Are the Hawkeyes doomed to become prey?
Nevada’s 2021 head coach Jay Norvell, if you didn’t know, was a linebacker on all those Chuck Long Hawkeye teams between 1982-1985, cutting his college football chops in practice trying to fight through the blocks of an offensive line coached by a one Kirk Ferentz. Norvell got some run as a graduate assistant at Iowa and UNI and a brief stint as an NFL linebacker before hitching his wagon to Barry Alvarez in Wisconsin. After spending a couple of decades as an assistant and coordinator, Norvell formed his own gnarled branch on Hayden Fry’s coaching tree when he became head coach of Nevada in 2017, sending the Wolfpack bowling in his second year and each year after.
If I were writing this article last fall, it would have been impossible not to frame this game as some sort of “Geezer versus Gunner” matchup. You know, real “clash-of-the-styles”-type narratives. Ol’ Grandpa Kirk, what with his love of writing with a feather, his hatred of the forward pass, and belief that Werther’s Original are “too sweet” versus the “young gun” and Hawkeye alum Jay Norvell and his new-fangled “texting machines” and his belief that scoring points is “cool.”
This is because the 2021 iteration of the Nevada Wolfpack was totally fine with the “fuck it, we’ll just score more points” school of college football thought. Led by a future would-be backup quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles Carson Strong and two future NFL Draft picks in woode receover Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner, Nevada had the top passing attack in the Mountain West and the sixth-best passing game in all of college-football on a per-game basis, averaging 347 yards a game through the air. (cough cough, level of competition, cough cough) With a defense that landed somewhere between “solid” and “serviceable,” their success hinged pretty heavily on their ability to move the football, which they generally did. (If you want a comparison, think of them as a diet Purdue -- “all the explosive passing of Purdue with none of the defense!”)
Loaded as they were with offensive talent, Nevada had hopes of claiming a Mountain West title, but close losses to Fresno State and San Diego State left them short of a trip to the title game, landing on an 8-4 record before a blowout loss to Western Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. Now I know that I’ve gone to this well before, but I’m dipping into it once again, because Nevada, like Iowa and South Dakota State, also played Colorado State in 2021. The only gory detail I’ll point out is that Nevada, the absolute worst rushing team in the Mountain West at 77 yards/game, ran for 226 yards at 5.8 yards/carry against Colorado State. Iowa, a Big Ten team that allegedly “prides itself” on running the football, totaled 54 yards at 1.7 yards/carry against Colorado State.
Speaking of Colorado State, I mentioned how this article would have been framed differently if I were writing it last fall. You have no doubt noticed that it is not last fall currently. At the end of 2021, Colorado State asked Jay Norvell if he would like to more than double his current salary and not have to live in Reno, Nevada, to which I assume he responded with the professional equivalent of “Bitchin’.” Not only did Jay Norvell high-tail it to Fort Collins, he took 20 (!) of his current players along with him as transfers.
Replacing Jay Norvell at Nevada is a guy named Ken Wilson, a journeyman assistant getting his first opportunity as the head honcho. It is impossible not to view his situation as a pretty substantial rebuild. Virtually everyone responsible for Nevada’s prolific passing game, from the coaches, quarterback, and the top-five pass-catchers, are gone. While there are a few holdovers, they have a lot of bodies to replace this season. In 2021, Nevada was probably in sum the rough equivalent of a below-average Big Ten team. Even accounting for the fact that college football is replete with ways of making you look like a complete dumbass, a generous prediction for the 2022 Nevada Wolfpack is that they have the talent of a below-average Mountain West team. (In my crude research, I found an FPI prediction of 5.9 wins for the Wolfpack and an over/under of 5 wins for this upcoming season.)
So while the whole schtick of this series is finding ways to imagine Iowa losing the game, I can’t do that with a straight face on this one. I expect this to be Iowa’s easiest game of the season, with a ferocious Iowa defense making life miserable for a fledgling Nevada offense still trying to find its footing in a very rude environment on the road. That alone should be more than enough for Iowa to win this game if not stylishly, then comfortably.
No, my worry for this game comes entirely from the offense. It is entirely plausible, even likely, that Iowa spends the first two weeks of the season pissing into the wind offensively against SDSU and ISU. At this point, the offense (read: Iowa’s running game) may be in desperate need of a “get right” game for, and this is absolutely the best chance to get one. Because if Iowa’s offense can’t do that against this Nevada, you have to squint pretty hard and huff a lot of paint to find other meaningful opportunities for the offense in Iowa’s schedule and all of a sudden getting to 8 wins might start to seem like a lurid fantasy…
Ben’s Anxiety Scale: 2 out of 10
Homer Version: Nevada Wolfpack? More like Nevada Wolf-Crap! These overmatched posers get run out of Kinnick by 30 points and take a heaping dose of reality back with them to Reno!
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