By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – So much goes into winning a football game between teams that appear evenly matched on paper, as is the case with Iowa and Iowa State.
From executing the game plan to avoiding injuries and turnovers to just having some good luck, it usually takes all of those things to prevail.
But I’m willing to say that if Iowa accomplishes at least three of the five things mentioned below in this column, that it will prevail on Saturday in Ames.
It won’t be easy, but winning this annual showdown never should be easy, especially on the road.
Iowa has won the last four games in a row against Iowa State, including a 44-41 overtime thriller the last time these teams met in Ames in 2017. The winning streak should grow to five if the Hawkeyes meet at least three of the five challenges listed below.
1. Rush for at least 175 yards: This really goes without saying, but that’s also why it has to be said first, or in this case, written first.
As much as everybody loves the long ball, even in football where the spread offense continues to evolve and gain popularity, advancing on the ground still impacts the Iowa football team more than anything else from a statistical standpoint, and from a strategical standpoint.
"I would abide by that theory in every game. If you have a chance to run the football and do it successfully, but we know going in it's not going to be easy," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. "Again, their style of defense is unique. So they make it tough for you to run the ball. We didn't do a very good job of it last year, and so — and that's true of any opponent. This opponent in particular, we can expect that.
"Anybody can make it tough to run the football, so you'd better be able to do something else if that's the case, and you've just got to try to hang in there for the whole 60 minutes and see if you can find a way to work something out."
Hawkeye fans certainly have reason to be excited about the depth and potential at the receiver positions because it is a talented and diverse group. But you also could say that the Iowa receivers are only as good as their running game.
Iowa, for the past 40 years under Hayden Fry, and now Kirk Ferentz, has used a pro-style offense with mostly pro-style quarterbacks who are more comfortable using play action and throwing from the pocket.
The problem with that approach is that it relies heavily on the running game to create the right environment, and Iowa sometimes struggles to deliver in that respect.
Iowa is 46-22 since the start of the 2014 season, and in 20 of the losses, Iowa rushed for fewer than 150 yards, and in 13 of the losses, Iowa rushed for fewer than 100 yards.
Iowa State plays a 3-4 defense that is unlike any other, according to Kirk Ferentz.
“It's unique. I don't even know who to compare this with,” Ferentz said. “There's a couple of opponents, I can go back about eight years that were kind of like this, but not really, not the same. I'm thinking about '09-'10 in that area. It was a little bit similar, but it really wasn't. This one's unique. This just takes a lot of work.”
The fact that Iowa State needed three overtimes to defeat Northern Iowa 29-26 in the season opener on Aug. 31 makes it easy to overlook, or minimize, the Cyclone defense holding the Panthers to just 34 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
The Iowa running game will definitely face a huge challenge on Saturday, even more so with starting left tackle Alaric Jackson not expected to play because of a knee injury.
“Their defense is going to fly around to the football, and I know my o-linemen are going to do their job, and after that, we have to do our job,” said Iowa junior running back Mekhi Sargent.
No one statistic decides the outcome to a football game, but the Cyclones will be in serious trouble if Iowa has at least 175 rushing yards and vice versa.
2. Commit one or few turnovers, and have it occur in the first half: There is no greater equalizer or difference maker in football than turnovers.
I know that sounds like Captain Obvious, but sometimes we have to be reminded that any team that fails to protect the football seriously damages its chances of winning.
Turnovers are so costly, because they can happen at any time, under any circumstance, and any player, even the very best players, are at risk of committing a turnover.
Iowa still would have time to overcome a turnover that happens in the first half, but it's the turnovers that happen late in games that are so costly because time is no longer on your side.
3. Hold Iowa State to fewer than 100 rushing yards: Do this and the Iowa State offense ultimately will become one dimensional and then watch out for Iowa defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston because it’ll be hard to keep them from causing the pocket to collapse if the Cyclones are no threat to run.
Miami of Ohio showed the blueprint for how to avoid Iowa’s vaunted pass rush, and that was by getting rid of the football quickly on short routes, and having a quarterback who performed well under pressure.
However, Iowa still won the game 38-14 largely because the RedHawks only had 59 rushing yards and averaged just 2.4 yards per carry.
Iowa State has a talented quarterback in sophomore Brock Purdy, but take away his running game, and like most other quarterbacks, he will become vulnerable.
4. Have Nate Stanley complete at least 65 percent of his passes: Iowa’s third-year starting quarterback is on course to leave as one of the most accomplished at his position from a statistical standpoint in program history.
Except for one thing.
Stanley has yet to complete at least 60 percent of his passes for a season, and he has acknowledged that accuracy is part of his game that has to improve, maybe even the biggest part.
Stanley is completing 63.8 percent of his passes after two games this season, so he is on the right track.
But the level of competition will increase dramatically on Saturday, along with the level of hostility from the stands.
Stanley has been through this once already, though, and to say that he played well in his first game in Ames would be an understatement.
Stanley played arguably his best game as a Hawkeye, completing 27-of-41 passes for 333 yards and five touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime to Smith-Marsette, as Iowa escaped with a 44-41 victory.
“It’s always huge when you get to have experience playing in a stadium and then going back the second time you know what to expect,” Stanley said. “You know what the crowd is going to be like. You know what to expect as far as noise, and then, obviously, just being out on the field, you know what to expect, whether it be the field conditions, where the play clocks are at, things like that that people might not think of, but you feel that much more confident and comfortable there the second time you go there.”
Stanley will make his 29th consecutive start for Iowa on Saturday, and that’s another reason why he shouldn’t be fazed by the environment.
“I definitely feel that I know what to expect going into that stadium and might be able to help out some other guys that might not know what to expect,” Stanley said.
5. Dominate on special teams: Dominate would mean winning both the kicking and punting matchups and having at least one return that either scores a touchdown or dramatically shifts field position.
If Saturday’s game is as close as it is expected to be, field position will be a huge factor and there is nothing besides turnovers that impacts field position more than what happens on special teams.
The Cyclones will be taking a chance every time they kick to the speedy Smith-Marsette, assuming they will, because the New Jersey native is always a threat to shift field position.
Smith-Marsette only has one kick return this season for 19 yards, so you know he is chomping at the bit to break free for a long return.
Smith-Marsette led the Big Ten, and finished second nationally in kick returns last season, averaging 29.5 yards on 24 returns.
“It definitely impacts the game differently,” Smith-Marsette said. “Teams don’t expect to get hit on special teams. So when you go out there and make that special teams play and now put them in a bind of oh man, how are we going to respond to it?
“And the other side of things, if you’re hitting that play you never know how it’s going to spark your team. So if you get a big kickoff return, now the defense is going to want to go out there and get an interception, or they want to cause a fumble. It just sparks teams differently. You never know how detrimental it could be to the other team.”
Iowa has performed well on special teams during this young season, actually really well, with junior kicker Keith Duncan having made all four of his field-goal attempts, including two from beyond 40 yards, and with graduate transfer punter Michael Sleep-Dalton averaging 45.9 yards on seven attempts.
“If they can continue to play well and play better, that's going to be a good thing for us, certainly,” Kirk Ferentz said of his two kicking specialists.
It’s hard to judge Iowa State’s special teams after just one game. Connor Assalley has made 3-of-4 field-goal attempts, but is just 19-of-27 for his career.
That is eight misses in 27 attempts, which is nearly one-third of his attempts. So it’ll be interesting to see how Assalley responds under pressure because he almost certainly will face it on Saturday.