Iowa Football

Iowa football schedule analysis: Degree of difficulty in 'the pandemic season' is doable

Can programs inch ahead during an 8-game whirlwind year in the grip of COVID-19? Sure, why not?

Workers from MUSCO test the new stadium lights in Kinnick Stadium for the first time Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015 in Iowa City
Workers from MUSCO test the new stadium lights in Kinnick Stadium for the first time Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

This is the year where everyone is sort of learning on the job. From COVID-19 to, you know, the plays and football stuff, a lot of this is going to be football on the fly.

Ready or not, the earthquake machine plugs in and turns on for the Iowa Hawkeyes this Saturday at Purdue.

You know Iowa’s questions. Yes, sophomore Spencer Petras is a first-year starter, but this also is his third year in the offense. Offensive line? The competition sounds intriguing. Defensive line? Lots of moving pieces that will need proving out.

What about the other guys?

If you’re a fan of the Big Ten West Division rivalries — and hey, there’s something there for everyone — this is kind of what you want. Six of the Hawkeyes’ nine games will be against the Big Ten West. On crossovers, the Hawkeyes (Michigan State, at Penn State) didn’t get the Nebraska treatment (at Ohio State, Penn State), but let’s acknowledge that James Franklin has built the lone consistent contender to Ohio State in the Big Ten East and Jim Harbaugh hasn’t.

So then, let’s do the games.

Oct. 24 — At Purdue

If nothing else, thank the Big Ten’s reboot of the 2020 football season for a last chance to enjoy Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore.

Moore opted out and squarely put himself on the NFL draft path back in August. He didn’t sign with an agent. He stayed in class. He stayed in touch with head coach Jeff Brohm and now Moore is back. He was the Big Ten’s first true freshman consensus all-American in 2018 with 114 receptions for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018, becoming just the third Big Ten player to eclipse 100 receptions in a season.

Quarterback? It’s still undecided, but sophomore Jack Plummer probably has the inside track. In seven games last season, he completed 59.8 percent with 11 TDs and eight interceptions. In a 26-20 loss at Iowa last year, Plummer completed 30 of 50 passes for 327 yards, two TDs and an interception.

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Degree of difficulty — Doable, but tricky and far from automatic and you know that

When Moore was knocked out for the season last year with a hamstring injury, Purdue’s fortunes slid off the board, finishing with a 4-8 thud. A victory over Iowa does a lot for the Purdue program. A good Purdue is good for the Big Ten West. You know that’s true, you just hope you can say that after your team plays the Boilermakers. Purdue broke the bank to keep Brohm and now it is spending on facilities. Brohm is 2-1 against Iowa and will go bombs away.

Oct. 31 — Northwestern

Iowa starts 2020 with a pair of games that have become “50/50” for the program in the last few seasons. Iowa swept Purdue and Northwestern last year after going 0-for-4 in 2017-18.

What’s different about Northwestern this year? New offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian comes in from serving as OC/QB coach at Boston College last year. Injuries had a convention at Northwestern quarterback last season. This year, Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey was fifth in the Big Ten last season in total offense per game (246.0 yards).

Expect Northwestern to play to head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s defense and then try to eek things out on offense. Pretty much like the Hawkeyes.

You should enjoy this game because it features behemoth middle linebackers — NU’s Paddy Fisher (6-4, 240) and Iowa’s Jack Campbell (6-5, 243). Maybe that comes with a lot of touchdowns if the OCs can find the right matchups, but, most likely, prepare for something in the 14-10 range.

Degree of difficulty — Again, doable with a side of “better know what you’re doing”

Any sense of entitlement Iowa fans had over Northwestern has officially been extinguished. Yes, Iowa won 21 straight from 1974 to 1994, but since then, it’s 13-10 Northwestern. The Hawkeyes snapped a three-game losing streak to NU last year and should be together enough on defense to jam up a first-year operation.

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Nov. 7 — Michigan State

We’re all going to take a journey with first-year Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker. The journey is to find out if Tucker is outfitted to be a Power Five head coach. A 5-7 season at Colorado is something, but it’s still a thin resume.

The thing that can make this work for the Spartans is defense. Tucker was an NFL defensive coordinator and ignited his college coaching career with defensive stints at Alabama and Georgia. The assignment this year will be rebuilding a monumentally good defensive line.

Former West Des Moines Valley prep Rocky Lombardi probably gets the nod at quarterback. This likely will be a “don’t blow it for the defense” offense.

Degree of difficulty — It’s Michigan State and with Iowa and MSU the eternal question is: Is this good defense or bad offense?

If the O-line pass protects, Iowa should have enough speed and size in the receiver corps to challenge the Spartans on the perimeter. Can Iowa grind out enough rushing yards to control this? It should. Classic two-score Kirk Ferentz milker should happen.

Nov. 13 — At Minnesota

Not sure why this game is a Friday night in Minneapolis, but why not? There will be plenty of camera shots of the Floyd of Rosedale pig trophy. Floyd gets Iowa-Minnesota some decent TV times because he’s a good story and oh so photogenic.

Minnesota has crossed off some big things in head coach P.J. Fleck’s first three seasons. In 2018, the Gophers beat Wisconsin for the first time in 15 seasons. They tied for the Big Ten West Division title last season and have won bowl games in the last two years.

The Gophers haven’t beaten Iowa, so that’s probably pretty high on the list.

Degree of difficulty — In a lot of preseason predictions, the Gophers have mostly been the popular pick for second place in the West, behind Wisconsin. Iowa is in the way. It’s cool for Minnesota and the game that wide receiver Rashod Batemen opted back in and will play this season. Neither program here will ever totally clear and separate itself from the other. That said, the Gophers have to keep this interesting. For Iowa, just as it is with Purdue and Northwestern, it’s best not to let the other program up.

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Nov. 21 — At Penn State

This is the road trip that, for a Big Ten West Division program, is most likely the biggest challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic. State College, Pa., is one pretty long charter flight. Of course, all of the precautions, but there’s still something a little oogy about being in confined spaces with a lot of bodies.

Anyway, quarterback Sean Clifford threw 23 TDs to just seven picks last year. RB Journey Brown should push a rush offense that averaged 5.5 yards per carry on first down last season. The Nittany Lions return a lot of talent to a defense that allowed just 16 points a game last season. Yes, PSU will have to deal with the loss of sensational linebacker Micah Parsons, but depth should shine.

Degree of difficulty — A chance for Iowa to inch ahead

You can argue that Ferentz made his bones at Iowa by beating Michigan and Penn State. In his first 10 games against the Lions, Ferentz guided the Hawkeyes to an 8-2 record. Since then, it’s six consecutive losses to Penn State.

What is there to be really gained in a pandemic-shortened eight-game season? You can probably argue there are two games that could do that for the Hawkeyes. This is definitely one of them.

Back-to-back road trips might take a toll on the Hawkeyes. Cross your fingers for no virus.

Nov. 27 — Nebraska

Is beating Iowa this season a chance for Nebraska to inch ahead? Yeah, it probably is if the destination is realistic. It’s been five straight for the Hawkeyes.

There’s a rivalry trophy. Never mind about that. Look at the Huskers recruiting in Iowa (Council Bluffs Lewis Central TE Thomas Fidone, Fremont-Mills LB Seth Malcom and Mount Pleasant OL Henry Lutovsky and a pair of defensive ends in the last few years). Yes, Iowa has had recruiting successes in Nebraska. Still, this is college football and every incursion is an affront against humanity.

The Huskers offense has boiled down into a QB controversy. Adrian Martinez was a yardage machine in 2018 (second in the conference in total offense with 295.1 yards per game), but injuries curbed the production last season, redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey got enough relief work to become intriguing for the fan base and now Nebraska has yet to announce a starter and it’s game week at No. 5 Ohio State.

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The Huskers should be deeper on defense this season. In four November games last season, the Huskers allowed just 365 yards per. Depth should allow more package options.

Degree of difficulty — Iowa is the hunted here

It’s probably good that the pandemic schedule does land Iowa opposite the Huskers on Black Friday. This will be the 10th now. Iowa fans have bought in. Yes, it’s Nebraska’s tradition, but now it’s also Iowa’s. The Big Ten would be smart to keep it going.

This rivalry has become a sweet flower with bitter roots. Translation: The fan bases hate each other and it makes for fun social media.

Dec. 5 — At Illinois

Let’s run some of the numbers because they say everything you need to know: Iowa has won six straight. Iowa has won 11 of the last 12. Iowa has won 14 of the last 17. Illinois hasn’t beaten Iowa since a 27-24 thriller in Champaign in 2008. Before that, it was 31-0 in 2000 at Memorial Stadium. Illinois hasn’t won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999, Ferentz’s first season in Iowa City.

For everything that has changed in the Big Ten — well, Ohio State, so maybe not so much has changed — the one thing that has gone away are Illinois’ “out of nowhere” rising ups like the eye of the tiger.

Lovie Smith led the Fighting Illini to four straight wins in the middle of 2019, including a victory over Wisconsin. It lost its next three, including a 35-20 loss to California in the Redbox Bowl.

Illinois returns quarterback Brandon Peters and an experienced offensive line. With Smith having made his waves in the NFL as a defensive coach, it’s time for Illinois to figure that out. It’s the only way the Illini are going to turn the corner past the Redbox Bowl.

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Degree of difficulty — Something to be said for taking care of business

If Illinois is going to climb out of the Big Ten sinkhole, you don’t want it to start on your watch. Iowa gets comfortable in these games. Can Illinois make the Hawkeyes uncomfortable? Probably not this year.

Dec. 12 — Wisconsin

If Iowa beats the Badgers, you’ll remember the 2020 football season for more than the pandemic.

There isn’t a ton of news coming out of many Big Ten programs as what would’ve been their fall camps break into game week. Maybe that’s good for your program, maybe not so good. News trickled out of Madison last week that QB Jack Coan suffered a foot injury and is out indefinitely. How that news plays out will have a lot to do with how redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, a highly recruited (offers from Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and, why not, Iowa) 4-star QB from Kansas.

One of the traits of the Badgers’ 3-4 defense is how it reloads at the key position of outside linebacker. Wisconsin now has a brigade of outside pass rushers who can drop into coverage on occasion in the NFL. This year, the name you’ll hear a lot there is true freshman Nick Herbig, a 6-2, 220-pounder from Honolulu, Hawaii.

Degree of difficulty — Difficult

Iowa has played with the Badgers the last two years, but it hasn’t come out on top. So, that’s four in a row for Wisconsin, seven of the last eight and eight of the last 11. The Hawkeyes haven’t beaten Wisconsin at Kinnick since 2008.

Can a program make a move during the pandemic season? This is Iowa’s chance to inch ahead a little bit. The work for the Hawkeyes is keeping Big Ten West programs in the rearview mirror, but the big mountain is the Badgers. This could be Iowa’s chance to make this season something other than the “pandemic season.”

Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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