WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL
"Run the dang ball, Brian!" The gameplan in this one looks pretty easy to figure out. Iowa returns almost all of an offensive line that was a very good run-blocking line last year and won the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in the nation. The Hawkeyes also return a running back who ran for over 1000 yards last year and they added a running back via offseason transfer who ran for over 1000 yards each of the last two seasons. So you have a team that wants to run the ball a lot (they ran it 62% of the time last year) and is pretty good at it.
On the other side of the ball, you have a Wyoming defense that was very very bad at stopping the run last year. Overall, they ranked 92nd in the nation last year and gave up almost 204 yards per game on the ground. They have up 5.31 yards per carry (113th) and 34 touchdowns (118th). They were especially prone to conceding big plays on the ground; they gave up 41 run plays of 20+ yards (dead last in the country) and 21 run plays of 30+ yards (also dead last in the country). So it's a good thing they're not facing running backs with the ability to make guys miss and with breakaway speed... Oh.
That said, Wyoming's defense was also very young last year and dealt with several injuries. They return seven players from that defense and experience plus better health should make them an improved unit. They've also got a new defensive coordinator, Scott Hazelton, who ran the defense for many of Craig Bohl's teams at North Dakota State, and he should also make them better. That said, they were very bad last year and even if they're better, there can still be a significant gap between "improved" and "formidable." Wyoming may have some success against Iowa's run game early, but it's hard to see them being able to withstand that grind for four quarters.
The more interesting battle when Iowa's offense is on the field is going to involve the Hawkeye passing game. Nate Stanley is making his first start in this game and, for all intents and purposes, playing the first real minutes of his college career. Outside of garbage-time snaps in a small handful of games last year, his only meaningful snaps were a few plays against North Dakota State when Beathard was briefly knocked out of the game. Hazelton ran some good defenses at NDSU and Bohl made his bones on the defensive side of the ball; they're sure to have some different looks to throw at Stanley and try to confuse him. They're also not afraid to blitz their safeties, so Stanley is going to need to watch out for that.
Iowa is likely going to win or lose this game based on how well they're able to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball on the Cowboys. If they can bully Wyoming and free up space for Wadley and Butler, the offense should be fine. That said, Stanley will have to produce something in the passing game as well; he's going to need to do enough to keep Wyoming's defense semi-honest, to prevent them from loading up eight or nine guys in the box to swallow up Iowa's running game. This is where play-action could be vital for Iowa; if they can establish the run, there should be opportunities to hit Wyoming over the top with play-action all day.
The Iowa passing game is also going to be fascinating because this is going to be our first sustained look at what Brian Ferentz has planned for that part of the offense. How will the tight ends be utilized? How often will Wadley (or Butler) be in the slot or split out wide? Is Matt VandeBerg fully recovered? What sort of routes will Iowa run? There's so much we don't know about Iowa's passing game yet, but we should get a few answers on Saturday.
WHEN WYOMING HAS THE BALL
Unleash hell, Phil Parker. The most important battle here looks like Josh Allen against the Iowa pass rush. Allen was an enormously productive player last year and he has the physical attributes (6'5", 234) and quarterback mechanics that scouts drool over; it's no surprise that NFL Draft scouts are salivating about his potential at the next level. Still, Allen endured some struggles last year, with some particularly pronounced home-road splits. He completed 56% of his passes last season overall, but 57.4% at home and 54.6% on the road. His yards per attempted dipped as well (8.3 versus 8.8), he threw for over 20 yards fewer per game on the road, and his QB rating was almost 30 points lower (128.0 versus 161.2).
The biggest change came in his touchdowns and interceptions; he threw 20 touchdowns at home last year, but just eight on the road. On the flip side, he 10 interceptions on the road, but just five at home. Granted, five of those ten road game interceptions came in one game (at Nebraska), so he threw just five picks in his other six road/neutral games. But interceptions were also a recurring theme for his (and Wyoming's) struggles. He threw two or more picks in four games last year; not surprisingly, Wyoming went 0-4 in those games. If Iowa is able to force Allen into some turnovers, that will improve their odds of winning enormously.
Forcing Allen into some errors is likely going to need to come via pressure from the pass rush, though. Iowa's secondary already looked weakened after losing Desmond King, Greg Mabin, and Anthony Gair; losing Brandon Snyder to injury in spring and Manny Rugamba to a one-game suspension only highlight how green Iowa's secondary is going to be in this game. If Allen has time, chances are he'll be able to pick them apart. So the onus is on the Hawkeye front seven to make sure he doesn't have time. Fortunately, this looks like one of Iowa's best groups of pass rushers in a few years. Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson give Iowa a formidable 1-2 punch at defensive end, while A.J. Epenesa will be making his hotly-anticipated Iowa debut -- and hoping to introduce Allen to the Kinnick turf a few times. Matt Nelson gives Iowa s strong jack-of-all-trades along the defensive line and hopefully Nathan Bazata and Cedrick Lattimore can get in the quarterback-pressuring business as well. If Iowa can harass Allen all day and put a few hits on him, then odds are he's going to have a rough day.
Allen's problems are also going to be compounded by his lack of help at the skill positions. Brian Hill, Wyoming's top runner a year ago when he ran for almost 1900 yards and 22 touchdowns on a 5.3 yards per carry average, is off in the NFL, while Shaun Wick, Wyoming's second-best runner, has graduated. The Cowboys' most productive returning running back is Nico Evans, who ran 11 times for 33 yards last year. Josh Allen is actually their leading returning runner, having run for 523 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Josey Jewell and the rest of Iowa's front-seven will need to keep a close watch on Allen because he's certainly capable of extending plays with his feet and moving the ball for Wyoming that way. Last year he averaged around 10 runs and 37 yards per game. Iowa's certainly not a blitz-happy team under any circumstances, but I don't expect much blitzing in this game at all; I think Parker & Co. will rely on the front seven to pressure Allen and also to prevent him from getting outside the pocket and wreaking havoc.
Outside of Allen, the Wyoming passing game is going to be pitting weakness against weakness -- or at least inexperience against inexperience. Wyoming graduated their top three receiving options last year; they accounted for two-thirds of Wyoming receivers/tight ends' receptions, three-fourths of their receiving yards, and all but four of their touchdowns. The top returning options, C.J. Johnson and Austin Conway, were both freshmen a year ago and all of the other options are underclassmen as well. Iowa's secondary would look better with Snyder and Rugamba in the mix, but without them you have two players (Jake Gervase and Michael Ojemudia) making their first career starts and one (Josh Jackson) making his second. And the most experienced player returning (Miles Taylor) sort of lost his starting job at the end of last season. Gulp!
If Iowa can make Wyoming's offense one-dimensional, they should win this game -- probably with some ease. Allen is a terrifically talented passer, but his track record doesn't suggest that he's a particularly accurate passer (yet). Playing a game on the road, in a hostile environment, with a host of inexperienced receivers making their first starts is only going to make things more difficult. But this likely comes down to Iowa's front seven -- if they can slow down the Wyoming running game, consistently harass Allen, and force some mistakes, the Hawkeyes should be fine. If Wyoming is able to establish a running game or Allen has time to find receivers, though, this could get tighter than we want to see.
Both teams are trying out a lot of new faces in the kicking game. Iowa has new starters at kicker and punter, as well as fresh faces as the top options in the kickoff and punt return games. Those top options -- Wadley on kick returns, VandeBerg on punt returns -- are two of Iowa's biggest playmaking threats, though. Iowa has embraced the use of big names in the return game in recent years -- see: King, Desmond -- and it's generally paid dividends. Iowa was 37th in the nation in kick returns in 2015 and 7th in the country last year. They were also 11th in the country in punt returns in both 2015 and 2016. King was never able to break a return for a touchdown (Riley McCarron had Iowa's only kick/punt return touchdown of the last two seasons) but his consistently strong returns gave Iowa better field position to start drives. I'm sure Stanley would appreciate it if Wadley and VandeBerg were able to do that for him as well. (And, frankly, just the idea of Wadley getting more touches with room to run in open space is pretty exciting.)
Iowa 34, Wyoming 24. Allen will make some plays for Wyoming, but I don't think he can make enough to pull off the upset. I expect the Cowboys to have some success early, but Iowa's lines will grind them down over the course of the game. Increased pressure will force a few mistakes for Allen late, while Wadley and Butler help Iowa's offense salt the game away in the second half.