Opponent breakdown: An in-depth look at Iowa football's week one matchup against Indiana
Iowa's football season opener is less than a week away. For the second year in a row, the Hawkeyes open with a Big Ten foe, and this game holds not only conference implications but national ones as well.
No. 18 ranked Iowa hosts No. 17 Indiana at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Much has been made about Iowa's historic start to the 2021 season: two ranked opponents, with one in-conference (Indiana) followed by a Top 10 non-conference game (Iowa State).
A look at Indiana's schedule reveals it's in almost an identical position. After Iowa, the Hoosiers play a home game against Idaho before welcoming No. 8 Cincinnati to Bloomington on Sept 18.
In the all-important quest to impress the college football playoff committee, wins over ranked opponents are critical. Given the pressure at the front end of each of these teams' schedules, both are hoping to start the season with positive momentum.
What are Indiana's strengths? What areas of the game can Iowa exploit? I spoke with a few people who know the Hoosiers best: Zach Osterman of the Indianapolis Star and Dustin Dopirak, formerly of The Athletic and now of the Bloomington Herald-Times, to create an in-depth scouting report before the season opener.
2020 was a "year of firsts" for Indiana: first win over Michigan since 1987, first win at Wisconsin since 2001 and only the second win ever over Penn State, which at that time was ranked No. 8. That marked Indiana's first Top 10 win in 33 years.
It's odd to call a six-win season historic, but that's what it was for Indiana, which finished No. 13 in the final coaches' poll. But Indiana's success last season wasn't a surprise to those who have been following the program's trajectory.
Indiana's been to a bowl game in four of the past six years. Entering 2020, the Hoosiers had the most returning production of any Big Ten team and 2021 will be similar. Indiana returns nine starters both on offense and defense. Coach Tom Allen is in his fifth season at the helm and expectations are steadily rising in Bloomington.
Indiana's offense vs. Iowa's defense
Indiana aims to control the tempo. Its spread offense isn't "crazy fast" but uses the no-huddle to control the pace of the game. As we know, everything starts with the quarterback.
In ESPN's Top 100 college football players list, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. checked in at No. 45. In only six games last year, he passed for 1,645 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. The only question is his health, he suffered a torn ACL at the end of last season, his third straight season-ending injury as a Hoosier. By all accounts Penix Jr. will be ready for Saturday's opener but should there be a setback, Jack Tuttle, a former four-star recruit who stepped in for Penix last season should have a better command of the offense this season.
The strength in Indiana's offense is in their passing game. The receiving core is headlined by Ty Fryfogle, who also made ESPN's Top 100 list at No. 54. Fryfogle's 19.3 yards per catch last season illustrates the Hoosiers' affinity for hitting the long ball.
Whether Iowa's Matt Hankins or Riley Moss gets the assignment, the challenge isn't just staying with Fryfogle it's separating him from the ball. According to Pro Football Focus, he was responsible for nine contested receptions of 15-plus yards in 2020, more than any other Power Five receiver.
A game within the game to watch is Iowa's rush defense vs. Indiana's rush offense. Last season, Indiana ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards (869). The Hoosiers welcome former five-star running back Stephen Carr from the University of Southern California via the transfer portal but their lack of rushing production is largely by design.
Indiana typically runs the ball in short-yardage and advantageous situations, and it's an offense that uses the passing game as a running game.
Screen passes of all varieties are a frequent part of the attack. This will put pressure on Iowa's back-seven to make tackles in space. The use of the "cash" position in Phil Parker's defense will be of interest: Junior Dane Belton has taken ownership of the position and athletic linebacker Jestin Jacobs was seen making open-field tackles against skill players in Iowa's Kids' Day scrimmage.
The biggest question mark on Iowa's defense is the line, with the losses of Chauncey Gholston and Daviyon Nixon. However, on the other side, the Hoosiers have questions of their own on the offensive line. As a unit, they underperformed last season.
COVID-19 hit this group particularly hard but the returning group in 2021 is far from a sure thing. The line of scrimmage battle could be as easy as who has the best day. The unit that does will lay a strong foundation in confidence the rest of the way this season.
Iowa's offense vs. Indiana's defense
Indiana has a new defensive coordinator, Charlton Warren, who spent the last two seasons as Georgia's defensive backs coach. Despite the change, their identity will not differ with Allen's imprint.
The Hoosiers are one of the most aggressive defenses in the Big Ten. They will give up yardage but put a premium on creating as many "havoc" plays as possible.
Their heavy blitz tendencies are a big reason why they led the conference in sacks (25) and interceptions (17). They pressure quarterbacks into making bad decisions, which will be a point of emphasis for Iowa.
What plagued Iowa in last season's slow start was turnover differential. Quarterback Spencer Petras by all accounts and as evidenced in the Kids' Day scrimmage has a full grasp of the offense and it will be tested Saturday.
Indiana's defense is described as "secondary-driven." Cornerback Tiawan Mullen leads the way. According to Pro Football Focus, his 22.9% forced incompletion rate since 2019 is the best among all Power Five cornerbacks.
The Hoosiers' secondary in age is nearly identical to Iowa's: three seniors, one junior and their "husky" (equivalent) to the cash is a senior as well.
Even without guard Kyler Schott, Iowa should have the edge at the line of scrimmage. With Indiana's strong secondary and a Doak Walker watch list running back at Iowa in Tyler Goodson, it will be no secret that the Hawkeyes will look to establish the ground game. Their ability to do that will help dictate how much Allen and Warren can utilize their secondary to create those havoc plays.
In the Kids' Day scrimmage, Iowa excelled at picking up blitzes and turning them into big plays. Carrying over that momentum into this game will be crucial. The pass rusher to watch for Indiana is Butkus Award watch list nominee linebacker Micah McFadden, who led the Big Ten with six sacks while adding 10.5 tackles for loss in 2020.
Who has the edge in special teams?
According to Vegas odds, Iowa is a 3.5-point favorite; meaning the game could come down to a field goal. How much will special teams play a factor in this game?
The answer is unknown but should it, both teams should feel strongly about their units.
This year, there's reason to believe that Indiana has the best kicker in the Big Ten in junior Charles Campbell. Last season, he connected on 10-of-11 field goals (90.9%, highest in the Big Ten) and all 25 extra-point attempts.
Iowa has the advantage in punter with sophomore Tory Taylor, the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year. Sixth-year kicker Caleb Shudak, who has been the Hawkeyes' kickoff specialist, steps into the main role.
At returner, Iowa has senior Charlie Jones, an All-Big Ten selection who led the conference and ranked 11th nationally with 10.5 average on punt returns. On the other side, Indiana is bringing someone equally if not more dynamic. Via the transfer portal, Indiana added DJ Matthews from Florida State, who left the program as the fifth-highest punt returner (yardage wise) in school history.
Worth a conlusion/synopsis/prediction or leave it be?
Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com