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Iowa’s football season opens this weekend against Miami of Ohio.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The last time Miami of Ohio played a Big Ten Conference football team, it scored points for bravery, but no actual points. Wisconsin provided Iowa with the blueprint for a beatdown in that 58-0 walkover against the RedHawks last September.

The Badgers held Miami to minus-3 yards rushing, forced four turnovers and nine punts. Twenty-eight players recorded at least one tackle. On offense, Wisconsin went 9-for-9 in the red zone, handed the ball to seven different running backs and passed it to eight different receivers. Backup quarterback Bart Houston — this year’s starter — got in once the score reached 44-0.

It was like a scrimmage, except the result counted.

Miami may be two touchdowns better this year than that team, as third-year coach Chuck Martin claimed this week, but still, isn’t that exactly the kind of game you’d expect to see again Saturday, Hawkeye fans? The RedHawks enter Kinnick Stadium for the 2:30 p.m. season opener with a roster that includes 83 underclassmen out of 108 players. They are coming off a 3-9 season in which they were usually dominated early, being outscored 235-107 in first halves.

All of this suggests that this will be a perfect opportunity for No. 15 Iowa to get an early big lead then a closer look at the bulk of its roster while getting some indications of how prepared it is for the season ahead. Here are five spots I will be paying the closest attention to:

Pass protection

Iowa has been churning out offensive line talent for so long that it’s just assumed that this year’s unit will be among the nation’s best. There’s some validity to that thinking with junior right guard Sean Welsh anchoring a relatively experienced group.

But who can forget the seven sacks Iowa surrendered in its last outing, a staggering Rose Bowl loss to Stanford? This line should be able to open holes for a talented trio of running backs led by LeShun Daniels Jr. But protecting senior quarterback C.J. Beathard will be equally as vital. And the RedHawks will provide a test of that ability.

Miami’s best player is defensive end J.T. Jones, a fifth-year senior who has started 25 consecutive games and had 10 sacks a year ago. The other defensive end is another fifth-year senior, Austin Gearing, who stands 6-foot-5, 257 pounds after beginning his college career as a quarterback (yes, they turn quarterbacks into defensive linemen at Miami).

Those two will tangle with Iowa tackles Ike Boettger and Cole Croston, who is protecting Beathard’s blind side this year after playing on the right side last season. Croston knows what’s coming; every opponent has seen the Rose Bowl film.

“We had some details start creeping in, we had some miscommunications (late last season) and so we’ve been trying to solidify things up there with the games they’re running up front,” Croston said. “We’re sure Miami of Ohio’s going to try to take advantage of that.”

If Beathard stays upright in the pocket throughout Saturday, that will be a positive sign for Iowa.

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Coach Kirk Ferentz announced that a walk-on, true freshman will lead the Hawkeyes kicking game on Saturday as they start the season. Iowa plays Miami of Ohio, which reporters Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert say will be the Hawkeyes' easiest opponent.

Pass rush

Iowa’s defensive ends, by contrast, are relatively unproven. Sophomore Parker Hesse gained experience last year and should be able to help collapse the pocket Saturday against another sophomore, left tackle Jordan Rigg.

Keep an eye on the other side. Miami’s only senior lineman is right tackle Collin Buchanan, all 328 pounds of him. He will try to stand up a pair of tall Nelsons, sophomore Matt (6-8) and redshirt freshman Anthony (6-7). They are listed as tied atop Iowa’s depth chart at left defensive end, and this is a good inaugural battle for them.

 

Rattling an opposing quarterback

The ideal situation is if Iowa can get consistent pressure from its front four Saturday. But there are other ways to get into the head of a young quarterback with no track record of success, and the Hawkeyes will be seeing a few of them this year.

Sophomore Billy Bahl had a ragged debut season for Miami, completing only 44.5 percent of his passes, with 13 interceptions against a mere eight touchdowns. He was picked three times in that Wisconsin massacre. Iowa could probably excel on defense just by playing things safe, but it will be interesting to see if the Hawkeyes start sending blitzes at Bahl to try to force turnovers. That’s one area that defensive coordinator Phil Parker wants to improve this season, and this could be a great opportunity for Iowa to set that tone.

Stretching the field

Iowa averaged 12.6 yards per reception last season, putting it in the middle of the FBS pack. But the two leaders in that category — Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer — have graduated. Those two combined to average 16.1 yards per reception. Iowa doesn’t need to have gaudy passing statistics to be effective, but it must find a wideout or two to duplicate that production to operate at peak efficiency.

The tryouts start Saturday, with sophomores Jay Scheel and Jerminic Smith getting the first chance to prove themselves as downfield options for Beathard.

They will have to earn those yards against a Miami defense that surrendered a respectable 12.2 yards per catch last year. All four starters in the RedHawk secondary are juniors, with cornerback Heath Harding and safety Buchi Okafor having a combined 32 starts. Watch to see how much separation Hawkeye receivers can achieve; they won’t need a lot for Beathard to find them.

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Kickers

Freshman Keith Duncan came to Iowa this summer from North Carolina and won the place-kicking job. He is the smallest player on the roster, at just 165 pounds, but will carry a heavy load of responsibility. Ideally, his first exposure to Division I football, which figures to be on a beautiful afternoon devoid of tricky wind conditions, will be for an extra point or short field-goal attempt. Coach Kirk Ferentz would love to get Duncan some early confidence so he doesn’t have to revisit his decision to hand the job to him.

It's worth noting that Miami is in a similar position, with sophomore Nick Dowd coming into the game with one career field goal.

Any shanks from either side would be unsettling for the future.

Not that this game will come down to a field goal, but you know at least one will. Maybe soon.

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