover battle?
Since 2015, Iowa has finished among the top 30 FBS teams in turnover margin every season, which has been a credit to the team’s heavy emphasis on ball control on offense and ability to manufacture chaos and create takeaways on defense. This season, Iowa’s -4 turnover margin ranks 111th in the nation—a far cry from what Hawkeye fans have become accustomed to in recent years. While Iowa’s four lost fumbles against Penn State certainly didn’t help this statistic, Iowa has also been shockingly poor at generating turnovers this season. In addition to one fumble recovery, Iowa has only two interceptions through four games, despite posting five games with 2+ interceptions last season (including two within the team’s first four contests).
Can Iowa finally start to dig itself out of its current turnover margin hole? The Hawkeyes will benefit from playing a team in Michigan State that boasts an identical turnover margin (-4) and committed five giveaways last week against Maryland. In a game between two inconsistent and sloppy offenses, the team that can best limit their turnovers while creating additional scoring opportunities will have a significant edge. For Iowa to bounce back after last week’s humiliating loss, Hawkeye fans can only hope their team is the one that manages to do so.