Iowa Football

Iowa vs. Rutgers: The Big Analysis

The Big Ten opener in week 2, what a great way to find out who you are or who you aren't

No. 20 Iowa hosts Rutgers in Big Ten football Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
No. 20 Iowa hosts Rutgers in Big Ten football Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
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Big Ten openers are happening now earlier and earlier.

Two years ago, Ohio State traveled to Indiana on a Thursday night to play during the first week of the season. This year, the No. 20 Hawkeyes (1-0) and Rutgers (1-0) are first up for the league. Yes, it is the Hawkeyes’ earliest Big Ten game in history.

What to make of the Scarlet Knights?

They won their opener last year, against FCS Texas State, and then lost the next 11. The streak was snapped last week with a 48-21 victory over Massachusetts, an independent FBS school (85 scholarships in FBS; 63 in FCS).

Why do we think this Rutgers might be different?

The Knights’ numbers say it was one of the most explosive offenses in the Big Ten and the country last week. They put up eight plays of 20-plus, four 30-yarders and two 40- and 50-yarders.

When you were 1-11 last year, that’s a bona fide sign of life.

Kickoff on Saturday is 11:05 a.m. at Kinnick Stadium. The game is on FS1.

Rolling with Rutgers

1. Quarterback! — The Knights’ QB decision had to have been touchy. Artur Sitkowski is a New Jersey native. As a true freshman last season, he got his shot, starting 11 games. The results weren’t there and so head coach Chris Ash had to be open to alternatives. Sitkowski threw just four TD passes and a Big Ten-high 18 interceptions.

Enter McLane Carter, a lefty and a graduate transfer from Texas Tech. He announced the transfer to New Jersey in early May. So, that does make his performance against Massachusetts in the opener stunning.

The 6-3, 225-pounder from Gilmer, Texas, completed 21 of 31 (67.7 percent) for 340 yards, two TDs and three interceptions. Yes, three interceptions. Carter threw a pick on his second throw and then tightened up and put up the first 300-yard performance for a Rutgers QB since 2015.

You hear about QB transfers all of the time. Carter started his career at Incarnate Word, moved on to Tyler (Texas) Junior College, Texas Tech and now Rutgers. Whatever works when it comes to college football rosters in 2019.

 
 

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2. Explosions in the sky — We’ve been over the impressive array of explosive plays the Knights put up against UMass. What grabs you is the balance. Rutgers had five run plays go more than 20 yards, including running back Isaih Pacheco’s 57-yard TD run. In the passing game, it was 11 20-plus plays, with wide receiver Bo Melton averaging 21.6 yards on six catches.

That says healthy offensive line and points. One number that won’t come up much but still is impressive is the Knights’ points per play. Last season, it was what you’d think it’d be for a 1-11 team (.206 was last in the nation). This week, Rutgers is ninth at .632 points per play. Clemson, Oklahoma and Washington State also are in the top 10, where you’d expect them to be.

 

3. Versatile lethal weapon — You don’t pay attention to the preseason watch lists. That’s for interns who work for the various awards that release the watch lists.

The Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile performer, got it right with Rutgers running back Raheem Blackshear. The 5-9, 192-pounder rolled up 165 yards from scrimmage last week (rushing and receiving), putting him No. 15 in the nation. Maybe this is the year of running backs catching passes out of the backfield. Blackshear collected a career-high nine catches for 126 yards and a TD. He averaged 7.9 yards a touch.

By the way, Purdue’s Rondale Moore won the Hornung last year. The year before it was Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. Let’s not get carried away in week 1, but looks like Blackshear belongs on the list.

4. One week in on defense — A bit of a mixed bag for the Knights in week 1.

Ash, a defensive coach, can’t be happy with 183 rushing yards. If the offense doesn’t raise the roof (sorry), time of possession could become a factor (hint, hint for what Iowa needs to get to this week). The Knights’ secondary was all over it, picking off two passes and keeping the Minutemen in front of it, allowing just 121 yards passing.

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UMass also was able to get to explosive runs against Rutgers, piling up three 20-plus and two 30-plus. Four runs of 10-plus yards was 13th in the league (Minnesota gave up six) after week 1.

5. And on special teams — The Big Ten was incredibly stingy on kick return last week. Only three teams gave up 30-plus yard returns (Michigan State, Minnesota and Rutgers), only two teams gave up 40-plus yard returns (Minnesota and Rutgers) and only one team allowed a 50-plus return (Rutgers).

Rutgers punter Adam Korsak helped the Knights to their best net punt mark in school history in 2018, hitting 40.1 yards in his very first season of playing football on any level.

Hanging with the Hawkeyes

1. Communications majors — We take a ton for granted in football. One of the details that rarely gets discussed is the communication the defense needs to run through before the ball is snapped.

With the Hawkeyes, the free safety is the general. He’s the one who sets coverage for the corners and makes the call for linebackers in their alignment and run fits.

Kaevon Merriweather was the new guy last week. He learned a lesson about volume.

“Communication, just being louder,” Merriweather said. “Everyone on our defense needs to understand what we’re trying to do, especially on the touchdown we gave up. That was a huge communication error on my part.”

At points against Miami, and in the 4-2-5 defense, the Hawkeyes were breaking in Merriweather and cash safety D.J. Johnson. That’s a lot of newness. The mistakes were noticeable, but correctable.

 
 

2. That two running back thing — Raise your hand if you think the two running back thing is more than just a wrinkle for the defense to scratch its head over. OK, no one thinks it’ll be a thing. You’re probably right, but let’s talk about it for a second.

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Where do you turn when the tight end position you so carefully developed and trained for three years gets PAIIIIIDDDDD? The running backs, of course.

Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said before the season he would get running backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young on the field together at the same time. You saw it a handful of times last week. Young lined up in the fullback role. He’s 223 pounds, but he’s not a fullback.

You could definitely argue that some of the targets that would’ve gone to tight ends last season did go to running backs. Sargent had five targets and led Iowa with four receptions for 65 yards. Young, who caught seven passes last season, also was targeted once.

So, let’s see if Sargent and Young hit the field together again this week. There’s got to be a shovel pass in this somewhere.

 
 

3. Rutgers does run a 3-4 defense — The reason why Wisconsin’s 3-4 works is because the Badgers play disciplined, gap-sound football up front, with at least two defensive linemen playing two gap and controlling the linemen in front of him and keeping double teams from reaching linebackers.

That’s coming at the Hawkeyes this week. A couple of things to watch: Center Tyler Linderbaum made a pretty good case, in my opinion, for Big Ten freshman of the week with his performance against Miami (Ohio). You’ll find out more about Linderbaum this week. He’ll be one-on-one a lot with nose tackle Julius Turner (6-0, 280). Tight end Nate Wieting had a great week as a blocker. Wieting vs. strongside linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams will be a factor to watch.

Ash hired Any Buh as his defensive coordinator. Ash and Buh coached at Wisconsin together. They might have a few things for the Iowa offense. This will be a great test for the Hawkeyes O-line in identifying who will rush the passer.

4. Playing with cash — Last week was cash safety D.J. Johnson’s first real college football game. Everyone noticed that the cash position went away early in the second half. Part of it was performance. Miami ran an efficient passing game that didn’t have to take chances and the RedHawks protected quarterback Brett Gabbert really well.

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Also, though, the RedHawks played the game with a ton of tight end, who spent some of the game blocking DE A.J. Epenesa.

The thing to remember about the 4-2-5 “cash” is that it’s a sub package that is made to match passing personnel. Formations with a tight end and a running back probably will have Iowa in base 4-3 and Nick Niemann in the game.

5. Free AJE — If teams are able to block, chip, slide protection and generally throw a net over Epenesa, the Hawkeyes will be stressed in the secondary. That showed up last week. Miami held the junior to one tackle, one pass breakup and there should’ve been one QB pressure.

Maybe at some point, the Iowa staff is forced to move Epenesa around. Maybe not. It took a loss to Wisconsin to flip the 4-2-5 switch last year. Maybe that’s not what will work.

“I got a lot of chips tonight and a lot of multiple-man blocks,” Epenesa said. “I have to get used to that. It’s a difficult thing to handle, but you see players handle it all the time. I’m still going to hold myself to the same standards and build on this week.”

Prediction

Iowa 34, Rutgers 21

Big Ten opener in week 2 will be a great way for Iowa to see what it is or isn’t.

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

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