Iowa Football

Purdue at No. 23 Iowa: The Big Analysis

Iowa's offensive line is getting plenty of attention, and that could be what keeps this from 'shootout mode'

Iowa hosts Purdue this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
Iowa hosts Purdue this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
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The No. 23 Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) are trying to keep championship hopes alive this week.

As it stands, the Hawkeyes trail Wisconsin (3-0) and Minnesota (3-0) by two games in the Big Ten West Division. Schedules will swing Iowa’s way. The Hawkeyes have games left against the Badgers and Gophers.

They don’t control their destiny, at least not right now. Wisconsin travels to Ohio State and Minnesota. The Gophers play host to Penn State, travel to Iowa City (wherethey haven't won since 1999) and host the Badgers.

Nebraska (2-2) isn’t dead yet. The Huskers get Wisconsin and Iowa at home.

To stay championship relevant, the Hawkeyes have to snap a two-game losing streak to Purdue (2-4, 1-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Then next week, the Hawkeyes need to snap a three-game losing streak to Northwestern in a game at Ryan Field.

That’s just what it’s going to take to get to Wisconsin, against which the Hawkeyes have a four-game losing streak.

Yeah, that’s a lot of streaks. They are trying to keep championship hopes alive.

Boilers!

1. Injury o’ rama — Lots of injuries. Quarterback Elijah Sindelar (clavicle) and wide receiver Rondale Moore (hamstring) have been out since the Minnesota game (Sept. 28). The injuries happened on the same play about 20 yards away from each other.

The first five questions Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm took during his weekly news conference Monday were about injuries.

Brohm said he wasn’t optimistic about Moore, who won the Hornung Award last year as the nation’s most versatile player. Nose tackle Lorenzo Neal (knee) is out and hasn’t been able to make it to the field yet this season. Linebacker Simeon Smiley should be healthy. Linebacker Markus Bailey, one of the Boilermakers’ top defenders, was lost for the season after week 2.

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It’s been a rough season for the Boilers in this regard. Eighteen players were on the injury report going into last week’s game.

2. Live by the pass — It all came together for quarterback Jack Plummer (a Rivals 3 star with offers from Boise State and Arizona) last week. The 6-5, 220-pounder completed 80 percent of his passes in a 40-14 win over Maryland. OK, it was Maryland, but Plummer’s completion percentages in his first three games were 44.8, 56.1 and 48.1. The opponents also were TCU, Minnesota and Penn State.

Plummer can make plays with his feet. His command of the passing game is there, but he doesn’t have the arm Sindelar has. Brohm backed up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and said Sindelar has that kind of arm.

Freshman wide receiver David Bell has become the go-to for Purdue. The 6-2, 210-pound true freshman from Indianapolis, Ind., leads Purdue with 26 catches for 438 yards and three TDs. Iowa put a lot into recruiting Bell, who picked the Boilermakers because he liked the passing offense better. It looks like he found what he was looking for.

Tight end Brycen Hopkins might be the fastest TE in the Big Ten. He averages 14.4 yards on 24 catches.

3. Little room to run — You remember Iowa’s eight-sack day against Michigan. Purdue endured a 10-sacker against Penn State two weeks ago. Since then, the offensive line has had a makeover.

This week’s two deep shows four changes since the PSU game. All but junior left tackle Grant Hermanns have been shifted around. Last week, it was a new center, left guard and right tackle.

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Brohm said the staff made a few adjustments that helped the O-line with protection. The running game is a tougher fix.

The Boilers are last in the Big Ten with just 63.5 rushing yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry. Freshman Kin Doerue is the No. 1 back. Tario Fuller returned to action last week after suffering a broken jaw in August.

4. They have an Epenesa-like model — Freshman end George Karlaftis has been steady and productive. The 6-4, 265-pounder, sort of like Iowa DE A.J. Epenesa, is a hometowner, from West Lafayette, Ind. He was destined to be a Boilermaker and he got right to it. Karlaftis has 4.0 sacks and, if anyone kept a consistent QB pressure stat, he would be at or near the top. Karlaftis has NFL “get-off” and backs his physical gifts with great technique.

Injury has hit Purdue’s linebacker spot. The Boilers played mostly nickel vs. Maryland because of the lack of depth at linebacker. This might be an opening for Iowa’s running game.

5. Relevant numbers — Even with Moore returning kicks last season, Purdue wasn’t great. Without Moore in the last two games, it’s gotten worse. The Boilers are 13th in the Big Ten with 15.2 yards per return. Just as Iowa has the last two weeks, the Boilermakers will be fighting for field position with any return.

Hawkeyes!

1. The offensive line will be better this week — Part of this will be opponent. Purdue is banged up and young on defense. And it most definitely is not Michigan and/or Penn State.

Beyond that, sophomore Mark Kallenberger did play well in his first start at guard. He made some mental errors and he’s not an earth mover, but his play showed an understanding of leverage. He’s going to be a super-important player in 2020, so this move should pay dividends. Let’s see if senior Levi Paulsen returns from injury or wherever he went last week. He’s gone from starting three games at tackle to field goal unit last week. His play hasn’t appeared to have fallen off that much.

Read more: Iowa offensive line: 'It's all on us pretty much'

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Junior tackle Alaric Jackson was better than he was at Michigan, when he returned from a sprained knee. True freshman Justin Britt is not going to redshirt. We’ll see if he adds to the lineup this week.

No offense can scheme its way out of constant pressure up the middle. If Purdue finds a way to hit that note, then every snap is going to be a struggle. With Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz and O-line coach Tim Polasek, there’s plenty of attention being thrown at this unit.

2. Running back order — It’s time to play for keeps.

True freshman Tyler Goodson should be the No. 1 option. Or maybe Toren Young, whose 223 pounds needs to get to a place where the TV announcers say “Boy, Iowa is stronger running the ball in the fourth quarter than it was in the first.”

Junior Mekhi Sargent was tentative last week after he fumbled at Michigan. He also drifted outside on pass blocking assignments that ended up in huge pressures.

Yes, with Goodson, a 190-pounder, you do have to scheme away from the RB being a pass protector, but the bang there is worth the buck. Who cares if Goodson fumbled? That play was dead on arrival.

Through six games, generally speaking, it looks like Iowa’s best running play has been straight ahead fullback isolation. The Hawkeyes have hit big runs off that. It calls on O-linemen to get vertical and drive block. This surprises linebackers who are expecting zone plays.

3. On Nico — Halfway through the season, teams and tendencies take shape. Wide receiver Nico Ragaini has taken the step in his growth as a slot receiver. The redshirt freshman has 24 catches for 249 yards (on 40 targets, that’s a 65 percent success rate). His 125 yards after catch are second only to Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 145 yards.

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Yes, after last week, his punt return skills have come under question. He failed to catch two or three punts that rolled and kept Iowa in field-position hell for most of the second half. Kick return didn’t help, either, but this offense can’t afford to leak field position.

On one hand, yes, you expect struggles with a first-year punt returner. That probably keeps him in the spot this week. You know what else keeps him in the spot? He leads the Big Ten with 10.7 yards on nine returns. How is this different from running back? You want more touches for Goodson.

4. On Chauncey Golston — The 6-5, 270-pound defensive end maybe played his best football as a Hawkeye in the last two weeks, racking up two sacks, four QB hurries and 13 tackles.

The junior has tightened up his run defense since the Iowa State game, where the Cyclones got him a few times with read-options. This shows that even Iowa’s best players — and Golston is certainly a top player for the defense — still have things to learn and clean up.

Pass rush will be a topic this week. A big part of Purdue’s successful game plan vs. the Hawkeyes last season was getting the ball out of the QB’s hands in 2.5 seconds or less.

Instead of taking chances with the blitz, expect Iowa to mix up coverages. You will probably see more sub packages this week (which really means the “cash” will be called “star,” if that makes any difference to anyone).

5. Relevant numbers — This defense isn’t an attacking defense, but it’s shown through six games it’s going to be here for the long haul. Coming out of matchups with ranked teams Michigan and Penn State, the Hawkeyes are still No. 5 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 10.2 points per game. Throw out all the other numbers, this will keep Iowa viable and, maybe eventually, buy the offense enough time to figure itself out.

Prediction

Iowa 40, Purdue 17

The Hawkeyes should be able to control the line of scrimmage. Purdue is going to get some, but not enough to put this into “shootout” mode.

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

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