4 things to know about Iowa's matchup against Nevada in its final non-conference game

When the 2022 football season started, Iowa's Week 3 home game against Nevada was forecast as a comfortable victory heading into Big Ten play. Now it's seen as a pivotal matchup with increased urgency. 

Analytics and statistics will tell you that Nevada is still Iowa's worst opponent this season, but Iowa's first two games haven't inspired much confidence within the fan base. The Hawkeye offense is at a crossroads. Whether it's Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla at quarterback, this is a game in which the offense has to find some level of success before the competition level increases. 

More:Iowa postgame mailbag: Hawkeyes' offense hits new low in Cy-Hawk loss. Now what?

The 2022 Nevada Wolfpack are the definition of a program in transition. They've been legit Mountain West Conference contenders over the last few years but former coach Jay Norvell (an Iowa alum) left to accept the job at Colorado State after last season. What happened next was a mass exodus of talent, either to Colorado State, another school or the NFL. 

Enter Ken Wilson, an assistant in the program for 19 seasons turned head coach in 2022. He's working with limited returning experience and more than 20 new additions to the team via the NCAA transfer portal. Last week Nevada lost to FCS opponent Incarnate Word, surrendering 55 points in the process. 

What was supposed to be a final tune-up game before Big Ten play is now a make-or-break game of sorts, particularly on offense. Here are four things to know, and to watch on Saturday.

Let's take a look at Nevada's defense

Nevada's defense is among a unique group this season and not in a good way. The Wolfpack are one of 16 FBS teams (out of 131) that has allowed 1,000-plus yards of total offense.

Last week was a particularly bad performance. Incarnate Word, an FCS program that began playing football in 2009 and has only one winning season, racked up 616 total yards, converted 50% of its third downs (7-of-14) and scored 55 points in a 55-41 win over Nevada. This is a game tailor-made for Iowa's offense to find momentum and build confidence. 

More:Leistikow: Hard-to-believe stats show just how far this Iowa offense has fallen

Up front, the player to watch is Dom Peterson. The senior is one of the best defensive players in the Mountain West and was named to the Bednarik Award preseason watch list. He spent his career primarily at tackle but is lining up at defensive end as well this year in the Wolfpack's 4-2-5 scheme. 

If there was a bright spot in Iowa's offense in its 10-7 loss to Iowa State, it was that senior tight end Sam LaPorta was a consistent target in the pass game. Linebacker is where Nevada was hit hardest by attrition, losing four in the off-season. It's an inexperienced unit and a matchup to be exploited if you're Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. 

Yes, Nevada's defense is bad but ...

Nevada's defense is among the best in the country at forcing turnovers.

If there's something the Wolfpack did extremely well last year and has carried over to this year, it's forcing turnovers. Last year’s defense came up with 27 turnovers and finished a whopping +16 in turnover margin. 

This year? They're No. 1 in the country with 11 turnovers forced through three games (seven interceptions, four fumble recoveries) and No. 3 nationally in turnover margin (+9). Compare that to Iowa's offense, which is tied for 104th nationally in turnover margin (-2) and has turned it over at the most inopportune times through two games. 

More:Why is the Iowa offense so broken? Kirk Ferentz, players give their thoughts

Nevada's secondary is the strength of its team. The Wolfpack returned starting safeties Jaden Dedman and Isaiah Essissima and brought in transfer Darion Green-Warren from Michigan. Another starting defensive back, Bentlee Adams, already has four interceptions. This will be a test for Iowa's quarterback (whoever that may be) and wide receiver corps. 

The Hawkeyes should be able to move the ball, but can they take care of it at the same time? 

More:A look at Iowa football's quarterbacks on the 2022 Hawkeye roster

Nevada's main offensive priority is establishing the run

Nevada running back Toa Taua carries the ball during the New Mexico State game on Aug. 27.

Under Norvell, Nevada's air-raid offense was one of the most prolific in the country; ranking No. 6 nationally in pass offense. It's nearly a complete 180 with Wilson as Nevada adopted a run-first, balanced offensive system this year. 

Nevada's strength on offense is with its running backs. Tandem Toa Taua and Devontae Lee are among the best 1-2 punches in the Mountain West. So far this season they're averaging 4.5 and 4 yards per carry, respectively, and have combined for seven rushing touchdowns this season. 

But they aren't running it particularly well this season. Nevada ranks 69th nationally in rush offense. Iowa's rush defense is 27th nationally. 

Where Iowa has the biggest advantage 

Nevada head coach Ken Wilson is in his first season at the helm after 19 years as an assistant.

Nevada's offensive line is perhaps the biggest question mark on the team. Last season the Wolfpack gave up 89 tackles for loss to go along with the 45 sacks allowed. They have only one returning starter from last season and the other four starters are new transfers. 

Last week against Incarnate Word, the Wolfpack surrendered six sacks and 11 tackles for loss. On the season they've allowed 9 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. 

Iowa's defensive line has been strong in the early season. Expect the Hawkeyes to dominate in this matchup. One Iowa player to watch is Lukas Van Ness, who blocked two punts against Iowa State.

Nevada quarterback Nate Cox passes the ball against New Mexico State on Aug. 27.

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 ksmith@gannett.com.