IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s inexperienced secondary passed its Week 1 test — as in A+, 4.0 GPA passed.
The group, which featured two first-time starters (Jake Gervase and Michael Ojemudia) and two additional freshmen (Matt Hankins and Geno Stone), helped smother NFL mega-prospect Josh Allen in Iowa’s season-opening 24-3 win.
Gervase logged four tackles and a key first-quarter pass break-up, and along with Miles Taylor, he prevented Allen from ever connecting on a big play over the top.
Ojemudia started in place of suspended Manny Rugamba. He got badly burned once late in the third quarter on a dropped 36-yard touchdown pass. But otherwise, he and the rest of Iowa's corners kept everything in front of them and eventually caught on to Allen's endless stream of underneath passes.
Now, the back end of Iowa's defense faces a quick turnaround to an entirely different kind of test. One that — as weird as this sounds — might be tougher than Allen.
Iowa State’s wide receivers.
Think about it: A quarterback will always be limited or bolstered by what his receivers can do. And not much is expected from Wyoming’s 2017 receivers.
It’s a greenhorn group that returns one of four starters from 2016. Two years from now, they could cause some problems. For now, they're bunch of inexperienced two- and three-star recruits that, combined, fielded two Power 5 offers.
"It was tough," said Wyoming sophomore C.J. Johnson, who caught four passes for 41 yards against Iowa. "They adjusted to sit on our short routes, and we wanted to take more shots downfield but couldn't get another look. We executed our game plan to the best of our ability, but they were just tough."
Over in Ames, experience and talent abounds at wide receiver. This could be the best crop of receivers the Cyclones have ever had, and it's thought they could lead their offense to the best season it's ever had.
Put it this way: It’s one thing for Iowa’s young, Big Ten Conference secondary to outperform young, Mountain West receivers. It’s another accomplishment, entirely, for the young Hawkeyes to outperform a group of veteran Big 12 receivers — especially this group.
There's 6-foot-5, four-year starter Allen Lazard (who is now ISU's all-time receptions leader) and 6-foot-4 junior college transfer Matthew Eaton behind him. At the slot, there's two-year starter Trever Ryen and speedy sophomore Deshaunte Jones. Filling out the rest of the depth chart is 6-foot-6 tree Hakeem Butler, senior Marchie Murdock and senior Carson Epps.
Cyclones quarterback Jacob Park passed for 271 yards in Saturday's 42-24 win over Northern Iowa. Lazard hauled in eight passes for 108 yards. Butler and Ryen combined for a score and 130 yards on 13 catches. They wreaked havoc on the Panthers with their short game.
"They kept hitting that bubble for a 4- or 5-yard gain," UNI coach Mark Farley said. "In the second half, we finally made the right adjustment to take that away, but it was too little, too late, because they had done the damage and gotten the lead.
"They did a great job. Those guys are big receivers blocking defensive backs, so they’ve got a good scheme."
If Allen had been in the same shoes as Park and had a senior target to throw to against Iowa, his game against Iowa might have looked much different.
Take one specific series of plays late in the third, for instance. Wyoming recovered a Nate Stanley fumble on Iowa's 36. Allen took the first-down snap, stepped forward through a collapsing pocket and flicked a perfect 36-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Johnson ... who dropped the pass.
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A score there makes it 21-10, Iowa. Instead, the Cowboys' drive stalled, they missed a 47-yard field goal and Iowa got the ball back at its 30 like the fumble never happened.
Lazard catches that ball. Ryen converts that touchdown.
"I thought, for a first game out defensively, we did a lot of really good things fundamentally, outside of that one (near-touchdown pass)," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, "and that's more mental than anything else. But I thought we did a lot of good things fundamentally for a first time out defensively. And, again, you can build on that. Part of that was our guys on the edge, too. But two new corners, yeah, I worry about a lot of things with those guys."
Rugamba will be back from his suspension next week and start opposite Josh Jackson at cornerback. Hankins and Ojemudia will still get plenty of reps as the No. 2 corners. Ferentz will again rely on Taylor and Gervase to thwart Iowa State's over-the-top game, which wasn't featured very prominently against UNI.
"Got the jitters out of the way. We came out, executed as a defense, had a lot of fun doing it," Gervase said Saturday. "We came out of here with a win, that’s all that matters.
"And we’re going to make some corrections tomorrow and move on to Iowa State."
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.