After three games into the 2022 season, Iowa’s place in the Big Ten West hierarchy is more of a mess than it was before the year began. While the Hawkeyes appear to have built another championship-level defense, the offense remains a work in progress, even after showing its first signs of life in last week’s 27-0 win over Nevada. Still, a team’s fate is determined by the quality of its competition as much as its own skill. Wisconsin was the preseason betting favorite to win the division but didn’t look overwhelming in their Week 2 loss to Washington State and isn’t on par with many of the Badger teams that have seen the best of the Hawkeyes in recent years got out. Minnesota are the only 3-0 team in the division but have yet to face an opponent capable of holding their own. Purdue, a sleeper to win the division, is 1-2, as is Northwestern, who won their first conference game of Week 0 before losing to Duke and Southern Illinois. Nebraska is in full melt mode and Illinois is…well…Illinois. Iowa’s offensive growth may be well behind schedule, but all of the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten ambitions remain very strong.
Iowa needs to start its conference game on a strong note with this week’s road trip to Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are far from beating the world but are 3-0 this year and aren’t the doormat they used to be thanks to the return of coach Greg Schiano. With tough conference games against Michigan and Ohio State on the horizon, Iowa can’t afford to leave New Jersey with a loss if it hopes to challenge for the Big Ten West crown this season.
Here are three key factors to watch out for in Saturday’s game:
1. Can Iowa establish the run?
There is reason for slight optimism in the running game in Iowa. Freshman running back Kaleb Johnson compiled the Hawkeyes’ best individual offensive performance last week, running for 103 yards and two touchdowns against the Wolfpack. Meanwhile, this week Iowa will have its entire backs healthy and available for the first time all season, with Gavin Williams finally back in full swing and Leshon Williams, who missed the Nevada game, back on the roster. But there is also reason for caution. If you look at Johnson’s long touchdown runs (0:38 and 4:40 in the clip below), you’ll notice how much better the blocking on those games is than basically any other Iowa has run this season. Iowa’s offensive line struggles are very evident when studying the team’s running plays, and the Hawkeyes averaged just 2.03 yards per carry against Nevada outside of Johnson’s two big plays.
The Iowa ground game will face its toughest test of the season so far this week as Rutgers statistically finish 2ndnd best rushing defense in the country. The Scarlet Knights have conceded just 97 rushing yards in three games and give up just 1.09 yards per carry. Unlike some teams whose rush-defense stats are inflated by sacks, Rutgers has been a pass-rushing team from the middle of the field, bringing down the quarterback just six times. Rutger’s rank as an elite running defender was earned the hard way: by shutting down opposing running plays. Linebacker Deion Jennings paved the way as a run stopper and really developed into his own as a senior, and defensemen Aaron Lewis and Ifeanyi Maijeh were also disruptive. Rutgers will likely look to overload Iowa’s offensive line with creative blitz packages and a healthy dose of safety bringing Avery Young into the box. Whether Iowa’s running backs can play against a disciplined running defense or if Iowa’s line can create running lanes for them at all remains to be seen.
If Iowa can run the ball effectively, life will be significantly easier for quarterback Spencer Petras as he works to develop chemistry with Iowa’s healthy(ish) receiving corps. Defensive end Wesley Bailey has proven an effective pass rusher that will challenge Iowa’s tackles, and the Robert Longerbeam-led Rutgers runner-up has proven adept at catching passes, catching five interceptions in three games. If Iowa’s running game falters, the Hawkeyes could count on Petras to win the game with his arm, a prospect that has had less than desirable results so far this year.
2. Can Iowa’s Front Seven dominate the game?
Luckily for Iowa fans, their team won’t be the only roster to take the field at Piscataway with lingering questions down the offensive line. The Scarlet Knights’ front five looked overwhelmed against Temple, giving up eight tackles to loss and keeping the quarterback under constant pressure. The offensive line was a key issue for Rutgers earlier in the season and Schiano’s patchwork unit, built in part via the transfer portal, could struggle to contain a Hawkeye defensive line that has wreaked havoc on opponents in three games.
The Iowa linebackers will also play a big role in containing Scarlet Knight’s attack. Rutgers ranks third in rushing yards per game at 227.33 in the conference, thanks to a solid group of running backs and the creative use of jack-of-all-trades Johnny Langan. No matter who starts as quarterback Saturday (Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral, freshman Gavin Wimsatt and Evan Simon are all in due to multiple injuries at the position), the Scarlet Knights will have a signal caller who can lead the football. Still, Iowa’s linebacking corps, which should be bolstered by the return of Jestin Jacobs, should have plenty of opportunities to disrupt Rutgers’ offense, especially if the front four do their job.
3. Which team can win the game marginally?
Special teams, field positions and penalties play an important role in every football game, but could be particularly important for this duel given the similar playing style of both teams. Iowa’s final matchup against Rutgers produced what we at BHGP have dubbed “The Greatest Punting Battle in History.” Rutgers’ star punter Adam Korsak is still on the team and still excels at pinning opponents deep after not allowing a touchback in “about 136 attempts,” while Iowa’s Tory Taylor hit an impressive 13 of his 23 this year Punts pocketed within the 20 . Both teams’ punters and gunners should be able to create long fields for the opposing offense, meaning the team that can control field position by forcing turnovers and sustaining drives that escape the shadow of their own end zone, has the advantage. Both teams have had great success in recent years by turning overs, and while Iowa has struggled to hit long hits, Rutgers hasn’t proven they can go the full length of the field against a defense of Iowa’s caliber.
Arguably the intangible factor that favors Iowa the most in this game is the disparity in penalties committed by each team. Iowa was one of the cleanest teams in football, sacrificing just 21.7 yards per game for penalty shootouts, the second fewest in the nation. Rutgers, on the other hand, gives up more than three times as many yards per game at 73.3, or 107th best in sports. In a game where field position could be a deciding factor, Iowa’s clear advantage in the penalty department could ultimately give him the advantage.