It seems like it’s yet another typical Hawkeye football season in Iowa once again in 2018. Iowa opened the season 3-0 with victories over Northern Illinois (33-7), Iowa State (13-3) and Northern Iowa (38-14) before falling to Wisconsin 28-17. Three more victories over Minnesota (48-31), Indiana (42-16) and Maryland (23-0) led to the Hawkeyes cracking the AP Top 25 (at #18) before a three game losing streak unfolded against Penn State (30-24), Purdue (38-36) and Northwestern (14-10). On Saturday, Iowa rebounded by demolishing Illinois 63-0.
So there you go. Seven wins once again for the Hawkeyes, with a chance to get to eight on Black Friday. Only twice in the last nine years have the Hawkeyes won fewer than seven (4-8 in 2012) or more than eight (12-2 in 2015); it’s a dependable, consistent level of mediocrity for a state that proudly claims Pizza Ranch and Casey’s as their favorite pizzas.
Iowa’s offense starts with junior quarterback Nathan Stanley, who’s completing 58.6% of his passes, averaging 226 yards passing each game. He’s thrown 21 touchdown passes with 6 interceptions this season. Sophomore tight end T.J. Hockenson has emerged as Iowa’s leading receiver this season, catching 41 passes for 663 yards and six touchdowns. Omaha South graduate Noah Fant has seen his playing time diminish as a result, though he’s still caught 38 passes for 507 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Senior wide receiver Nick Easley has caught 40 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns.
Repeated ankle injuries have limited running back Ivory Kelly-Martin to just seven games and 341 yards this season. No Iowa running back had topped the century mark this season until sophomore Mekhi Sargent rushed for 121 yards last Saturday against Illinois. Sargent and fellow sophomore Toren Young have rushed for 575 and 547 yards respectively this season. The lack of a productive running game has been Iowa’s biggest offensive challenge this season.
Defensively, Iowa ranks second in the Big Ten in every defensive category: scoring defense (16.5 pts. per game), total defense (279.5 yards per game), rushing defense (99.5 yards per game) and passing defense (180.1 yards per game). Safeties Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker lead the Hawkeyes in tackles with 73 and 53 respectively. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa’s 8.5 sacks is tied for second in the Big Ten, though he’s not even a starter. The pass rushing specialist shared Big Ten defensive player of the week honors last week.
Traditionally, Iowa’s linebacker corp has been a foundation for the Iowa defense, but this season, it’s been a revolving door. Senior Jack Hockaday is third on the team in tackles with 51, but from game to game, there hasn’t been any consistency in who’s out there. At one point, Amani Hooker moved up from safety to outside linebacker to help out.
The matchup of the day will be Scott Frost’s offense against the Iowa defense. Iowa’s defense statistically looks to have the edge, but veteran observers of the Hawkeyes have noted that those stats can be misleading.
@marcmorehouse As you bluntly pointed out, the Hawkeyes have losing streaks against each of the relevant teams in the West. Why do I have the sense those teams “out-scheme” Iowa by making adjustments that seem to surprise us. Can I at least dream about relevancy? #PaintedTower— David Schwickerath (@pebace) November 14, 2018
Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette had an interesting response:
I’m not sure if it’s “out-scheming” as much as it’s Iowa facing a coaching staff for the first time. Purdue and Jeff Brohm jump off the page there.
Perhaps those shutouts against Illinois and especially Maryland (115 yards) have skewed the perception of Iowa. And if Jeff Brohm’s offensive creativity makes gives Kirk Ferentz’s staff nightmares, it’s probably safe to suspect that Scott Frost is going to do the same thing on a short week. But will that be enough to overcome the nightmares Mike Riley left behind?
Below, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Iowa Hawkeyes, for comparison purposes.
If you need a singular example of Mike Riley’s failure at Nebraska, the Iowa series probably is the best example to work with. Prior to Mike Riley, Nebraska had won three out of four games since the Huskers moved to the Big Ten. That one loss could be excused by the Bo-lievers as the inevitable result of having to turn to a third-string quarterback in 2013. Nevertheless, Nebraska fans grew tired of losing four games each season, and so a change was made after the 2014 season.
Under Mike Riley, the Hawkeyes outscored Nebraska 124 to 44...and frankly, the games weren’t as close as the scores indicated. And with that three game winning streak, Iowa now leads the series during the Big Ten era four games to three. For Husker fans, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Last season, Nebraska led Iowa 14-7 until Iowa tied the game just before halftime. And in the inevitable conclusion to the Riley era, the Huskers didn’t even bother to come out for the second half as the Hawkeyes scored 42 more points on the blackest of Black Fridays.
Last season, the Hawkeyes had their moments of success. Besides blowing out the Big Red, Iowa also took Ohio State behind the outhouse for a 55-24 shocker. They did come up short against Penn State as the Nittany Lions scored as time expired. But they also got blown out by Wisconsin and were mostly dominated by Purdue to finish the season 8-5. Bill Connelly points out that this was your average Iowa team; the Hawkeyes have won seven or eight games in six out of the last eight seasons.
That seven or eight win trend would seem to be in order for 2018 with 13 starters back. Connelly’s S&P+ projects the Hawkeyes to be pretty much same-as-usual at 36th after averaging a 37.5 ranking over the last 10 years. Although some Hawkeye fans bristle at the concept, Iowa’s administration is committed to Kirk Ferentz’s kind-of-OK level of success, which periodically tempts them with dream seasons of success (such as 2015’s Rose Bowl team).
Iowa’s success or lack-thereof will likely originate with junior quarterback Nathan Stanley (6’5” 242 lbs), who threw 26 touchdown passes last season with just six interceptions. His completion percentage of 56% could probably stand some improvement, though. (Tanner Lee completed 58% of his passes, for comparison.) Despite quarterbacking a run-dominant offense in high school, he wasn’t terribly mobile last season, losing a net of 115 yards on 49 official carries (thanks to taking too many sacks). If Stanley goes down, Iowa will have to turn to a freshman, either Peyton Mansell (6’2” 210 lbs.) or Spencer Petras (6’5” 227 lbs.).
Eleven of those touchdown passes last season went to junior tight end Noah Fant (6’5” 241 lbs.), who’ll go down as Mike Riley’s biggest recruiting failure. The Omaha South resigned himself to a fate with Iowa after failing to convince Riley and his staff that he would be a better tight end than defensive end. Oops. (Yet another reason why Riley and crew weren’t ever going to be the answer in Lincoln.) Now going into his junior season, he’s a preseason All-American who’s going to be a pain in the Big Ten’s rear until he gets the call to the NFL. Senior Nick Easley (5’11” 203 lbs.) led the Hawkeyes in receiving last season with 51 catches for 530 yards and four touchdowns. Look for sophomore speedster Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6’1” 175 lbs.) to see much more playing time after catching 18 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman.
Going into this season, most expected that sophomore Toren Young (5’11” 220 lbs.) to be the new Iowa running back after Akrum Wadley and James Butler moved on. Young did lead the rest of the running backs with 45 carries for 193 yards and two touchdowns, but last week, sophomore Ivory Kelly-Martin (5’10” 200 lbs.) moved atop the depth chart. Kelly-Martin rushed for 184 yards (90 of which came against Nebraska) on 20 carries last season with three touchdowns. Junior college transfer Mekhi Sargent (5’10” 210 lbs.) was a first team Juco All-American at Iowa Western last season after rushing for 1,441 yards and 14 touchdowns.
One constant of the Kirk Ferentz era has been Iowa’s offensive line, but with the departure of their two best from last season, you’ve got to expect a step back. Sophomore right tackle Tristan Wirfs (6’5” 320 lbs.) started eight games last season and should be a key contributor after serving a one game suspension for driving while under the influence. Sophomore left tackle Alaric Jackson (6’7” 320 lbs.) has been suspended since the bowl game, but started all twelve regular season games. He’s assumed to also be back for the week two matchup against Iowa State. Senior Keegan Render (6’4” 310 lbs.) has started just about everywhere on the interior of the line the last two seasons.
On defense, the defensive line looks pretty solid with three returning starters and a couple of highly recruited players waiting in the wings. But first, junior defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore (6’3” 295 lbs.) has to escape a crowded Iowa penalty box with a one game suspension. When he returns, he’ll join senior Matt Nelson (6’8” 295 lbs.) on the interior. The Hawkeye defensive ends could be special this season, though. Junior Anthony Nelson (6’7” 271 lbs.) was a third-team all-Big Ten honoree with 41 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Senior Parker Hesse (6’3” 257 lbs.) held off sophomore A.J. Epenesa (6’5” 277 lbs.) to keep his starting spot. Hesse, a Grand Island native who’s Iowa scholarship offer was his only from a 1-A school, had 43 tackles last season while six of Epenesa’s 15 tackles last season were behind the line of scrimmage. Despite not starting, Epenesa’s eight quarterback hurries led the Hawkeyes last season.
The Hawkeyes back seven on defense has a bunch of question marks this season with the need to replace all three linebackers plus their top corner and safety. Junior middle linebacker Amani Jones (6’0” 235 lbs.) has to somehow find a way to fill the shoes of first team All-American Josey Jewell after seeing only limited action (10 tackles) in his first two seasons. Sophomore Nick Niemann (6’4” 232 lbs.) will probably take over for his big brother Ben; Nick played in all 13 games last year with five tackles.
Hard-copy printed previews of Iowa likely list junior Manny Rugamba and senior Brandon Snyder as projected starters in the secondary this season. However, at the end of July, Snyder announced that he was transferring to South Dakota State, taking his brother Jaden (who was planning to walk on at Iowa) with him rather than face disciplinary action from Kirk Ferentz. Senior Jake Gervase (6’1” 210 lbs.) will continue to play free safety; Gervase is the leading returning tackler from last season with 58. Junior Amani Hooker (6’0” 210 lbs.) will man the strong safety spot after totaling 56 tackles last season. But with All-American cornerback Joshua Jackson now with the Packers and Rugamba’s decision to leave in July, the Hawkeyes have to find two new corners. Sophomore Matt Hankins (6’1” 185 lbs.) and junior Michael Ojemudia (6’1” 200 lbs.) will get the first shot this fall; they combined for 50 tackles and two pass breakups last year as spot reserves.
Many people think Nebraska and Iowa are natural Big Ten rivals, but that seems to be based mostly on proximity of the two schools. I tend to disagree, because I think rivalries are based in large measure on the meanings of the games. Colorado and Kansas State didn’t really become much of a Big Eight rival of Nebraska until those programs rose to Nebraska’s level. To be honest, Nebraska has simply fallen below Iowa’s level during Mike Riley’s era. That’s for Scott Frost to fix, because at Nebraska, consistently losing four games a year is unacceptable. At Iowa, consistently losing five or six games each season gets you a long-term contract extension. That distinction pretty much defines and separates these two programs.