When: Sat. Sept. 24, 2016; 12:00 pm ET
Where: Piscataway, NJ; High Point Solutions Stadium (52,454)
All-Time Series: Initial Meeting
Last Meeting: N/A
Line: Iowa (-13)
Nothing says conference play like a first-ever game between Rutgers and Iowa, but that’s what will greet Big Ten fans in the opening time window on this first weekend of Big Ten games. Of course, the expanded conference schedule to 9 games debuts this season, which means 50% more East-West division crossovers every season. That will help games like this become more regular and less of a novelty.
Iowa heads into New Jersey coming off a shocking loss to North Dakota State, which should have the Hawkeyes focused on rebounding right away in the conference opener. However, a noon kickoff along the East Coast in unfamiliar territory against an unfamiliar opponent may not be the easiest task for causing a rebound. Can Iowa avoid the trap game and a second straight loss?
Meanwhile, Rutgers has rebounded from the blowout opener at Washington with a couple of wins, the Hawkeyes are a big step back up in difficulty compared to the teams the Knights have defeated. This will be a good metric for just how far Chris Ash’s team has come in the opening month of his debut season.
1 Burning Question: Can Rutgers exploit Iowa’s weaknesses revealed last week by NDSU?
There were a few things to learn from Iowa’s upset loss last week, but the most notable was Iowa’s vulnerability to strong interior running games. Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson were not able to hold up over the course of 37+ minutes of Bison possession, much of which was spent running around and through the middle of the Iowa defensive line. Thus, it seems likely that Chris Ash and his offensive staff will try to follow this formula to wear down the Hawkeyes’ defense and steal this upset win.
The Scarlet Knights have rushed for nearly 230 yards per game, which ranks third in the Big Ten. However, Rutgers QB Chris Laviano has not been able to find much success passing the ball, which means Iowa may be able to load up against the running game with extra support without risking giving up too many big plays. The statistics from non-conference play make this look like a path to victory for Rutgers, but they also show an offense which is fairly one-dimensional and should be easier to stop than NDSU proved to be.
Only one of these facts from the statistics will likely prove true on Saturday afternoon. Whichever one does will likely explain how this game will be won.
2 Key Stats:
— 159.3. Passing yards Rutgers is averaging so far in 2016. As noted above, Laviano and his experienced set of receivers led by seniors Janarion Grant and Andre Patton have had trouble being very effective in non-conference play, as these passing numbers are by far the worst in the conference. For a unit which has averaged more than 200 yards per game the past few seasons, this is a notable step back. Iowa’s defensive line has been dealing with injuries in September to players that would normally generate pressure on quarterbacks like DE Parker Hesse. Without a consistent pass rush, Laviano may be able to have a much better day even with ball-hawks like Josey Jewell and Desmond King in the back 7 of the defense. Effectiveness passing the ball is critical to a Rutgers win here.
— 100%. That’s the red zone offensive scoring effectiveness for both teams in the first 3 weeks of the season. Of course, this is a statistic that lies unless you dive a bit deeper. For example, the Hawkeyes have scored 11 touchdowns in 12 red zone trips, relying on a field goal only once. By contrast, Rutgers has scored only 3 touchdowns in 8 red zone trips. Therefore, while both teams have avoided mistakes and big negative plays in the most important part of the field, Iowa is cashing in these opportunities more frequently overall and in a better manner. That could prove to be the difference in a game like this, and it could be part of the explanation for a nearly two-touchdown spread.
3 Key Players:
Janarion Grant, Rutgers WR/PR/KR: It wouldn’t be a Fitzgerald-written preview without a mention of special teams, and Grant has stood out this season with 2 return touchdowns already in the first three weeks. For an underdog, these are the types of plays where differences in talent and depth can be overcome. Considering Ferentz’s teams have not been known for great special teams over the past half-decade, this is another opportunity for Grant to have a big day. Even if he doesn’t get it done in the return game, Grant’s 3 receiving touchdowns prove that Laviano will be trying to find him for the big scoring plays on offense as well. Grant leads the conference with 187 all-purpose yards per game thus far.
Joey Jewell, Iowa LB: Despite missing most of the season opener thanks to a targeting penalty ejection, Jewell has already collected 21 tackles this season. He is by far the leading returning tackler for this defense, and he serves as the leader and captain in the middle of the field. Although Iowa tends to be highly selective about aggressive play and blitzes, the opportunities will be there for Jewell to evaluate plays and make stops all over the field (including in the offensive backfield) if he reads the Rutgers offense correctly. Look for a big day for this Hawkeye star, including the possibility for an interception if Chris Laviano is forced into some mistakes.
James Daniels, Iowa C: One under-appreciated aspect of the loss to NDSU last week and the significant problems running the ball (34 rushing yards) was losing two starting offensive linemen to injury. Daniels has missed the last two games, while his neighbor on the line OG Sean Welsh, was out for the NDSU game. According to early-week reports, Daniels will be back in the mix this week and Welsh is a likely return as well, which means the numerous problems opening running lanes and keeping C.J. Beathard from pressure should be minimized this week. Iowa will not win another West Division championship without a strong offensive line, and getting Daniels healthy and productive in the middle of this line will go a long way towards achieving that prerequisite.
4 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Iowa 31-10
Dave: Iowa 27-17
Phil H.: Iowa 31-21
Philip R.: Iowa 34-13
Zach: Iowa 38-14