Rutgers has finished the non-conference portion of the schedule — and it was not easy.
The Scarlet Knights were tested on the road against Temple as a three-score favorite. A win is a win and now Rutgers will begin Big Ten play at home against Iowa and its elite defense.
The Hawkeyes have question marks on the offensive side of the ball entering conference play as well. As we try to get some answers on Iowa prior to the matchup, we spoke with Managing Editor of Black Heart Gold Pants, Jonah Parker.
OTB: It is no secret that the Iowa offense has struggled to this point. Is this the week that it can get back on track? How do you expect the Hawkeyes to attack Rutgers this week?
BHGP: The offense has been beyond struggling. At times, it has struggled to look like it is even capable of struggling. Through three weeks, this team has scored the same number of touchdowns as it has spent hours in a weather delay. There have been issues in several key spots that have all come together to make things a complete mess, particularly in the first two weeks.
That starts with the offensive line, which has struggled to get any sort of push in the running game and has not done a good job keeping the quarterback clean. That has been exacerbated by a quarterback who simply cannot make throws off script or with pressure in his face and an offensive coordinator who has refused to show any sort of creativity in either the run or pass game.
We saw some green shoots in week three as the offense put together three touchdown drives and Spencer Petras finally threw his first touchdown pass of the season. But that came against a Nevada defense that gave up 55 points to Incarnate Word the week before. To say the fanbase is unhappy with things on offense would be the understatement of the Kirk Ferentz era.
Looking ahead to this week, I suspect we see more of the same. After 23 years, Hawkeye fans have grown accustomed to the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So I look for Iowa to try to establish the run early an often with a trio of backs who are capable of making one cut and getting downhill in Gavin and Leshon Williams (no relation) as well as freshman Kaleb Johnson who burst onto the scene a week ago with a pair of TD runs from 40 and 55 yards. From there, Brian Ferentz is likely to set up play action for Petras, though it’s unlikely we see much success throwing downfield.
OTB: Spencer Petras has performed well on the road over the course of his career. Rutgers has lost 19 consecutive home games in Big Ten play. What will give in this matchup? Will Petras be able to breakout or does Rutgers have a chance to take advantage of a struggling offense?
BHGP: I suspect Rutgers has a real shot to take advantage of this offense. Petras has the physical tools to make all the throws, but he’s in his own head and the staff has done little to help him. Iowa runs a pro style offense not just in the formations and plays they run, but also in what they ask their QB to do. So a player who is over-thinking every throw and every read is still being asked to walk to the line and make multiple reads, set the blocking and often choose the play being run.
All that to say, he certainly could make some key throws that turn the game, but he’s just as likely to complete around 50% of his passes with an average yards per attempt hanging around five yards and under/overthrow several receivers by yards not inches. I would expect Rutgers and every other defense from here on out to attempt stacking the box to slow down the run and bring loads of pressure on obvious passing downs to force Petras to do the one thing he has shown time and again he cannot: make the quick read in the face of pressure and deliver a strike.
OTB: Iowa has been banged up a bit at wide receiver. Rutgers has been strong upfront defensively. Can the rushing attack control the pace in this game?
BHGP: Iowa has been banged up a LOT at wide receiver. I left the position group alone in my answer to your first question, but this is a big piece of the issues we’ve seen so far in 2022 relative to say a season ago. Iowa has never set the world on fire under Ferentz (save for 20 years ago with Brad Banks under center), but you don’t find yourself dead last in total offense nationally without some things going wrong given this group returns a significant amount of the starting lineup from a season ago.
At receiver, all the talk has been about Charlie Jones leaving for Purdue. What’s often ignored is the lack of concern shown by most Hawkeye fans when that was announced given he was expected to be the 3rd or 4th option in Iowa’s passing attack. Fast forward to fall camp and the top two guys at the position are injured and in total, six of the seven scholarship receivers who were left after Jones and Tyrone Tracy left are unavailable for the first two weeks of the season. The result was an exhausted Arland Bruce IV taking all the volume (and returning punts for some reason!) alongside a walk on while tight end Sam LaPorta became the de facto X receiver.
With absolutely no passing game, opposing defenses sold out to stop the run. And stop it they did. Iowa averaged just 1.6 yards per carry through the first two weeks as they broke in three new starters on the offensive line. As I mentioned, we saw that break open in week three and a big part of that was the return of three of those six injured receivers. Iowa took their first shots downfield of the season against Nevada and was able to take advantage of normal boxes in the running game as a result.
Rutgers will certainly be better up front than the Pack and that’s where the concern starts for Iowa fans. If Brian Ferentz opts not to open things up, it could be another long afternoon for the Hawkeye offense.
OTB: We know about Jack Campbell and Riley Moss. All-American talents on an elite defense. Iowa has allowed just 13 points in three games. Is there a weakness defensively?
BHGP: Through three weeks, we have not seen one. Iowa’s defense was incredible a season ago and with just a competent offense helped the Hawkeyes vault into the top-5 nationally at one point before the offense totally collapsed. This year’s group is even better it appears.
You mentioned Campbell and Moss, but the play of Terry Roberts opposite of Moss has been tremendous (and that’s to say nothing of him being perhaps the best special teams player in the country who isn’t kicking footballs – I will go on record now that Rutgers fans will hear his name called on at least one punt downed inside the 5 Saturday) and former walk on Quinn Schulte has looked like an all-Big Ten player at safety.
Up front, an injury to Yahya Black has made defensive tackle a bit thin, so perhaps that’s your weak point at the moment. But otherwise the defensive line has been stellar. John Waggoner looks like another story of a senior finally stepping into his role while Lukas Van Ness looks like a guy who will earn all-Big Ten honors and leave early after this season.
Schematically, the one soft spot I think exists right now is if an offense can get an athletic tight end or a quick running back isolated on a Hawkeye linebacker. Typically, Jestin Jacobs can run with anyone who’s not among the fastest WRs on an offense, but he’s been injured the last two weeks as well and that’s meant a much less athletic Logan Klemp filling in at outside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker has utilized a fifth defensive back in that spot against 11 personnel over the last few years, but if an offense can come out in a heavy formation (either with two TEs or a fullback) they can often get Klemp assigned to a TE or back which may be a mismatch.
OTB: Finally, what is your score prediction for the matchup?
BHGP: I did some digging and it seems there must be points for a game to end. While I’m inclined to say something along the lines of 2-0, I think we get a little bit more action than that. I’m still heavily on the under in this one and I think it’s a complete slog where two fanbases that appreciate punting get more excited about Tory Taylor and Adam Korsak than just about anything else.
Iowa 10, Rutgers 6.