Leistikow: A prime chance for Iowa's ascending wide receivers to deliver
SAN DIEGO — The biggest challenge facing Iowa’s defense in Friday’s Holiday Bowl against USC?
“It comes down to the receivers,” co-captain and senior middle linebacker Kristian Welch says without hesitation.
Perhaps the also will also be true on the other side of the ball.
While USC’s star-studded lineup of receivers — four guys, including Biletnikoff Award finalist Michael Pittman Jr., with a combined 266 catches this season for 3,492 yards and 27 touchdowns — deservedly will capture the most attention going into this 7 p.m. CT game at SDCCU Stadium, the Hawkeyes have their own collection of wideouts worth watching.
And, in this particular matchup, the top four of Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. must deliver.
Iowa cannot expect to beat the Trojans by a score of 13-10, with its usual slugfest style. USC has scored at least 24 points in every game talented freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has started. The Vegas over/under of 52½ points is the highest for any game involving Iowa this season.
The Hawkeyes will need to keep scoring, and more than likely, that’ll mean through the air. Quarterback Nate Stanley is within 262 yards of posting just the sixth 3,000-yard passing season in school history; with 285 yards he'd pass James Vandenberg (3,022 in 2011) for the highest total of the 21-year Kirk Ferentz era.
“We know their offense is high-powered. They sling it around,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley acknowledges. “We know that we have to be ready to play and help our defense out.”
While Iowa’s top four receivers can’t match the gaudy USC stats, this does mark the first time under Ferentz that four Hawkeye wide receivers had at least 33 receptions in a season.
Ragaini’s 44 catches lead the team. He’s been a reliable safety net from the slot position, often making tough grabs in traffic.
Smith-Marsette’s 42 receptions have produced a team-high 676 yards. With 28 receiving yards Friday, Smith-Marsette would have the most by a Hawkeye wideout since Marvin McNutt’s school-record 1,315 in 2011.
Of Tracy’s 36 catches, 21 (for 371 yards) have come in Iowa’s last five games as his volume increased with Smith sidelined. The freshman nicknamed “Sweet Feet” has been an exciting addition.
And then there’s Smith, who had 33 catches in seven games for 407 yards before an ankle injury he suffered Oct. 19 that required surgery. Now he’s back, and his teammates say Smith looks as good as ever; though Ferentz couched his status by saying Thursday, "I don't know if he's full speed, but he's pretty close."
Says Ragaini of Smith: “He’s such a great receiver. He’s a big body, he’s fast. He’s pretty much unguardable.”
Ragaini adds that this is the best chemistry in a wide-receivers room that he’s experienced.
Smith-Marsette’s engaging, infectious personality reflects that.
“We just hang out, have fun, and we always make jokes,” Smith-Marsette says. “We don’t try to be too uptight or anything, just be as loose as we can and everybody play our game.”
Smith-Marsette doesn’t need reminders that his position group has been a weak link in Iowa’s offense, but third-year receivers coach Kelton Copeland has done a terrific job in turning that around.
“You literally get tired of hearing about ‘this group has been weak’ … ‘they don’t produce.’ You get tired of hearing that stuff,” Smith-Marsette says.
A competitive room — in which even much-anticipated Michigan transfer Oliver Martin hasn’t been able to crack the rotation for regular snaps — has made each player better.
What better way to show how far Iowa’s wide receivers have come than to have a big game against a big brand with Fox’s A-team college announcers, Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt?
USC brings an extremely young defense into this matchup. The Trojans start four sophomores and one freshman in the secondary.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, as you would expect, wants to find run-pass balance in his play-calling. That’s when Stanley is at his best.
“The points of emphasis don’t change for us,” he says. “We need to establish a run and see if we can hit some big plays with the play-action and hopefully keep it close.”
Perhaps the most exciting part about Iowa’s top four receivers: They’re all back next year. Smith-Marsette has said he’s not turning pro early.
But first, a Friday stage to make a closing statement of 2019.
“All the receivers feel like if we just play our game and play hard, and do what we know we can do,” Ragaini says, “then we’ll come out on top."
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.