Despite quiet Week 1, Iowa football receivers ready to be counted on in Cy-Hawk game

IOWA CITY, Ia. — All eyes were on Iowa's passing game ahead of last week's matchup against Indiana. But a quick look at the box score might leave much to be desired. 

Iowa dominated the game by a decisive 34-6 margin but, statistically, it wasn't a big day for the pass offense. Quarterback Spencer Petras passed for 145 yards. Tight end Sam LaPorta was the leading receiver with 84 yards on five receptions (a long of 24). The leading wide receiver was Nico Ragaini, with two receptions for 21 yards.

Those stats don't tell the full story, though. At least not to Ragaini.

After a few days to digest the game and go through a detailed film review, he sees no reason to look at last Saturday as anything but a positive, despite the lack of on-paper production from the receivers room.

"I think we did pretty good," Ragaini said. "Even though we didn't have that big of a game, it's more than what receivers do — it's about what the offense does and what the team does. We jumped out to a lead pretty fast so we knew we weren't going to be airing the ball out like crazy and that's OK." 

Iowa senior punt returner Charlie Jones takes the opening kickoff down the field in the first quarter against Indiana at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

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Ragaini is correct. The lack of eye-popping pass numbers is largely due to how the game unfolded. Iowa took a 14-0 lead less than three minutes after kickoff. When they took a 28-3 lead into halftime, there was no need to air it out. 

Within the context of the game, the passing attack was effective when needed. Early in the second quarter, Petras went 3-for-4 all to different receivers, including a fourth-and-2 completion to Charlie Jones to extend the drive deep in Indiana territory. Two plays later, Petras dived across the end zone for a rushing touchdown to extend the lead to 21-3. 

When Petras reviewed the film, he saw a good connection with his targets when opportunities arose. And, most importantly, there weren't any communication hiccups. 

Additionally, four passes should have been caught — LaPorta had two drops; Jackson Ritter and Ragaini also each had a drop. With these, Petras' 13-for-27 (48%) day turns into a 17-for-27 day (63%). 

"There were no plays on tape where I felt that someone did something that I wasn't expecting," Petras said. "I thought our receivers played hard and did a good job." 

Iowa's receivers also made winning plays that didn't show up on stat sheet. On Iowa's first touchdown, a 56-yard run by Tyler Goodson, Ragaini trailed him closely as a receiver blocking downfield.

Effort plays like those are critical if Iowa's offense is to continue progressing throughout the year, Ragaini said. 

"Even though I didn't touch anyone on that play," Ragaini said, "if (Goodson) did make a cut and I was there to help him and that's the one thing that you need to make the extra move to get into the end zone, that could be the one play in a close game that puts you over the top of the other team." 

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Iowa junior reciever Tyrone Tracy, Jr. is one of six wide receivers in Iowa's playing rotation. Head coach Kirk Ferentz expects them to be major fixtures in the offense as the season unfolds.

Make no mistake, Iowa will need explosive plays and big performances from their receiving core if they're to win a Big Ten West title and beyond. They passed their first test in Indiana and will face another challenge in Iowa State's veteran secondary.

One particular challenge that Petras noted was the Cyclones' "star" position player (Isheem Young) in their base 3-3-5 defense and how his presence in the middle of the field alters what is usually open in certain packages, like Cover 2 and Cover 4. 

One potential advantage of last week's blowout? There wasn't a need to show an expanded view of their pass playbook. They could keep things a little closer to the vest, so to speak, entering Cy-Hawk week. When the opportunity to rely more on the passing attack presents itself, though, head coach Kirk Ferentz has full confidence in his group's ability to connect at a high clip. 

And some good news for the Hawkeyes: Jones practiced on Tuesday and will play Saturday after sustaining a late-game injury against Indiana. 

"I feel good about our receivers," Ferentz said. "I didn't last January but I do now. Just what we've seen them do, not only in spring practice but since we got going in August. 

"The one thing about the whole thing offensively, and it's probably true everywhere: Over the course of 12 games, I think we'll know better about where strengths and weakness are. But we have total confidence in those guys and they'll make their share of plays over the course of the year." 

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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 ksmith@gannett.com