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Reviewing the 2020 Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes have won three in a row this season, and try to make it six straight against Nebraska.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State
Punting is winning.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawkeyes started the 2020 season 0-2 after losing second half leads to Purdue and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes were driving deep into Purdue territory when the Boilermakers forced a Mekhi Sargeant turnover. A twelve play touchdown drive gave Purdue the 24-20 victory. Against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes blew a 17-0 first quarter lead with three Spencer Petras interceptions as the Wildcats defeated Iowa 21-20. But Iowa turned their season around with back-to-back blowout victories over hapless Michigan State (49-7) and Minnesota (35-7). Last week, Iowa scored 28 unanswered points in the second and third quarters enroute to a 41-21 victory over still-winless Penn State.

Sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras is coming off his best game as a Hawkeye; against Penn State he completed over 64% of his passes for 186 yards. For the season, he’s completing 56% of his passes for 956 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions. Petras is not a huge threat to run, gaining nine yards on the season after subtracting sacks.

The biggest key to Iowa’s five game winning streak against the Huskers has been domination on the ground; the Hawkeyes have had at least one 100 yard rusher in each game in the post-Pelini era. And in the last three years, it’s been Iowa running backs having their biggest game of the season against Nebraska. In 2020, sophomore Tyler Goodson has rushed for 453 yards and six touchdowns in five games, while senior Mekhi Sargent has rushed for 309 yards and another six touchdowns. Sargent is averaging 6.4 yards per carry while Goodson is averaging 5.5. Iowa has won all three games this season where one of their backs have rushed for 100 yards, so stopping the run has to be a focus point for the Blackshirts.

The school that has sent George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant to the NFL in recent years now has three more sophomore tight ends on top of their receiving stats. Sam LaPorta leads Iowa with 17 catches for 165 while Nico Ragaini has 15 catches for 165 yards and Tyrone Tracy has 13 catches for 148 yards. Senior receivers Brandon Smith (12 catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (11 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown) lead the receivers.

Defensively, Iowa presents the second toughest test of the season for the Huskers. The Hawkeyes rank third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16 pts. per game), total defense (319.8 yards per game) and passing defense (217.2 yards per game); Iowa is fourth in rush defense, giving up 102.6 yards per game on the ground. Linebackers Nick Niemann and Seth Benson lead the Hawkeyes with 49 and 36 tackles respectively. Benson, a sophomore, took over at middle linebacker after Djimon Colbert’s decision to opt-out of playing in 2020. Free safety Jack Koerner is third with 30 tackles and leads with three interceptions. Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon is fourth with 28 tackles; 8.5 of them are for loss. (Nixon also had a 71 yard Pick-Six fat guy interception return last week against Penn State.)

On the basis of last week’s games, the prognosis for Nebraska breaking the Hawkeyes’ five game winning streak would seem rather bleak. But I’m also reminded of a bad loss in 2015 where a pathetic Purdue squad (pre-Jeff Brohm) trucked Nebraska.

One week later, Nebraska upset the undefeated, sixth-ranked Michigan State Spartans. So never give up, because you never know when something unexpected is going to happen.

And for reference, here’s the preseason preview of the Iowa Hawkeyes, for comparison sake:

Typically after a long summer of writing opponent previews, I usually had a little bit of fun with the final one. Whether it was the Big XII or Big Ten, the season ended with a neighboring team wearing black, yellow and delusions of their status in college football.

But then the Mike Riley era came and flipped that notion on it’s head. Since Riley’s arrival in Lincoln, Nebraska is UH-OH and SEVEN against those black and yellow teams that I scoffed at. Sure, Scott Frost has narrowed the gap the last couple of years, but even though the combined margins of defeat is just 14 points against those teams, Nebraska’s 0-4 record against Colorado and Iowa the last two seasons reinforces just how far Nebraska has slipped.

That being said, while Nebraska was self-destructing the football program the last five years, Iowa football has been on the rise, winning 47 games the last five seasons. And while Nebraska has sat at home for the holidays, Iowa has won three straight bowl games. And at first glance, Iowa seems like a fairly safe bet to make it to their seventh straight bowl game (COVID-19 permitting) this season.

On offense, the Hawkeyes have seven returning starters from last season and added a graduate transfer offensive lineman from Indiana who had started every game in his career until an ankle injury sidelined him. Coy Cronk (6’5” 315 lbs.) should be a capable replacement for All-American Tristan Wirfs, a first round draft pick by Tampa Bay, at right tackle. He’ll match up with senior left tackle Alaric Jackson (6’6” 320 lbs.), who’s also a three-year starter. Also returning are sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum (6’3” 288 lbs.), who started every game in 2019, and junior right guard Kyler Schott (6’2” 290 lbs.)

In past years, I’ve been guilty of underestimating the ease that Iowa would have in replacing a starting quarterback with a backup with little to no playing time. Nate Stanley only threw nine passes as a freshman backup before becoming a three year starter and seventh round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings. Jake Rudock never even took a snap his first two seasons with the Hawkeyes before being named the starter in 2013. So even though sophomore Spencer Petras (6’5” 231 lbs.) has only thrown 11 passes so far for Iowa, the Hawkeyes’ track record indicates Petras likely will be just fine. Of course, if Petras didn’t get many snaps last season, nobody else did either. That means that Petras will be backed up by someone with no experience, such as redshirt freshman Alex Padilla (6’1” 193 lbs.) or mobile true freshman Deuce Hogan (6’4” 200 lbs.)

One reason why Petras should be just fine at quarterback is that Iowa’s top seven receivers from last season all return, led by seniors Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6’1” 186 lbs.) and Brandon Smith (6’2” 219 lbs.) along with sophomore Tyrone Tracy (5’11” 203 lbs.). Smith-Marsette and Tracy are the speed-burners; last season, Smith-Marsette scored five touchdowns receiving, three rushing and two more on kickoff returns. (As Husker fans may painfully remember.) A name to keep an eye on is junior Charlie Jones (6’0” 192 lbs.), a transfer from Buffalo who’s caught the eye of the coaches and has been receiving significant snaps with the first team in preseason practices.

Iowa returns their top two running backs in sophomore Tyler Goodson (5’10” 200 lbs.) and senior Mekhi Sargent (5’9” 212 lbs.). Goodson rushed for 638 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry while Sargent rushed for 563 yards and four scores with a 4.7 yards per carry average. A disturbing trend continued last season as for the third straight season, Iowa’s leading running back had his biggest game of the season against the Huskers. Two years ago, it was Sargent rushing for 173 yards; last season, it was Goodson’s 116 yards.

On defense, Iowa has been solid in recent years but now has to replace many of the key pieces of last year’s group. Up front, Iowa has to replace three of four starters, including third team All-American defensive end AJ Epenesa, Buffalo’s second round draft selection. Only senior end Chauncey Golston (6’5” 272 lbs.) returns after a 47 tackle season in 2019. Northern Illinois grad transfer Jack Heflin (6’4” 319 lbs.) should help at defensive tackle; Heflin was third team All-MAC as a sophomore and second team last season.

At linebacker, junior Djimon Colbert (6’1” 235 lbs.) is a two year starter who had 61 tackles last season; he’ll slide over into the middle linebacker role. Senior Nick Niemann (6’4” 235 lbs.) has been a spot starter throughout his career and should get the nod at the weakside linebacker spot. Last season, Iowa finally transitioned to a 4-2-5 defense with a nickel back. Sophomore Dane Belton (6’1” 200 lbs.) emerged at that position last season with 33 tackles.

Iowa’s secondary has to replace two NFL draft picks this season, but does return junior free safety Jack Koerner (6’0” 208 lbs.), who is the leading returning tackler from last season with 81. Senior cornerback Matt Hankins (6’0” 190 lbs.) has started 20 games in his career; last year, Hankins intercepted two passes and was fifth on the team with 58 tackles.

Any other year, Iowa would probably be considered the primary challenger to Wisconsin’s dominance in the Big Ten’s West division. But this summer, Iowa football has been rocked by racial discrimination complaints. Black former players have alleged that Kirk and Brian Ferentz, along with former strength coach Chris Doyle, harassed and discriminated players. This week, eight former players demanded that the Ferentzes and athletic director Gary Barta be terminated for their actions. When these allegations first surfaced in June, Ferentz seemed shocked and while he’s promised to change, those promises haven’t been enough for some of his former players. The big question that remains to be answered is how the current players will react to this? Could this be Kirk Ferentz’s final season at Iowa?