By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Almost everything that happened on the field, and in the stands at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, probably said more about Iowa’s opponent than anything else.
The smallest crowd for a Big Ten home opener during the Kirk Ferentz coaching era watched as No. 20 Iowa had its way with lowly Rutgers, winning 30-0 before an announced attendance of 61,808 at Kinnick Stadium.
Saturday’s attendance was the lowest for a Big Ten home opener since Iowa hosted Northwestern before an announced attendance of 59,750 in 1982.
The Hawkeyes improved to 2-0 and now will start preparing for their first road game of the season against No. 25 Iowa State next Saturday in Ames.
And you can be assured that there will be no empty seats for the annual showdown because it always draws a sellout crowd and because it has more hype in our state than the first moon landing.
Next Saturday’s game, with two nationally ranked teams squaring off, also should be a lot more competitive than the Rutgers game was on this Saturday, and actually might live up to the hype.
Iowa has held two of its last three Big Ten opponents scoreless dating back to last season. The Hawkeyes crushed Illinois 63-0 in the second to last Big Ten game last season, and also pitched a 23-0 shutout against Maryland last season at Kinnick Stadium.
"That's news to me, but that's good news, so obviously, I'll take it, I'll gladly take it," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "I thought our guys just really played well defensively today. It was a collective effort."
Rutgers used two quarterbacks who combined to complete just 9-of-26 passes for 41 yards and two interceptions. The Scarlet Knight finished with 125 yards, which is the fourth lowest total for an opponent during the Ferentz era.
Ferentz was pleased with how his team defended the pass on Saturday, and he singled out sophomore linebacker Djimon Colbert for praise after the game.
"The passing part, we disrupted their quarterback, and part of it is because we were covering really well, so he didn't have any place to go with the ball, and then threw it away or whatever he did. So a real team effort that way," Ferentz said. "It was good to see. And I thought Djimon did some nice things, too, out there."
Iowa's secondary performed well despite being without starting free safety Kaevon Merriweather, who suffered a foot injury in practice on Friday. He was replaced in the starting lineup on Saturday by sophomore walk-on and West Des Moines Dowling graduate Jack Koerner.
"I didn't want to come out and be nervous," Koerner said. "I just wanted to come out and play football and trust my preparation and trust my teammates. And it all worked out."
Iowa strives for balance on offense and that was mission accomplished on Saturday in a big way as the Hawkeyes rushed for 192 yards and passed for 244 yards.
"First, give all the credit to Iowa, they played a really good football game," said Rutgers head coach Chris Ash. "Played well up front on both sides of the ball and controlled the line of scrimmage today.
"Winning in this league is hard, it difficult. You have to be able to run the ball, and stop the run to win."
It never felt during Saturday’s game that Iowa was at risk of losing because Rutgers did nothing to make it feel that way.
There were times when Rutgers struggled just to complete a pass, especially in the first half. Rutgers gained zero yards on nine offensive plays in the second quarter.
The Rutgers secondary also struggled to defend. And when they did defend, it sometimes led to a pass interference penalty.
There were lots of reasons why Rutgers finished 1-11 last season, and many of those reasons were noticeable on Saturday, from poor quarterback play to poor blocking to poor tackling.
The lone bright spot for Rutgers was punter Adam Korsack, who repeatedly pinned Iowa deep in its own territory, only to see his defense fail to take advantage of the field position.
Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, as a New Jersey native and a former Rutgers commit, had extra incentive to play well on Saturday because he knows many of the Rutgers players and coaches.
Smith-Marsette used his blazing speed to slip past the Rutgers secondary, and then Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley hit him in stride for a 58-yard touchdown pass less than 3 minutes into the game.
Smith-Marsette finished the game with four catches for career-high 113 yards and two touchdowns.
"It felt real good," Smith-Marsette said. "I just wanted to go out there and do what I can do, show my skills and just able to put the team up and that's what I did. And we just started moving forward after that."
Stanley completed passes to seven different receivers in the first half, including three for 90 yards to Smith-Marsette.
Redshirt freshman receiver Tyrone Tracy also scored his first touchdown as a Hawkeye on Saturday on a 7-yard pass from Stanley that expanded Iowa's lead to 14-0 in the second quarter.
"I feel like this squad has a lot of potential," Tracy said.
Iowa won easily on Saturday despite not having a tight end catch a pass, as oddly as that seems after former tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant combined for 27 touchdown catches over the previous two seasons. Hockenson and Fant were so impressive during their time at Iowa that they both left college with eligibility remaining to enter the 2019 NFL Draft, where they both were selected in the first round by Detroit and Denver with the 8th and 20th picks, respectively.
Junior Shaun Beyer is the only Iowa tight end to catch a pass this season, with three catches for 30 yards.
But the tight ends also figured prominently in the running game in the first two games with their blocking, and there will be times this season when they will have to make catches because opposing defenses will do a better of covering Iowa's receivers than what Rutgers did on Saturday.
Iowa led 20-0 at halftime and held Rutgers to just 47 yards during the first two quarters.
It felt like the game was over at halftime, even with another half to play.
And that was due more to Rutgers’ ineptitude than Iowa’s dominance.
Smith-Marsette scored his second touchdown of the game on a 23-yard pass from Stanley that gave Iowa a 27-0 lead with 2:50 left in the third quarter.
It was Stanley's third touchdown pass of the game and his 58th career touchdown pass. The Wisconsin native moved past Ricky Stanzi into third on Iowa's career touchdown list. Stanley needs four more touchdown passes to move past Drew Tate into second place and 17 to break Chuck Long’s career mark of 74 scoring strikes.
"It's really a credit to him because Ricky was a tremendous player for us, too, and we've had a lot of really good quarterbacks here," Ferentz said. 'Nate is carving out his niche and any recognition he gets I think is well deserved."
One of the more light-hearted moments on Saturday came at the end of the first quarter when fans started booing the officials as soon as the fans were finished performing the Wave.
The fans were apparently still upset about Rutgers getting away with what they felt was pass interference on Iowa’s previous offensive possession.
It did appear that Iowa tight end Shaun Beyer was interfered with on a pass over the middle, but the officials saw it differently.
But there was little else for fans to complain about in the first half.
Stanley overthrew at least two open receivers in the first half, the running game sputtered at times in the first half and the clock management left something to be desired in the first half.
But Iowa still led by 20 points at halftime and had 236 yards in the first two quarters.
Iowa also performed well on special teams as graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton averaged 48.3 yards on six punts, while junior kicker Keith Duncan made all three of his field-goal attempts, including two from beyond 40 yards.
But even with all of those accomplishments, it's still hard after two games to evaluate Iowa because the first two opponents were mediocre at best.
One of the benefits to playing Rutgers in the conference opener, besides getting an easy win, is that Iowa also used a lot of reserves, including backup quarterback Spencer Petras for much of the fourth quarter.
Miami of Ohio offered more resistance in the season opener on Aug. 31 at Kinnick Stadium, but Iowa still cruised to a 38-14 victory against a team that is expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Mid-American Conference.
Iowa State figures to be a major step up in competition, and will also have home-field advantage.
This is one of the most-anticipated Iowa-Iowa State games in years with both teams nationally ranked for a change.
The Cyclones needed three overtimes to defeat Northern Iowa in its season opener on Aug. 31 in Ames, but they also will have had two weeks to prepare for Iowa after coming off a bye week from this weekend.
"They are all tough," Kirk Ferentz said. "There's nothing easy about playing college football, just ask any player. But every preparation is important and they are all going to be challenges. That's how I look at it. I don't see any easy games on our schedule.
"We'll enjoy this win, learn from it, and hopefully, get ready for the next one."
Rutgers 0 0 0 0 – 0
Iowa 7 13 7 3 – 30
I – Ihmir Smith Marsette 58 pass from Nate Stanley (Keith Duncan kick)
I – Tyrone Tracy 7 pass from Stanley. Duncan kick)
I – Duncan 46 FG
I – Duncan 19 FG
I – Smith-Marsette 23 pass from Stanley (Duncan kick)
I – Duncan 43 FG