In case you didn’t know by now, Rutgers will be facing the best cornerback in the country tomorrow in Desmond King of Iowa. As a junior last season, King had 8 interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in college football. The consensus first team All-American could have left for the NFL Draft after last season, but chose to return for his senior season. Oh, and he also returns kickoffs and punts too, so he can change the game in Iowa’s favor a number of different ways.
Which brings us to our own do-it-all playmaker, Janarion Grant. My initial thought coming into this week was that King would matchup with Grant for a sizable part of the game. Not only would that seem like a no-brainer strategy wise, but it would be a tremendous matchup that any college football fan could appreciate. However, after having an in-depth Q&A with Max Brekke, the managing editor of Iowa’s SB Nation site Black Heart Gold Pants, his answer on King surprised me quite a bit.
On defense, Iowa is led by star cornerback Desmond King. What are his strengths and has he been a dominant force so far this season? Does he typically move around the field to cover the opponent's best receiver or does he stay on one side of the field?
Something else we don't want to talk about. Desmond King has, for all intents and purposes, done nothing this season. Not because he's a bad player, either. It's because teams literally refuse to throw the ball towards his side of the field. He's got some tackles (and is honestly probably our best tackler, for better or for worse), but he's at least eliminated a receiver from the other team simply because teams are afraid to throw at him. He doesn't shadow anyone, either; he made a claim before the CyHawk game that he would shadow Iowa State's Allen Lazard, but never did. He plays exclusively on the right side of the field and so Rutgers will probably play the majority of their passing game on the left side of the field, if the past few games have been any indictor for Hawkeye opponents. Expect to hear left-side CB Greg Mabin's name, a lot.
Of course, it’s possible that Kirk Ferentz and the rest of the Iowa defensive staff will make a change this week and match King up with Grant. However, one thing I learned about Iowa this week is Ferentz frustrates the heck out of their fan base by his conservative and predictable nature. Is Ferentz really just a rich man’s Kyle Flood?
In all seriousness though, in reading this profile on Grant on BHGP, the Iowa faithful seem to think that Ben Niemann, Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay’s son, is more likely to track Grant tomorrow. That makes some sense with Grant’s ability in the run game, where he is currently rushing for 9.5 yards a carry on 15 attempts this season. However, if Rutgers can actually get Grant the ball in open space in the short to intermediate passing game, something that has been a struggle so far this season, you have to like that matchup for Grant going against a linebacker, even though Niemann is very good and leads Iowa in tackles.
Another thing to note is that the last time Iowa went against a player as versatile and dynamic as Grant, they were blown out by Stanford mostly due to the performance of star running back Christian McCaffrey in last year’s Rose Bowl. Grant and McCaffrey certainly have differences in their games, but their ability to beat their opponent in various ways is similar. McCaffrey rushed for 172 yards on 9.6 yards per carry and had 4 receptions for 105 receiving yards, including a 75 yard touchdown. He also returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown as well. So Iowa fans are well aware of the damage a player like Grant can do against them.
That brings us back to King, who as Max said, typically patrols the right side of the field (note: King’s right side, the offense’s left side). Considering King has essentially made that side of the field a graveyard for offenses this season, it’s logical to think Rutgers will go heavy on the opposite side of the field. King is also a solid tackler in the run game, so expect Martin to run between right guard Chris Mueller and right tackle J.J. Denman more often than not. As for Grant and Jawuan Harris, expect offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer to line up both receivers on the right side at times. I understand King rarely shadows a certain player, but it would still surprise me if Iowa doesn’t adjust to Rutgers loading up the other side with our two best receivers. This will be interesting to watch for.
Despite disappointing quarterback play from Chris Laviano and just three first downs in three first quarters so far this season, I think Mehringer has done a good job with the offense through three games. Tomorrow will be very interesting to see what type of game plan he throws out at the Hawkeyes defense. I’m sure he watched film from the Stanford game and studied how McCaffrey beat Iowa in multiple ways. Last week, North Dakota State rushed for 239 yards on 49 carries versus just 19 passes thrown. They dominated time of possession in the process, something Rutgers obviously would like to do as well, which is one benefit of the spread offense when it’s effective.
We don’t need to belabor the point that Laviano isn’t a strong running quarterback any further in this space. I would be surprised though if we didn’t see some type of wrinkle tomorrow where backups Gio Rescigno and/or Tylin Oden make at least an appearance in the middle of a possession, in an effort to change looks up. Rutgers has nothing to lose in this game and Mehringer has the freedom to be creative with his game plan. He has playmakers to work with and the time is now to empty the playbook and give Iowa our best on offense. How Iowa adjusts and how they use King throughout the game will be fascinating to watch. And if that means he shuts down one side of the field and Rutgers needs to keep pounding the other side, I say let’s take our chances with that matchup.