Four things to know and watch when Iowa football hosts FCS contender South Dakota State
After a 200-plus day hiatus, Iowa football returns to competition Saturday to open its 2022 college football season.
The Hawkeyes are seeking consecutive Big Ten West division titles, anchored by what's expected to be an elite defense. Their first opponent has high expectations of their own.
Iowa hosts South Dakota State at 11 a.m. at Kinnick Stadium. The Jackrabbits have reached the FCS semifinals in four of the last five seasons; this is the year they're hoping for their first FCS national championship.
South Dakota State enters the season ranked No. 3 in the country and is tied with North Dakota State for the most preseason All Americans (6). The Jackrabbits have covered their last six spreads against FBS teams and were 1-0 against FBS opponents last season, defeating Colorado State 42-23 in the season opener. Iowa defeated Colorado State 24-14 in Week 4 of the season.
Hawkeye fans need little reminder of the last time the program welcomed an FCS power into Kinnick: a 23-21 loss to North Dakota State, Iowa's first FCS loss in program history. South Dakota State will also be upset-minded on Saturday.
South Dakota State and other FCS schools played two football seasons in 2021 — a spring season (due to COVID postponing the fall 2020 season) and a typical fall season. The Jackrabbits went 8-2 in the spring season (losing to Sam Houston State in the national title game) and 11-4 in the fall season (losing to Montana State in the national semifinals). Yes, South Dakota State played 25 games in the 2021 calendar year.
Here are five things to know and to watch for in Saturday's contest:
Saturday will be a good test for Iowa's pass defense
What's perhaps most impressive about South Dakota State's run to the FCS semifinals last year is the Jackrabbits did it without starting quarterback Mark Gronowski. As a true freshman in spring 2021, Gronowski was the Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Year and runner-up for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the nation's best FCS freshman. He tore his ACL in the first quarter of the 2021 spring national championship and has been out since. Now, he's back healthy with a group of talented weapons.
It starts at tight end with junior Tucker Kraft, who could be the first FCS player taken in the 2023 NFL draft. He's among the highest-ranked tight ends nationally at any level. He was one of SDSU's first-team preseason All Americans with 65 catches for 780 yards and six touchdowns last season.
At receiver, SDSU has a pair of big-bodied receivers who will challenge an Iowa secondary replacing three starters. The Jackrabbits return twins Jaxon and Jadon Janke, who both stand 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Their size is matched with big-play ability as both averaged more than 15 yards per catch last season. Additionally, the Jackrabbits will feature senior Landon Wolf, who was a three-year contributor at Oklahoma State before transferring last season. He missed last year to an injury suffered in the season opener.
Like Iowa, the Jackrabbits are a team that features their tight ends, frequently using more than one at a time. In addition to Kraft, they have 6-foot-7, 250 pound Zach Heins, who scored six touchdowns last year, mostly in the red zone. This is likely a game in which Iowa will rely heavily on its 4-3 defense and linebacker Jestin Jacobs for pass coverage. It could also mean a lot of sophomore Cooper DeJean at cornerback.
South Dakota State's offensive line is in transition
If there is a weakness on South Dakota State's offense, it's up front with an offensive line group that's filling major holes. Offensive line coach Jason Eck left to be the head coach at Idaho after six seasons with the program. Eck was one of the FCS's top assistants, winning FCS Assistant Coach of the Year in 2019.
Additionally, the Jackrabbits are replacing three multi-year starters at center, right guard and right tackle. Compare that to a defensive line in Iowa that's returning eight of its top nine contributors from last year and welcome in high school All-American Aaron Graves.
Ryan Olson, the tight ends coach over the past two seasons, has moved over to the offensive line. His group will try to establish the run behind running back Isaiah Davis, who is a preseason first-team All-American despite backing up Pierre Strong (a fourth-round 2021 draft pick) last season. The left side of the line will be strong with fellow All-Americans Garret Greenfield at left tackle and Mason McCormick at left guard.
Iowa's success on defense will be predicated on how disruptive its defensive line plays. And in pass-rush situations the Hawkeyes must stay disciplined. Gronowski had four 100-yard rushing games last year from the pocket.
Special teams will be a must-watch
Special teams will be a question mark for both teams on Saturday, each side breaking in a new kicker and has questions in the return game.
In South Dakota State's case, the Jackrabbits have one of the more interesting situations in the country. Junior Hunter Dustman won the punting job last season and is now tasked with replacing the school's all-time kick leader Cole Frahm while maintaining his previous role. He’s going to handle kickoffs, too, in a rare 3-in-1 role.
Kick and punt returns were weaknesses for the Jackrabbits last season, ranking 77th in kick return and 97th in punt return yardage per game. They're likely going to be a returner-by-committee on Saturday with no true leader at this point. And unlike Iowa, which will choose between three front-line players (Arland Bruce IV, Cooper DeJean, Riley Moss), South Dakota State is looking toward reserves to fill those roles rather than risking key skill players to injury.
Two stats to watch for Iowa's offense
All eyes will be on Iowa's offense on Saturday, specifically the progression of senior quarterback Spencer Petras and the development of the offensive line. In order to be successful on Saturday and throughout the season, they'll have to improve in two categories: first-down offense and third-down conversions. They ranked 105th and 110th in those categories last season.
South Dakota State's defense was average at best last season, finishing 42nd in total defense, 121st in first-down defense and 77th in third-down defense. South Dakota State will be strong at linebacker with All-American Adam Bock leading the way, but will have to replace four contributors at defensive line and three starters from its secondary.
Can Iowa's offense create and sustain momentum and get off to a strong start in 2022? That question is at the forefront of fans' minds entering Saturday morning.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.