Is Iowa football's offense getting better? We'll find out a lot more about Hawkeyes vs. Rutgers
Iowa football's offense entered this week with renewed confidence.
During the early season, Hawkeye players have said consistently that it's always been there but last Saturday's 27-0 win over Nevada was the first sign of success in a live game.
Outsiders are taking the Hawkeyes' performance with a grain of salt. Iowa posted season bests in total yards (337), third-down conversion rate (44%) and first downs (15) – but it was against the 86th ranked defense nationally. This week's opponent provides a much greater challenge and will serve as a benchmark.
Was Iowa's offense really improving last week or was it a mirage against a bad team?
About to find out.
Iowa (2-1) travels to Big Ten foe Rutgers (3-0) for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday (FS1). Rutgers defense ranks 10th nationally in total defense (240 yards per game), including the nation's best rush defense that allows just 32.3 rushing yards per game. All eyes will be on Iowa's offense in it's first Big Ten game, what happens on Saturday will set the tone for it's next conference game on Oct. 1 versus No. 4 ranked Michigan.
"You build on (the Nevada game) and continue to improve," Hawkeye veteran quarterback Spencer Petras said. "And you start to stack up stack of good days. That's the that's the challenge and that's the goal."
Offensive lineman Mason Richman said that starting fast Saturday is paramount. Last Saturday, Iowa scored on its third possession of the game, a touchdown, and carried that momentum into scoring on the next two drives before a lengthy weather delay.
It's also something that worked well for Iowa in its best performance of the year at Maryland in October 2021. The Hawkeyes scored on their second possession of the game and went on a scoring flurry (aided by defense and special teams) to a 51-14 blowout win. Similar to Maryland last year, Rutgers is undefeated entering the game and expects a sellout crowd, its first since 2017.
"It's important to get going early," Richman said. "Getting that first first down is an important thing for us and the first play of the game is going to dictate the physicality we're going to play as an offense. I think that's really important for us and we did a really nice job of that last week."
Iowa's offensive line will be under pressure in the first road game of the year. The Rutgers crowd will be into the game early. And so far this year, the Scarlet Knight defense has the highest blitz rate (41.8%) in the Big Ten.
All three of Iowa's top running backs — sophomores Gavin Williams, Leshon Williams and true freshman Kaleb Johnson — are healthy and available for the first time this year. That should help the run game, but the offensive line is still working to find the best mix of starters.
The most uncertainty is at both guard positions where there's a four-man rotation. Of Iowa's 61 total plays last Saturday, here's how the snaps count percentages went: Beau Stephens (68%); Nick DeJong (64%); Tyler Elsbury (44%) and Gennings Dunker (34%). Elsbury was the highest-graded guard (and offensive lineman) by Pro Football Focus followed by Stephens, DeJong and Dunker.
Ferentz described the competition along the line as "open" this week. Players making an impression against Big Ten competition this weekend could go a long way in determining the lineup and rotations moving forward.
"We're gaining ground but we're not there," Ferentz said. "There's still a lot of little things that we can do a lot better, and that gets back to experience. When you get guys that are a little bit younger in their development, it's a little bit of a strain. I think we're chasing the clock there. I think we're gaining ground."
Timing with the offensive line, and leading the offense at-large falls on senior quarterback Spencer Petras. His stats last weekend weren't eye-popping but his ball placement was the best it's been this season. Petras attempted several deep passes and threw with conviction.
That's a wrinkle that the Hawkeyes would be wise to revisit this weekend — assuming they can protect him against the blitz.
For as well as Rutgers defense has performed this year, they are susceptible to giving up big pass plays. They rank 95th nationally in explosive plays surrendered (20-plus yards) with eight through three games.
"Explosive plays, especially in Big Ten play, are critical," Petras said. "Anytime we can do that, we need to execute. If not, then it takes a lot of pressure off a defense and allows them to on sit on routes, that that normally should be free access or more open than they otherwise would be. If they're not worried about you going deep then it makes it tough to throw the ball underneath. Being as balanced as we can is critical and I think having (wide receivers) back helps."
Skill positions have been another area of concern through three weeks. The wide receiver room took a step back this week when Ferentz announced that sophomore Keagan Johnson is unlikely to play after leaving the Nevada game last week.
The good news: senior Nico Ragaini and sophomore Brody Brecht are expected to receive a full workload. Brecht played a career-high 36 snaps last week and Ragaini played 32 snaps in his first game back from a foot injury.
The challenge for both is knocking off rust and improving conditioning. Ferentz noted that Brecht, who plays baseball and has battled injury only has six or seven weeks total on the practice field since he arrived last summer. Ragaini is Iowa's most veteran player but admitted that he had to get used to getting back into the flow of the game after missing several weeks.
"I definitely got to knock the rust off a little bit," Ragaini said. "I'm sure some of the fans thought (Spencer Petras) overthrew me on a couple passes, but really it was 100% my fault. So once I get back to myself, which I'm confident myself that I will, I'm sure we'll be connecting on the throws that we had last Saturday."
Despite a dismal start offensively, Iowa still has a fairly optimistic Big Ten West outlook. Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska are already 0-1 in conference play while Minnesota (at Michigan State) and Wisconsin (at Ohio State) have difficult opening games this weekend.
A successful offensive day for Iowa coupled with a Big Ten win would give an added confidence boost before Michigan comes to Iowa City, and an early leg up in the West standings.
"Simply put, our two goals every week are obviously to win and to improve," Petras said. "And if we can do that then we know we're doing our job."
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.