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Q&A: What to expect from the Iowa Hawkeyes

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Our chat with Black Heart Gold Pants

NCAA Football: Northern Iowa at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

A huge contest awaits the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday night when they travel down to Iowa City to face the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes.

Iowa (3–0) boasts what appears to be a formidable defense, allowing only 25 rushing yards across its last two games and ranking second in the Big Ten in sacks (12). Offensively, two Hawkeyes from the Badger State patrol the backfield in prominent roles.

Max Brekke from Black Heart Gold Pants answered some of our questions about the Hawkeyes’ great start and what could lie ahead in a critical match-up.

What are some general takeaways you’ve had from this team across the first three games?

On offense, it’s really hard to say that we’ve been able to take away anything significant from the season’s first few games. They’ve really, really struggled to find any sort of consistency, save for the Northern Iowa game, which is odd to say of a team that’s scored 33 and 38 points in two contests before removing the starters in the fourth quarter. The passing game has suffered from a combination of poor QB play and dropped passes, while facing stout defensive fronts has limited the running game at times as well. Things finally looked to come together in Week 3, as Nate Stanley looked more like himself and the running game was solid, but it’s hard to really determine if this was a matter of the offense coming together as a cohesive unit or simply taking advantage of a less talented FCS defense.

Something that is hard to dispute after three weeks, though, is that this defense looks incredibly legitimate despite the departures of All-American corner Josh Jackson and the entire starting linebacker corps from 2017. Through Iowa’s non-con schedule, they’ve allowed just three touchdowns and a field goal, and all three touchdowns came with at least a handful of second-stringers on the field, if not a whole squad of ‘em. The defensive line is downright frightening and looks like it could be one of the best of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, the linebackers look capable, and the secondary has been solid with the help of a formidable pass rush.

All of this is to say that Iowa looks like it could be on the verge of a very good season. This is the eighth time that Iowa’s started a season 3–0 under Kirk Ferentz, and when they do that, they average nine wins per season. With as weak of a conference slate as the Hawks play this year (they dodge Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State), nine wins looks like it should be the floor, while a win against Wisconsin could mean a special season is on the horizon.

Northern Illinois v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Injuries: who may miss this game, and who may return with a potential impact for Saturday night?

The same guys who may miss this game are the guys who could return and make an impact this Saturday for the Hawks. RB Ivory Kelly-Martin, WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and RG Cole Banwart each missed the game against Northern Iowa, but have “practiced extensively” this week. However, their status was incredibly up in the air to begin the week, as Kelly-Martin and Banwart are both missing from Monday’s depth chart, while Smith-Marsette is listed as a second-stringer. If IKM is unable to go, you’ll see a steady amount of Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent at running back, while you could see any combination of Dalton Ferguson and Levi Paulsen if Banwart is unable to go. Ferguson got the start this past week but after a really poor performance on Iowa’s first drive was replaced by Paulsen, who filled in admirably.

Wisconsin-born Hawkeyes Nate Stanley and Toren Young are prominent members of the Iowa backfield. How have they performed?

Nate Stanley really struggled the first two weeks of the season before finally gaining some traction in Week 3. Ferentz has talked about how Stanley had been pressing during practices and the first couple games, probably trying to be a bit too perfect, and it really shows. Against Northern Illinois and Iowa State, his throws were wobbly, off-target, and forced, while his decision-making wasn’t particularly good. It looked like he was trying his best to make something happen on every play, when the 2017 version of Nate Stanley would’ve had better play recognition and made the smart play. However, in Week 3 against UNI, we finally got a glimpse of the Stanley we’ve been accustomed to since he arrived at Iowa. He went 23-of-28 passing for 309 yards and two touchdowns, including 10 completions to his favorite target, Nick Easley, who was noticeably banged-up during the first two weeks of the season. If Nate can build upon his good start against UNI this next game, Iowa should have a solid chance of winning.

On the other hand, Toren Young has been an incredibly solid back for the Hawks this year. After sitting the entire first half against NIU, he rushed eight times for 84 yards in the second half, including a game-breaking, 40-yard run that finally gave the Iowa offense momentum and set them up for to get a touchdown. He struggled a bit against Iowa State, only recording 68 yards on 21 carries, but he was solid again against UNI, averaging 5.9 YPC to bring his season average up to 5.4 YPC. He’s shown that he’s hard to bring down after first contact and that he’s not afraid to bang heads with defenders, which has made him a great sidekick to Kelly-Martin and Sargent, two quicker backs who are best at avoiding contact. This alone probably makes him Iowa’s most valuable back, as he allows Iowa its best opportunity to succeed in the power run game.

Defensively, Iowa has only allowed eight points per game, 25 rushing yards in its last two games, and is second in the Big Ten in sacks (12), with 10 coming from the defensive line. Who and what has allowed the Hawkeyes defense to play so well (already seeing A.J. Epenesa as a big reason), and where are there weaknesses within this unit?

The biggest reason this defensive unit plays so well is because of what happens in the trenches. Iowa’s dominated each and every offensive line they’ve faced so far this season, and with good reason—with Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, andEpenesa, this pass rush is absolutely relentless, which then helps out the secondary tremendously. The other half of the equation is that they’re also incredibly solid defending against the run, as evidenced by Iowa allowing a measly 44 yards on 17 carries to star Cyclone RB David Montgomery. The biggest strength of the line isn’t the names, though, as much as it is the depth. Where most teams start to wear down as the game progresses, Iowa’s hasn’t shown that so far this season because they have at least eight guys that they’re comfortable rotating into the lineup at any given moment, and it’s helped them stay fresh enough to keep opposing offensive lines from dominating them as the game gets into its later stages.

If there are any weaknesses on this defense, it appears that it’s probably at corner. They haven’t been tested much this season, and when they finally were late against UNI, they conceded a couple touchdowns through the air. These guys are still solid and will have a lot of help when the defensive line is playing more tenaciously, but this is probably the best guess at a group who I’m semi-concerned about after three weeks of football.

One key match-up besides the battles between the teams’ respective offensive and defensive lines is Wisconsin’s defense vs. Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. What are your key match-ups for the game?

I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of Iowa’s tight ends vs. the Wisconsin defense, but a match-up that I’m concerned about is Nate Stanley vs. the 3-4 defense. He was atrocious last year against the Badgers’ defense because they were able to throw a multitude of looks at the first-year starter, and I’m interested to see how he’s able to recognize defensive schemes this year. Will he be able to make the right reads on where the rush will come from, and audible as necessary into plays that could provide success? Will he be able to direct his line appropriately? He played fine against Nebraska’s 3-4 defense to end 2017, but let’s be honest—Rutgers might have been able to solve that defense by Week 13 of last year.

On the defensive side of things, I think the most important match-up will be Iowa’s linebackers vs. Jonathan Taylor. Iowa has an incredible defensive line, but I think Wisconsin will be able to negate their presence a bit better than Iowa’s first few opponents, and that means the linebackers will be more important than ever in Week 4. After Jack Hockaday replaced Amani Jones in Week 1, this has been a solid if unspectacular unit. It’ll be telling to see how they look against one of the nation’s best running backs running behind a phenomenal offensive line.

Game prediction—who ya got?

This game will almost definitely decide who gets to represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis this season, which is a wild thing to say about each team’s first conference game. As such, I’m predicting a competitive game under the lights in Kinnick Stadium. I’m a little worried that Wisconsin is going to come out angry after a loss to BYU last week and try their damndest to punch Iowa in the mouth, but I also have a lot of faith in this Iowa defense to limit Jonathan Taylor and force Alex Hornibrook to air it out more than the Badgers would like.

Here’s my best guess: Iowa 27, Wisconsin 20. Nate Stanley does just enough to keep the Badgers honest, while Iowa’s three(?)-headed monster at running back wears down the opposing defense en route to a victory. This one is close through three quarters, but Iowa is able to get a late touchdown to seal the deal in front of 69,000 raucous fans.