Iowa’s season opening win against Utah State was an uneven performance, but this weekend’s game against Iowa State will paint a much better picture of the kind of team Iowa will have in 2023. For the past several decades, the Cy-Hawk game has been an excellent predictor of an Iowa team’s ceiling. In the past 40 years, there have only been two seasons in which Iowa has lost to ISU and gone on to win 8+ games (2002 and 2022). It has not necessarily taken a great Iowa team to beat its in-state rival, but it almost always takes a bad/mediocre Iowa team to lose to them.
Given the importance of the Cy-Hawk game, it is hard not to think about what this matchup might have looked like if not for the sports betting scandal that rocked both programs during the offseason. Both Iowa and Iowa State will be without key starters in this matchup thanks to those players’ participation in gambling activities banned by the NCAA. While Iowa was weakened by the loss of defensive starters Noah Shannon and Jermari Harris, Iowa State was arguably hit even harder thanks to the suspensions of quarterback Hunter Dekkers, running back Jirehl Brock, tight end DeShawn Hanika, offensive lineman Jake Remsburg, and defensive lineman Isaiah Lee. With the eyes of the entire state of Iowa and at least four presidential contenders on this game, it will be up to the teammates of these missing starters to lead their team to victory over their archrival.
Here are three key factors to watch for in this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa establish the run?
Although Iowa quarterback Cade McNamara displayed his arm strength and excellent decision-making against Utah State, he also showed just how limited his mobility has become thanks to his lingering soft tissue injury. Kirk Ferentz was not making headlines when he remarked this week that QB sneaks and bootlegs were “not on the menu,” for his quarterback, as McNamara looked visibly uncomfortable when forced to escape pressure and seemed less than 100% after taking a hit in the second half. While Iowa’s front five did a good job keeping the pocket clean against Utah State, McNamara now faces a defensive coordinator in Jon Heacock who has had a week to gameplan for how to exploit McNamara’s immobility and has a secondary skilled enough to hold up in coverage if he brings extra pressure.
If Iowa hopes to take the heat off McNamara, it must do a better job establishing the run than it did against Utah State. The Hawkeyes averaged only 2.4 yards per carry against the Aggies, and Iowa’s linemen regularly lost at the point of attack or missed blocks at critical junctures which resulted in potential big gains turning into tackles for loss. Despite the team’s stated intention of finding a consistent starting five upfront, Iowa rotated ten linemen against Utah State with only three snaps going to coveted transfer tackle Daijon Parker. While Iowa’s coaching staff attributed some of the line’s struggles to their own inability to thoroughly scout Utah State’s new defensive coordinator, the team will have no such excuse when they play Heacock’s defense for the seventh time.
Iowa’s offensive line must significantly improve its run blocking performance over last week if it hopes to establish a credible ground game against a stout Cyclone defense. Sophomore Domonique Orange is a disruptive 335 lb. space-eater in the middle of Iowa State’s 3-3-5 defense, and the Cyclone secondary is among the best in the country at contributing in run support. While the Cyclones are fairly young in their front six, it has been a few years (no, that’s not an exaggeration) since Iowa’s line has imposed its will in the ground game against a competent defensive front. Failure to do so in this game could cost the Hawkeyes dearly; out of the last 15 Cy-Hawk games, the team with the most rushing attempts has emerged victorious 14 times. Misleading as this stat may be (winning teams tend to run more often in an attempt to burn the clock and preserve their lead), running well and often could be key to helping the Hawkeye offense compensate for their quarterback’s inability to threaten defenses with his feet.
2. Can Iowa’s defense force the Cyclone offense out of its comfort zone?
As big a mystery as Iowa’s offense is after one game, their opponent arguably enters this contest with more unanswered questions. Iowa State’s offense was shockingly conservative against UNI, running only 45 offensive plays over the course of the game and rarely throwing more than a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This was almost certainly by design; with a new starting quarterback (redshirt freshman Rocco Becht) and running back (sophomore Cartevious Norton) forced into action due to their predecessors’ suspensions, Iowa State seemed disinterested in taking any chances, especially since they scored 30 points without opening their playbook past the first chapter.
Against Utah State, Iowa also played an opponent that was largely unwilling to attack downfield, relying instead on quick passes and the run game to slowly but steadily move the ball against the Hawkeyes. While this strategy was largely unsuccessful (Utah State scored only six points against Iowa’s starting defense, with their lone touchdown coming late in the 4th quarter against the backups), they found some success in targeting linebacker Nick Jackson in the passing game. The suspension of cornerback Jermari Harris left Iowa shorthanded in the secondary and hesitant to go to a dime defensive package to cover Utah State’s spread looks, resulting in the types of mismatches Iowa State could try to exploit without having to throw into the teeth of a dangerous Iowa defense featuring ballhawks like cornerback Cooper DeJean and safety Xavier Nwankpa.
Whether Iowa State can dink-and-dunk their way to a victory against Iowa remains to be seen; Becht was an efficient 10-13 passing against UNI but may struggle to replicate those numbers against a much stronger defense. However, Iowa would be wise not to give Becht and the Cyclone offense the chance to play the entire game at their pace and instead force the offense to play on their terms. Against an inexperienced quarterback, Iowa must try to generate pressure, create confusion, and force Becht to make plays beyond dumping the ball off to the running back or throwing to Jaylin Noel at the line of scrimmage. Whether that means Iowa’s front four wreaking havoc the way they did in 2018, a blitz-happy scheme like the Hawks showed in 2019, or an array of changing coverages like those that baffled Brock Purdy in 2021, Iowa’s defense must make it difficult for Becht and the rest of ISU’s inexperienced offensive starters to stick to the script coach Matt Campbell has written for them. Rocco Becht and the Cyclone offense may be capable of performing more than what they showed against UNI, but Iowa would be wise to make them prove that.
3. Which special teams unit will have the biggest impact on the game?
Special teams play has defined many of the recent Cy-Hawk games and frequently shifted the outcome in Iowa’s favor. 2019, Iowa kicker Keith Duncan went 4/4 on field goals in a game decided by only one point, while Iowa State forfeited their chance at a game-winning drive by muffing in the final minutes.
oh no— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 15, 2019
Iowa State ended their chances against Iowa with this muffed punt pic.twitter.com/qctUaUfE3u
In 2021, Iowa punter Tory Taylor pinned the Cyclones near their own goal line, resulting in a fumble returned for an Iowa touchdown on the very next play.
In 2022, Iowa blocked two Cyclone punts, but failed to force overtime on a missed field goal attempt by Aaron Blom on the Hawkeyes’ final offensive play.
Will special teams play a similarly impactful role this year? Iowa seems to have the edge thanks to all-world punter Tory Taylor, a capable kicker in Drew Stevens, and dangerous return men in Kaleb Johnson and Cooper DeJean. However, the Hawkeyes showed a few warts on special teams against Utah State, including allowing one of Taylor’s punts to be partially blocked and letting a punt touch a Hawkeye player attempting to cover the kick. Meanwhile, Iowa State’s decision to finally hire a dedicated special teams coordinator paid dividends in their opener, which featured a 56-yard field goal and 70-yard punt. Whether the Cyclones can finally find a way to best Iowa’s special teams guru LeVar Woods remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if the leg of either team’s kicker or punter ends up being the deciding factor in what promises to be a low-scoring game.