Young Iowa football cornerbacks eager for challenge from Wyoming star QB Josh Allen

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Michael Ojemudia won’t be the only football player making his first collegiate start when Iowa hosts Wyoming in Saturday’s season opener.

But he might get the most exposure — for better or worse — in a game that starts at 11 a.m. and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.

“I know I’m being watched,” the Hawkeyes’ sophomore cornerback said this week. “Being human, I’m going to get nervous. But as soon as the game clock starts, I’m going to be ready. They’re going to test me, but I’ll be ready.”

Hawkeye cornerbacks Joshua Jackson (15), Manny Rugamba (5) and Michael Ojemudia (11) pose for a portrait on media day. With Rugamba suspended for the season opener, Jackson and Ojemudia -- making his first start -- are left to tangle with star Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.

Ojemudia isn’t being paranoid. His starting debut happens to come against the most highly regarded quarterback prospect Iowa has seen since USC’s Carson Palmer in the 2003 Orange Bowl.

That would be Wyoming junior Josh Allen, a 6-foot-5 menace already being touted as a potential top-three pick in April’s NFL Draft. And Allen is well aware that he’ll be tangling with an inexperienced Hawkeye secondary playing without one important piece.

“They’re going to be missing their best defensive back,” Allen said of the Hawkeyes. “Being able to take advantage of stuff in the passing game is what we’re looking to do.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced last week that sophomore cornerback Manny Rugamba is suspended for Saturday’s game, the result of an offseason violation of team rules. That pushed Ojemudia into the starting lineup alongside junior Josh Jackson. It elevated freshman Matt Hankins to the role of third cornerback.

And it added one more subplot to what will be the juiciest story line of Saturday’s game. The Hawkeyes should have the upper hand on both lines of scrimmage against a Mountain West Conference opponent that allowed 34 points per game a year ago. The Cowboys’ biggest potential edge is in its passing game — if Allen can exploit an Iowa secondary that also includes junior Jake Gervase making his first-ever start at free safety.

Ojemudia doesn’t shy from the challenge ahead. He knows his job will require 60 minutes of focus, because Allen is capable of flipping the field in a single play.

“Even if he’s running, he can throw across his body, across the whole field, so that makes him harder for us,” he said of contending with Allen. “You’ve got to be exactly in the right spot at the right time, so with this quarterback you can’t really play around. You’ve got to stay home, because he darts it right there, on the money.”

But Allen will be throwing to an equally inexperienced group of wide receivers led by sophomore C.J. Johnson. Johnson, who grew up in Bellevue, Neb., as a childhood friend of Iowa tight end Noah Fant, caught 21 passes for 304 yards last season, becoming a trusted target of Allen over time. Twelve of his catches came in Wyoming’s final five games, including the winning touchdown against San Diego State.

“I think he was like, ‘OK, I can give this guy the ball and he’ll make a play,’” Johnson said of the significance of that 29-yard hookup. “He’s got an unreal arm. He can run all over the place. He makes people respect the run, respect his speed, so then it opens up the outside for everybody else.

“He surprises me at least once or twice every game. I don’t think a lot of quarterbacks can do what he does.”

Last season, Johnson could be more carefree, realizing that whatever he gave the Wyoming offense was a bonus. This year, he’s the leader of a young group, with the pressure of knowing NFL scouts will be judging Allen’s performances all year based, in part, on what Johnson is able to do.

“It keeps me up sometimes at night, but I try not to worry much,” said Johnson, a 6-2, 204-pound athlete who likes matching up on nickel cornerbacks or linebackers as Wyoming’s “Z” receiver or in the slot.

Ojemudia, a sturdy corner who matches Johnson’s size, said it’s his physicality that is his best attribute. Look for Jackson (6-1, 192) and him to try to jam Wyoming’s receivers at the line of scrimmage, to disrupt their routes from the outset.

On one side will be Wyoming’s wideouts trying to prove that they can get up to speed quickly and be an asset for a star quarterback. On the other will be a trio of Hawkeye cornerbacks eager to show that they can make up for the departure of last year’s top three in current NFLers Desmond King and Greg Mabin, plus Rugamba.

Neither side knows quite what to expect.

Dec 21, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen (17) looks to pass during the second quarter against the Brigham Young Cougars at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re going in there with a small team, and they’re the Big Ten powerhouse,” said Johnson, who was held catchless last year when Wyoming fell to his homestate Cornhuskers, a performance that still rankles him. “We’re not going to be worried about who they put out there at corner; we’re trying to win the game.”

Allen said his plan is to establish shorter passes to help Wyoming move the chains, while occasionally looking for the deep strike that will show off his arm strength. He, too, claimed to be unconcerned about a lack of knowledge of Iowa’s cornerbacks.

“You’ve just got to expect that they’re going to be very good. You have to understand that this is what they plan on doing, ‘cover 4,’ some man,” Allen said. “It’s not like they’re tricky to figure out or they’re disguising anything.”

Ojemudia gave a little smile when that comment was relayed to him later in the week.

“He’ll see,” Ojemudia said. “We don’t really change much, but we have little wrinkles here and there that makes us a little harder to define.”

The definitions will start to come into focus for Wyoming’s wideouts and Iowa’s cornerbacks on Saturday. It’s the game within the game.


WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 11:01 a.m., Big Ten Network (announcers: Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen, Lisa Byington)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 11½

WEATHER: 79 degrees and sunny; winds from south-southwest at 5-10 mph

WHAT’S NEW: Kinnick Stadium has a new playing surface with a Tigerhawk logo at midfield for the first time