Rutgers football hits the road for the Big Ten opener this weekend, as they make the trip to Iowa City for the first time ever. In fact, this will be just the second time the two programs have met since the Scarlet Knights joined the conference in 2014. The only previous meeting resulted in a 14-7 win for Iowa in 2016 that most Rutgers fans remember as the beginning of two long years for star Janarion Grant, who battled injuries for the remainder of his career on the banks after that day.
As for this season’s matchup, I was fortunate to speak with Jonah Parker, the site manager for SB Nation’s Iowa site, Black Heart Gold Pants. The Hawkeyes only led Miami (OH) 10-7 at the half in the season opener, but dominated the rest of the way for a 38-14 victory. Vegas has plenty of confidence in Iowa this week, as they opened as 20 point favorites against Rutgers.
I asked Jonah a variety of questions on no. 20/19 Iowa, who have several talented players who will end up playing on Sunday’s in the near future and are expected to contend for the Big Ten West title this season. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: What are expectations for Iowa this season and what is the general consensus of the fan base regarding Kirk Ferentz’s tenure as head coach?
JP: Vegas pegged the Hawkeyes for 7.5 wins this year, but I think most Iowa fans would hammer the over. As a fanbase, we’re pretty wired to set expectations low to avoid disappointment, but as a staff we predicted a 9-3 year with a 7-2 finish in the conference. That seems pretty fair with the talent on the roster weighed against the difficult schedule this season.
That seems to fit pretty well with what we’ve come to expect under Kirk Ferentz. Good, not great seasons unless all the stars align.
AB: QB Nate Stanley has NFL potential. What are his strengths and weaknesses? Where do you think he’ll ultimately rank among Iowa QB’s all-time and how do you think he will attack Rutgers on Saturday?
JP: Stanley is a bit of a lightning rod for Iowa fans. He threw for more than 250 yards with 3 TDs, no interceptions and completed 70% of his passes a week ago and the most talked about aspect of his game was ball placement and missed deep passes.
He’s almost certainly going to leave Iowa City as the all-time leader in passing touchdowns (he needs 20 more this season to break Chuck Long’s record) but lacks the defining moments where he’s willed the team to victory. He had big time games at Iowa State two and against Ohio State (who the Hawkeyes beat 55-24 - people often forget that) in 2017, but wilted at Wisconsin that same year and at Penn State a year ago.
His legacy will hinge on his ability to find touch on deep balls and come through in the clutch in 2019.
AB: How big of a loss is Alaric Jackson, who replaces him and what is the early outlook on the offensive line and running game?
JP: When people think of Iowa football, they typically think of smash mouth, run-first football. By and large in the Kirk Ferentz era, that’s been the case, but the Hawkeyes struggled running the ball a season ago.
In week one, getting the run game going was certainly a point of emphasis and they were highly successful. Nobody broke the 100 yard mark, but lead back Mekhi Sargent came close with 91 and Iowa rushes for more than 200 yards, averaging more than 5 yards per carry.
That came largely without Alaric Jackson, who sprained his knee ten minutes into the game. Jackson is a guy projecting into the late first round of next year’s draft so losing him is a big deal. But the staff tried out a number of different combinations that all had some success.
It helps when you can slide a guy like Tristan Wirfs, who may well be a top-10 pick, from RT to LT. But Tyler Linderbaum looked great in his first career start at center and walk on Kyler Schott may quickly become a fan favorite.
AB: There is talk about the Iowa defense shifting some from their 4-2-5 to more of traditional a 4-3 formation. Is it driven by personnel on the current team and what are your thoughts on the transition?
JP: The change came as a result of both personnel and philosophy. A season ago, we had Amani Hooker at safety, as well as Jake Gervase and newcomer Geno Stone. Hooker was Big Ten defensive back of the year and Gervase is on the LA Rams practice while Stone proved to be good enough that all three warranted playing time.
With that grouping, defensive coordinator Phil Parker created what’s been coined (pun fully intended) the “cash” position. With Hooker in the role, it was a hybrid DB/LB. As we look to 2019, it appears to have evolved a bit with the depth chart listing both a “Leo” linebacker OR a “cash”.
It might sound new and exciting for Hawkeye fans, but it looks an awful lot like a nickel package to me. In essence, when Iowa’s opponents line up with 21/22/12 personnel (read: they have a fullback or multiple tight ends), the Hawkeyes will line up in the same 4-3 they’ve used for decades. When their opponents come out in 10 or 11 personnel, out goes the third linebacker and in comes the cash.
For Hawkeye fans who’ve pulled out way too many hairs watching Iowa LBs try to slide out and cover slot receivers in space, it’s a great change. But it’s certainly not a wholesale change in defensive philosophy.
AB: AJ Epenesa led the Big Ten in sacks last season. What makes special and how should Rutgers game plan to slow him down?
JP: Well, Rutgers and just about every other team Iowa faces is going to have to do what Miami did a week ago. That’s chip, double team and slide protection at Epenesa on every single snap.
He’s got a rare combination of size and quickness that, when combined with great hands, makes him nearly unlockable one-on-one in the passing game. But gone this year is Anthony Nelson, who tied with Epenesa at 10.5 sacks a season ago. The Hawkeyes need someone to step up on the other end to make teams pay for focusing all their attention on AJ.
Most Iowa fans expect that to be Chauncey Golston, who appears to be a very good DE in his own right. But in week one, Iowa was limited to just one sack by converted linebacker Amani Jones against a MAC team with a brand new left side of their offensive line.
How Phil Parker gets Epenesa and that DL in the best position to make plays is something we’ll be watching for all season.
AB: This is the first ever trip to Iowa for Rutgers. What makes the game day experience unique at Iowa? For RU fans making the trip, what are some things to do around campus and places you recommend to visit, on game day or otherwise?
JP: The gameday experience at Iowa is tremendous. Unfortunately for Rutgers fans making the trip, an 11am kick against a new(ish) Big Ten team we rarely play and don’t have a rivalry with won’t compare to a night game against a ranked opponent.
That said, Iowa fans will be out in droves starting at dawn and they like to have a good time. I could write 4000 words on what visitors should do when they get to town, but wait, wait, I already have here!
Seriously though, Iowa is a unique campus, fully integrated with the city of Iowa City, which routinely ranks as one of America’s top college towns. Kinnick is a historic stadium that’s on the opposite side of the river and everything surrounding it is flooded with black and gold on game days.
My advice is to kindly walk up to any tailgate, take the gentle running and make some new friends. Hawkeye fans are always welcoming (unless you’re a fan of Iowa State or Nebraska or Wisconsin or Minnesota or...)!
Oh, and don’t forget to wave!
AB: What is your prediction for the game?
JP: Alright, so this is an interesting one for me. The last time Iowa played Rutgers, Hawkeye fans expected a cake walk and got a dog fight, so I’m tempted to be more conservative than Vegas has predicted with an early line at Iowa -20.
However, I really liked what I saw out of the Iowa offense last week and I think the defense will be hungry to prove they’re better than they looked in week one. I expect them to get home for more than the one sack they got against Miami and if they can get Rutgers into passing situations, they should be able to create a few turnovers. Iowa 45, Rutgers 17
Can we still be friends?
AB: Yes we can Jonah and I can’t disagree with your prediction too much, but I do hope you are dead wrong.
Thanks to Jonah for taking the time to give Rutgers fans such great insight on the current state of Iowa football. Follow him on twitter here and for all the coverage you need on Iowa football and other sports as well, visit Black Heart Gold Pants. To read my answers to Jonah’s questions, click here.