The Iowa varsity offense entered this week with renewed confidence.
Early in the season, Hawkeye players consistently said it always was, but last Saturday’s 27-0 win over Nevada was the first sign of success in a live game.
The underdogs took the Hawkeyes game with a grain of salt. Iowa posted season-best numbers in total yards (337), third-down conversion rate (44%) and first downs (15), but that was against the nation’s 86th-ranked defense. This week’s opponent poses a much bigger challenge and will serve as a benchmark.
Did Iowa’s offense really improve last week, or was it a mirage against a bad team?
About to find out.
Iowa (2-1) will take on Big Ten rival Rutgers (3-0) beginning Saturday at 6:00 PM (FS1). Rutgers’ defense ranks 10th nationally in total defense (240 yards per game), including the nation’s best rushing defense, allowing just 32.3 yards per game. All eyes will be on Iowa’s offense in its first Big Ten game. What happens Saturday will set the tone for the next conference game on Oct. 1 against No. 4-ranked Michigan.
“You build on (the Nevada game) and continue to improve,” veteran Hawkeye defenseman Spencer Petros said. “And you start building up a stack of good days. That’s what the challenge is, and that’s the goal.”
Forward Mason Richman said starting fast Saturday is paramount. Last Saturday, Iowa scored on its third possession of the game, a touchdown, and carried that momentum into points in the next two races before a lengthy weather delay.
It’s also what worked well for Iowa in its best performance of the year at Maryland in October 2021. The Hawkeyes scored on their second possession of the game and went on a scoring spree (with help from the defense and special teams) en route to a 51-14 blowout victory. Like Maryland last year, Rutgers enters the game undefeated and expected to sell out for the first time since 2017.
“It’s important to go early,” Richman said. “Getting the first down is very important for us and the first play of the game will determine the physicality we will play as an offense. I think it’s very important for us and we did a very good job last week.”
Iowa’s offensive line will be under pressure in the first road game of the year. The Rutgers crowd will be in the game early. And so far this year, the Scarlet Knight defense has the highest blitz rate (41.8%) in the Big Ten.
All three of Iowa State’s top quarterbacks — sophomores Gavin Williams, LeShon Williams and true freshman Caleb Johnson — are healthy and available for the first time this year. That should help the run game, but the offensive line is still working to find the best combination of starting lineups.
The most uncertainty is at both guard positions, where there is a four-man rotation. Out of Iowa’s 61 plays last Saturday, here’s how the shooting percentage went: Beau Stevens (68%); Nick DeJong (64%); Tyler Ellsbury (44%) and Gennings Dunker (34%). Ellsbury was Pro Football Focus’ top-rated guard (and offensive tackle), followed by Stevens, DeJong and Dunker.
Ferentz described the line competition as “wide open” this week. Players who impress in Big Ten competition this weekend could go a long way in determining the lineup and rotation going forward.
“We’re gaining ground, but we’re not there,” Ferentz said. “There are still a lot of little things we can do a lot better, and it comes back to the experience. When you get guys that are a little bit younger in their development, it’s a little bit stressful. I think we’re gaining ground.”
Keeping up with the offensive line and leading the offense as a whole falls to senior linebacker Spencer Petros. His stats last weekend weren’t mind-blowing, but his ball placement was his best all season. Petras made several deep passes and threw with conviction.
It’s a wrinkle the Hawkeyes would be wise to revisit this weekend — provided they can protect him from the blitz.
As much as the Rutgers defense has performed this year, they can give up big passing plays. They rank 95th nationally in explosive passing plays (20-plus yards) with eight through three games.
“Explosive plays, especially in Big Ten play, are very important,” Petros said. “Every time we can do it, we have to execute. If not, it takes a lot of pressure off the defense and allows them to sit on routes that should normally be free passes or more open than they would otherwise be. If they don’t worry about you going deep, then it’s going to be hard to throw the ball underneath. Being as balanced as we can is really important, and I think the back (wide receivers) helps.”
The skill positions were another issue through week three. The wide receiver room took a step back this week when Ferentz announced that sophomore Keegan Johnson is unlikely to play after leaving the Nevada game last week.
The good news: Senior Niko Ragaini and sophomore Brody Brecht are expected to get full workloads. Brecht had a game-high 36 snaps last week, while Ragaini had 32 snaps in his first game back from a foot injury.
The challenge for both is to knock off the rust and improve conditioning. Ferentz noted that Brecht, who plays baseball and has battled injuries, has only been on the practice field for six or seven weeks since he arrived last summer. Rogaini is Iowa’s most veteran player, but admitted he had to get used to returning to the game after missing several weeks.
“I definitely have to knock off the rust a little bit,” Ragaini said. “I’m sure some fans thought (Spencer Petros) took me down for a couple of passes, but really it was 100% my fault. So as soon as I get back to myself, and I’m sure I will, I’m sure we’ll connect on the shots we had last Saturday.”
Despite a dismal start offensively, Iowa still has a pretty optimistic outlook for the Big Ten West. Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska are already 0-1 in conference play, while Minnesota (at Michigan State) and Wisconsin (at Ohio State) will have tough opening games this weekend.
A successful offensive day for Iowa, combined with a Big Ten win, would add an extra boost of confidence before Michigan comes to Iowa City and give them an early leg in the West standings.
“Simply put, our two goals every week are obviously to win and get better,” Petros said. “And if we can do that, we know we’re doing our job.”
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men’s basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can contact Kennington at Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.
Is Iowa football’s offense improving? We’ll find out against Rutgers
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