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Breaking down No. 25 Iowa (2-1) vs. Rutgers (2-1). Kickoff is 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
The Scarlet Knights’ defensive line is full of Big Ten-sized seniors, led by fifth year end Julian Pinnix-Odrick (6-5, 274) and tackle Darius Hamilton (6-3, 286). Pinnix-Odrick was a massive recruit for former RU coach Kyle Flood’s class and, as a senior, he’s showing up, leading RU with 20 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
For the second week, you’re going to hear some things coming from the opposing camp that sound familiar. In head coach Chris Ash’s first season, RU’s captains are all linemen, two O-linemen and Pinnix-Odrick and Hamilton.
“In everything we do, the D-line and O-line is in the middle of it,” Pinnix-Odrick told NJ.com. “They aren’t off to the flanks. It’s the first thing (Ash) said: ‘This team will be built on our offensive and defensive lines. No bones about it. Skill positions, you guys are important, but it’s not where the games are won.’”
Rutgers runs a 4-3 cover 4 defense that will have to depend on a veteran front four. The linebacker corps went into the season opener with one career start among the three.
OK, the big number from last week with Iowa was the 34 rushing yards, lowest output since Michigan State 2013, a span of 36 games. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz won’t let the fact that center Lucas LeGrand and guard Keegan Render were in their second and first career starts, respectively, be the excuse for a poor performance. But let’s consider who they had to replace: Junior guard Sean Welsh is an all-Big Ten caliber player. Center James Daniels is a 4-star recruit who picked Iowa over Alabama and Ohio State.
It’s safe to say there was some drop-off. What was the problem? There were at least a handful if not more missed combo blocks, when a guard or tackle came off a double team a step late allowing a flowing linebacker to run free. That’s not how that’s supposed to work.
With Welsh (ankle) and Daniels (knee), the O-line should have clearer channels of communication and better cohesion, as in who’s working with whom and who’s on their own. Welsh and Daniels might not cure everything, but their experience should show up in a big rebound.
Iowa people have given the quicksand at the running back position — c’mon people, it’s slowed some, a little anyway — the nickname “AIRBHG” over the years (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God). That takes creativity. Maybe lend a hand to your friends at Rutgers.
The Knights have a similar deal going with their secondary. The cornerback position has been hit particularly hard since the 2013 season, when the defense allowed the most passing yards in school history. Last week against New Mexico, RU was without nickel cornerback Ross Douglas and free safety Saquan Hampton. Hampton will be out this week. Douglas should be available.
Ash came up through the secondary before becoming Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Ohio State. He employs a cover 4 that can morph into just about anything, including man-to-man.
This is where this game could turn. Rutgers is inexperienced on the back end, with three sophomores and a senior. Sophomore corner Isaiah Wharton (6-1, 202) has an interception this season. Sophomore Blessuan Austin is tied for the team lead with three pass breakups.
Can Iowa and veteran quarterback C.J. Beathard take advantage? After last week, it’s a valid question. Where do you start?
Beathard started the game with an uncharacteristic miss to wide-open tight end George Kittle. It was the very first play and it kind of just hung over the game like a bad odor. He finished with the second fewest completions in his 17 starts (he was held to nine twice last season).
To be fair, the headline with Iowa’s passing game was the pressure NDSU was able to get. Under pressure and when blitzed, Beathard completed just 3 of 7 with a TD, an interception that was returned for a TD and a pair of sacks. Beathard said none of the blitzes were anything Iowa hadn’t seen. Ferentz said the errors against the blitz are correctable. No one is pushing the panic button, but Iowa has allowed six sacks in three games, tied for 10th in the Big Ten.
One change last week was RB LeShun Daniels taking over for Derrick Mitchell on third downs. Mitchell missed the game with a leg injury and will be out this week. Mitchell is Iowa’s primary third-down back. He’s familiar with protections and blitz pickup. The idea with blitz pickup is identifying the most dangerously positioned blitzer and making sure he’s accounted for. The OL also has to make sure if the back has most dangerous that it allows a clean look.
They say it’s fixable, so this is where Iowa has to score a clear victory.
Drew Mehringer, who’s 28 years old, runs the Knights’ offense after coming in from Houston. Ash hired him from Houston, so Mehringer is a disciple of Houston coach Tom Herman, a practitioner of the “power spread.” Mehringer was a grad assistant at Iowa State when Herman served as offensive coordinator there from 2009 to 2011 (for what it’s worth, Iowa was 2-1 against Herman’s offense, but that one was a 44-41 triple-overtime wild ride).
The power spread offense thrives on quarterback runs and a fast tempo. In the running game, it combines gap schemes that create numerical advantages at the point of attack with spread formations. Basically, the middle linebacker is forced out of the box to align with a slot receiver.
At Houston, this offense really goes with quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who had almost 4,000 yards of total offense last season. The Knights aren’t there yet, but they do have a big offensive line that has three fifth-year seniors and running back Robert Martin (who averages 6.81 yards on 37 carries).
There’s also do-everything receiver Janarion Grant (5-10, 180), who’s thrown a TD pass, returned punts and kicks and rushed for TDs in three games this season. The senior from Plainfield, N.J., averages 187.3 all-purpose yards per game, fifth in the nation.
Yes, Iowa gave up 239 rushing yards last week to North Dakota State. And, yes, that was the biggest rush number put on the Hawkeyes since Tennessee rushed for 283 in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl (a span of 17 games).
The Bison didn’t roll a huge number of surprises at the Hawkeyes, but there was enough eye candy to get Iowa defenders off their keys and spring big plays. When a defense is spread out, in-play adjustments become all the more difficult, especially moving through keys while a play is in motion.
One fundamental that Ferentz mentioned lacked in Iowa’s rush defense was displacement. A few times receivers got blocks and the defense didn’t rotate to cover that.
Again, the problems were deemed “fixable.” So, benefit of the doubt, at least this week, but Iowa’s rush defense in 2016 (523 yards in three games) hasn’t been close to what it was in 2015 (it took seven games for opponents to total 500 yards).
A dual-threat QB is the key to the power spread. RU quarterback junior Chris Laviano (6-2, 221) has 52 rushing yards in his three-year career at Rutgers. Laviano can run, but, no, he’s not Greg Ward. Who is?
Still, in last week’s 37-28 victory over New Mexico, Laviano was benched for the first time since he earned the starting job in 2015.
Laviano missed some throws in the second half and was pulled in favor of Zach Allen. Through the first three games, Laviano’s 105.16 pass-efficiency rating ranks 14th in the 14-team Big Ten and 101st nationally.
It was one of the first questions to Ash in this week’s news conference. Laviano appears safe, but Ash made it known the position is an ongoing competition.
“Chris has earned the right to be our starting quarterback,” Ash said. “Does that mean that he is exempt from being evaluated and potentially lose his job? No, it doesn’t. But through the course of spring, summer training camp and what he does on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday of practice, he’s earned that right.
“Now does he still have to go out and perform? Absolutely he does. And we’re not satisfied with the way that we have performed at the quarterback position this year in the first three games. But if we just go around and pull the hook on every player that struggles, does that mean we’re necessarily going to put a player in there that gives us a better chance to win? I don’t know. Sometimes you might, sometimes you might not.”
Between Grant and redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris (5-9, 192), the Knights have two playmakers in the passing game. In his first career start last week, Harris had a game-high 94 receiving yards and a 75-yard TD. Harris also is an outfielder on RU’s baseball team, hitting .278 with 37 stolen bases last season. Grant averages just 7.47 yards on 15 receptions.
Iowa safeties Miles Taylor and Brandon Snyder were targeted eight times by NDSU, which hit for five passes for 61 yards and a TD. Taylor (5-11, 205) allowed two receptions to NDSU’s big TE Connor Wentz (6-3, 247). Snyder lost sight of fullback Chase Morlock for a 7-yard TD.
Grant returned a punt for a 69-yard TD in the Knights’ comeback victory over New Mexico. He totaled 112 punt return yards and wasn’t named Big Ten special teams player of the week, which is probably OK with him. He’s already won four of those. Grant also has ﬁve career kickoff returns for touchdowns, tying the Big Ten record.
Grant averages 16.0 yards on seven punt returns. He leads the league with 32.5 yards on six kick returns.
Rutgers kicker David Bonagura is 6 of 7 this year with a long of 41. Kickoff specialist Jared Smolar has zero touchbacks so far this year, which Iowa kick returner Desmond King could turn into an opportunity (he’s No. 2 in the B1G with 27.5 yards per kick return).
Let’s stay with touchbacks for a second, Iowa kickoff specialist Ron Coluzzi is No. 2 in the league with 15 touchbacks. That might be a valuable tool vs. Rutgers. Coluzzi also had a max hangtime last week of 4.93, which is excellent.
Iowa has had just one punt returned against it for zero yards, so it does lead the league in punt return defense. Iowa is ninth in kick coverage, but has only seen four returns.
1. Win one for the sipper — Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs apologized this week after video of him drinking a beer at Rutgers’ school-sponsored tailgate party surfaced. In the wake of the incident, which was caught on camera last weekend, the event has been shut down.
This feels so like an intangible that could push the Knights over the top.
2. What Springsteen lyric are you, Iowa? — The Hawkeyes began last weekend as the odds-on favorite to defend their Big Ten West Division title. They graded out from a D (Big Ten Network’s Tom Dienhart) to an F (hello, everyone) after last week’s loss to North Dakota State, the finest FCS program in history but still an FCS program. Lots of talk this week about how Iowa digested this. It was a shock to the system. Guess what? Iowa has to deal with it. That’s one of the hugely interesting storylines in this game.
This is Iowa’s first trip to Rutgers, which is situated in New Jersey, the home of American rock icon Bruce Springsteen. Let’s put this in Springsteen lyrics.
Is Iowa the first few lines of “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City”? “I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra ... I was born blue and weathered, but I burst just like a supernova,” Or is Iowa something from the “Human Touch” record, something like “Long Goodbye”? “Yeah, yeah, this is the long goodbye ... Hey yeah, this is the long goodbye.”
Which would you rather be?
3. Family ties — You know that RU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann is the father of outside linebacker Ben Neimann and freshman linebacker Nick Niemann. That’s weird. RU O-line coach A.J. Blazek played center for the Hawkeyes in 2000. He also got his coaching career started at Iowa. Iowa RB Akrum Wadley is returning to his home for the first and only time of his career.
Beathard, whose sibling rivalries with his brothers shaped his competitive fire, kind of nailed it with this:
“If it was me, I’d want to beat my family more than I’d want to beat anyone,” Beathard said. “Growing up like that and competing against your siblings, I know Ben is a competitive guy and he wants to win this one more than anything.”
RUTGERS WILL WIN IF ... The Knights can pressure Beathard. Iowa has allowed two sacks a game this season. The Knights will have to protect a young secondary. Stringing drives together will be key for RU’s offense.
IOWA WILL WIN IF ... The Hawkeyes clean up assignments in pass protection and bank efficient plays. End-tackle twists have given opponents too many free runners at Beathard. Last week was more offense than defense as far as Iowa’s problems went. Iowa didn’t string together enough efficient plays to help either side of the ball. Iowa does lead the Big Ten with 6.19 yards per first-down carry, but its 42 attempts are second fewest in the league (Purdue has 31).
PREDICTION: Iowa 34, Rutgers 24
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