WHO: South Dakota State (0-0)
WHEN: 11:00 AM CT (Saturday, September 3)
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, IA)
ANNOUNCERS: Noah Eagle and Mark Helfrich
RADIO: Hawkeye Radio Network (TuneIn, or local listings) | SiriusXM Ch. 121/196
MOBILE: Fox Sports app
TWITTER: @IowaFBLive | @IowaAwesome | @IowaOnBTN
WEATHER: partly cloudy, highs in the 70s, chance of rain in the afternoon
LINE: Iowa -14.0 (TOTAL: 43.5)
If I can be candid for a moment, I find these game previews one of the hardest things to write. It's hard to find a new angle on a game, especially when there are so many outlets providing preview material. It's especially hard in Week One, when neither team has played a game yet so there's no precedent from the current season to analyze. And it's even harder when the opponent is an FCS team, since exposure to those teams is diminished. All of which is a long-winded way to say that for this preview, I'm not going to try and predict how the game will go or ponder any match-ups in much depth. Maybe future previews will look more like that, when there's more current season data to look at and the opponents have more exposure and are more familiar to us.
So this week I thought I'd just focus on a few key things that I'll be paying attention to during tomorrow's game.
* Can the Iowa offensive line open holes?
In our mailbag post, a reader asked when we would know if the offensive line had made the steps it needs to make after last season to show improvement. It's a fair -- and very important -- question. If the offensive line doesn't show improvement, it's going to be another very rough year for the Iowa offense. I think we probably need to give them a few games before passing any sweeping judgments on the fellas in the trenches. But... if the offensive line gets bullied by SDSU in this game? If they can't open holes for the running game and protect Petras? Well, I won't say it's time to panic after one game... but that would probably be a pretty bad sign. Because the quality of the defensive lines they see after this week is only going to increase. So if they're struggling against what will probably be the least talented defensive line Iowa sees this year, that would definitely be concerning.
* Which wide receivers step up?
There's no doubt that the wide receiver situation at Iowa is pretty damn grim at present. Barring a significant uptick in health for Keagan Johnson by tomorrow, Iowa will probably go into this game with one scholarship receiver (Arland Bruce IV) and two walk-ons (Alec Wick and Jack Johnson) as their top three wide receivers. That's... not ideal. We can lament the injuries and gripe about the coaching miscues (not adding any transfer options at receiver looms very large right now) that got us to this point, but the situation also is what it is -- and Iowa's just going to have to try and make do with the (very limited) options that it has on hand.
But an optimistic read of that scenario is that Bruce, Wick, and Johnson also have tremendous opportunities available to them. Can Bruce show that he can be a No. 1 receiver and main option? Can Wick or Johnson make the most of this playing time and show they have the ability to contribute at a Power 5 level? Iowa's had some good fortune with walk-on receivers in the past (the likes of Ed Hinkel and Matt VandeBerg spring to mind), so perhaps one of them (or both!) will rise to the occasion. They'll certainly have a lot of chances to do so.
* The Petras Factor
In the first six games of 2021, Spencer Petras completed 102/168 passes (61%) for 1138 yards and nine touchdowns against just one interception. In his final six games of 2021, Petras completed 63/120 passes (53%) for 742 and one touchdown against seven interceptions (all of which came against Purdue and Kentucky). Woof. Did injury play a role in Petras' decline? No doubt. But questions about Petras have existed beyond the injuries he was dealing with in November of last year. He's going to start tomorrow and, barring another injury or a flurry of turnovers, he's likely to hold onto that job for a while. So what do we get from Petras in 2022?
He's healthy again now (which is good) and he spent the offseason working with different QB mentors, attending the Manning Passing Academy, and getting tutored by Iowa's new analyst (and former Wisconsin QB coach) Jon Budmayr. Brian Ferentz has, according to reports, tried to simplify the too-convoluted Iowa offense to make it easier for Petras to make quicker (and better) decisions. But does any of that matter? What sort of play does Iowa get from Petras this year. We'll get our first glimpse of this year's model of Petras against the Jackrabbits. A good performance won't answer all the questions or silence all the doubters -- but it would at least be a promising start. (Much like the offensive line, a poor performance against a weaker opponent would definitely raise the alarm factor several notches.)
* The Defensive Rotations
Obvious statement is obvious: there are some really good players starting for Iowa's defense. Jack Campbell and Riley Moss are preseason All-American honorees. Seth Benson has been a model of reliability at the other main linebacker spot. Kaevon Merriweather has been a very solid leader (on and off the field) for Iowa's defense over the last few years. Noah Shannon and Logan Lee don't make a lot of highlight plays, but their consistency at DT enables other guys to make those highlight plays instead.
And yet... it feels like a lot of the most exciting players on this Iowa defense aren't on the starting line on the depth chart -- yet. Lukas Van Ness is capable of playing anywhere on the defensive line and seems poised to break out in a big way. Aaron Graves is just a true freshman, but it seems like he'll be hard to keep off the field -- and could be Iowa's next blue-chip pass rusher. Jestin Jacobs has been the odd man out among Iowa's linebackers, but he has immense athleticism and legitimate NFL potential. And in the secondary Cooper DeJean and Xavier Nwankpa are two of the most talented and thrilling players to suit up in black and gold in recent memory. All of those guys are going to play -- but how they're used (and how much they're used will be very fascinating to watch. The present is very good for the Iowa defense, but the future could be even better.
* Strength vs Strength... and Weakness vs Weakness
Broadly speaking, this game seems set to feature two teams whose strengths (and weaknesses) sync with one another. The strength of this Iowa team? Uh, the defense. (Duh.) Conversely, the Jackrabbits' strength looks like their offense -- they had a high-powered offense last season and they return several key players. Last year's SDSU team averaged 36.1 ppg and 441 ypg (6.9 ypc), with a near even split running the ball (212 ypg) and passing the ball (229 ypg). That running game averaged a sizzling 5.8 ypc.
Their top running back -- Pierre Strong (1747 yards, 18 TD, 7.0 ypc) -- is gone, as is their starting quarterback -- Chris Oladokun (3164 yards, 25 TD, 7 INT, 62.3% completion) -- but they return their top three pass-catchers and a quarterback with starting experience. Twins Jaxon (72 receptions, 1165 yards, 5 TD) and Jadon (41 receptions, 641 yards, 9 TD) Janke paced the way at receiver, while Tucker Kraft (65 receptions, 780 yards, 6 TD) led the way at tight end. And Mark Gronowski started for SDSU in the 2021 spring season (a knee injury kept him out in the fall), when he threw for 1565 yards and 15 TD and ran for 577 yards and another 7 touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, South Dakota State doesn't have as many horses. But, uh, does Iowa have enough weapons on offense to take advantage of that situation? TBD. Will this game be decided by whichever team's strength (offense for SDSU, defense for Iowa) is stronger -- or by whichever team's weakness (defense for SDSU, offense for Iowa) is less weak? I think the game will probably come down to how effective the Iowa offense is able to be. I expect SDSU to score some points, but I also think Iowa's defense will be stout enough to prevent the Jackrabbits from romping too much. But how well can Iowa's offense exploit the holes in SDSU's defense? If they can dominate that matchup, the game ought to be a pretty easy win for Iowa. If they can't, this could be an uncomfortably close game in the fourth quarter.
Am I going to predict Iowa to lose a season opener to an FCS team? No. Even though we all certainly remember exactly what happened the last time Iowa played a Top 5-ranked FCS team from the Dakotas. I think it will be ugly at times, but I do expect Iowa to pull away in the second half and get the win.