Leistikow's 6 thoughts on Iowa-Northwestern, including the impact of Brandon Smith's injury

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As if losing Brandon Smith for Saturday's 11 a.m. game at Northwestern alone wasn't enough, the 19th-ranked Iowa football team will be without its top wide receiver for much longer.

Smith will miss three to five weeks, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday afternoon, with a right-leg injury doctors initially hoped was a bone bruise before further tests came back. That timetable also rules Smith out of the Nov. 9 game at Wisconsin, a matchup that could hold the key to the Hawkeyes' West Division championship chances.

Even if Smith is able to return before the end of the regular season, there's no guarantee he would instantly return to the dynamic form he's shown of late. That's a significant bummer for a touchdown-strapped offense.

A 19-game starter, Smith is leading the Hawkeyes with 33 catches (for 407 yards and four TDs) but had truly come into form of late. He racked up 16 catches for 192 yards in the past two weeks, against Penn State and Purdue, before suffering his injury with 4 minutes, 21 seconds to play against the Boilermakers.

Smith plays the “X” (split end) role in Iowa’s offense, which means he lines up near the boundary (rarely or never the slot). College and pro teams crave difference-making “X” receivers, and Smith (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) had become one of them for Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley. 

Michigan transfer Oliver Martin, an Iowa City West product, has five catches for 24 yards this season in 55 offensive snaps.

“We felt like we’ve had that connection going on all year,” Stanley said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, things happen in football. You can’t do anything about it.”

Smith leads Hawkeye wide receivers with 367 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, through seven games. Nico Ragaini is second with 277, followed by Ihmir Smith-Marsette (269), Tyrone Tracy Jr. (226) and Michigan transfer Oliver Martin (55) — who Stanley said operates at Iowa’s other two receiving positions, the slot and “Z” (flanker).

Expect a committee approach Saturday, with Tracy taking the bulk of the "X" snaps. 

The silver lining is that Ragaini (30 catches, 280 yards), Smith-Marsette (27 catches, 443 yards) and Tracy (15 catches, 218 yards) have proven to be effective targets for Stanley. And you couldn't ask for a more equipped fourth receiver than Martin.

The Hawkeyes' offensive gameplan isn't going to change much; their best way to move the football has been through the air (Stanley's 1,771 passing yards lead the Big Ten). Now they just need each receiver to up his game a little more, starting Saturday in Evanston ... and then again in Madison. 

"It's part of football," Ferentz said, "everybody absorbing part of that loss."

Unfortunately, Smith isn’t the only significant starter likely to miss Saturday’s game.

Middle linebacker Kristian Welch took helmet-to-helmet contact with teammate Amani Jones during second-half action against Penn State and hasn’t taken the practice field since. Ferentz said Welch would remain a captain for the contest, but the plan at linebacker is to again rotate redshirt freshman Dillon Doyle and true freshman Jack Campbell.

Against Purdue, both players were getting their first extensive action, but against a pass-heavy opponent. Doyle was limited to one tackle in his first career start; Campbell had four. Northwestern’s low-octane, ball-control offense will present a different challenge for the pair.

The rotation, Ferentz said, “takes a little pressure off both them not having to play 70, 80 snaps. It was really workable.”

On that note, expect another dose of Iowa’s 4-2-5 defense against Northwestern.

Now that the Hawkeyes have had a full game to get comfortable with that alignment (it was predominantly used in the 26-20 win against Purdue), they’re more comfortable abandoning the 4-3 going forward when needed. Iowa stubbornly stuck to the 4-3 through the first half of the season, thanks in large part to a rash of defensive-back injuries.

But true freshman Dane Belton’s acclimation to that crucial cash position — the fifth defensive back that replaces an outside linebacker — is the key to it all.

Iowa has also been rotating Riley Moss, D.J. Johnson and Terry Roberts at the cash spot in practice this week.

“(Belton) did real well,” free safety Jack Koerner said. “As long continues to do well at it, which he has, we’re definitely going to keep having it in the gameplan.”

There’s no reason for the Hawkeyes to take a struggling Northwestern squad lightly this week.

The Wildcats are 1-5 overall and 0-4 in Big Ten Conference play, hardly the season that was expected for the defending West Division champions.

That said, the Hawkeyes know first-hand that Pat Fitzgerald’s team has beaten them three straight years. Plus, there’s the fact that 19th-ranked Iowa (5-2, 2-2) is right in the thick of the West race again, especially after Wisconsin’s stunning, last-second loss at Illinois. The Hawkeyes’ next three games are against Northwestern, at Wisconsin and vs. West-leading Minnesota (Nov. 16).

“The whole motivation is we want to win the West. We’ve got to keep winning out,” safety Geno Stone said. “We can’t take no chances losing any games. I feel like the motivation is winning this game.”

Even though A.J. Epenesa has played on 91.1% of Iowa's defensive snaps this season, Ferentz isn't worried about his star defensive end wearing down.

Epenesa has played 388 of a possible 426 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He played 55 of 55 against Iowa State, 60 of 60 against Michigan, 77 of 81 against Penn State and 62 of 71 against Purdue. Ferentz was amused by the topic, in some ways, considering a year ago there was a clamoring to see the former five-star recruit receive more snaps.

But the reality is that Epenesa was racking up a Big Ten-high 10½ sacks a year ago coming off the bench, while he's not in the league's top 20 this year (with three). Epenesa did not have a tackle against Purdue, but was a disruptive force on the defensive line. Iowa is gradually finding depth at defensive end, with Zach VanValkenburg and John Waggoner earning more trust.

"We're not really concerned about fatigue right now, especially this week (with) a bye coming up," Ferentz said. "(We'll) take all we can take this week (from Epenesa)."

Finally, Ferentz seems resigned to the fact that Iowa's running game won't get to where he would love for it to be in 2019.

"I wish we were rushing for 250 (yards) a game in a perfect world," Ferentz said.

But the blocking just isn't there.

Iowa's 91.8-yard rushing average in conference games ranks 12th in the league, ahead of only Michigan State and Purdue (which barely tries to run the ball). Ferentz said he saw incremental progress against the Boilermakers (33 carries, 102 yards) and said the running-back rotation of Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Tyler Goodson would continue.

"I think we gained a little ground Saturday," Ferentz said. "But we still have work to do, and it's going to be that way for a while."

That's a humbling admission.

But it underscores that the 2019 Hawkeyes are — and need to be — a pass-first outfit.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.