By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Imagine if this game actually lives up to the hype.
Iowa vs. Indiana.
What is arguably the best season opener on paper under Kirk Ferentz is such an intriguing matchup that it’s been easy to not think about the epic showdown at Iowa State a week after.
If you prefer getting tested right out of the gate by a conference foe on the rise, and are willing to risk being 0-1 heading to Ames, then Saturday’s much-anticipated season opener against Indiana at Kinnick Stadium is right up your alley.
Tom Allen appears to have something special brewing in Bloomington, Ind., where basketball still is the main attraction, but right now, football has center stage.
Allen’s success in rebuilding the Indiana program, and his emotional and heartfelt interactions with his players, has galvanized Hoosier nation and fueled a fire in football that hasn’t burned this brightly in years.
Indiana enters Saturday’s game ranked 17th in the Associated Press preseason poll, and one spot ahead of Iowa.
Indiana finished 6-2 last season, as did Iowa.
Indiana is also a three-point underdog, but the home team gets three points for hosting.
So this matchup, at least on paper, is about as even as it could be.
“We’re looking at a veteran team, a good football team,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the Hoosiers. “And they’re good in all three phases. So they’ve got a lot of good veteran players back. They’ve also added a significant amount of grad transfers that we don’t know a lot about and how they’ll factor in the equation.
“But what we do know these guys are a really well-coached football team in all areas. They’ve played extremely well, had two very successful seasons the last two years.”
The respect in this case is mutual as Allen also spoke highly about Iowa’s tough and disciplined style of play under Ferentz, who is entering his 23rd season as head coach.
‘You have to physically beat them,” Allen said. “They don’t beat themselves very often. There’s a toughness to their program that sticks out.”
One of the more intriguing matchups in Saturday’s game will be the Iowa secondary against Indiana’s explosive passing attack led by southpaw quarterback Michael Penix Jr., and all-Big Ten receiver Ty Fryfogle.
Penix’s 2020 season was cut short by a knee injury, but he still passed for 1,645 yards, 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions, while Fryfogle averaged 19.5 yards per catch last season and had 200-yard receiving games against Ohio State and Michigan State.
“There are a lot of good receivers in our conference. He’s right at the top of the class,” Ferentz said of Fryfogle. “He’s an excellent football player. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. They’ve got other guys too, and picked up at least one who we expect we’ll see out there. So they don’t make it easy on you. That’s for sure. And on top of it, they’ve got a guy that can get the ball to them really well. It’s a challenge.”
Indiana has received a boost at receiver with the addition of Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews. A former four-star recruit in 2017, Matthews had 84 receptions and five touchdowns in three seasons at Florida State.
Iowa will counter with a veteran secondary in which all four starters return from last season.
The Hawkeyes have played 22 straight games without surrendering 25 points, but that streak could be in danger on Saturday.
Running back is one area where Iowa might have an advantage.
Indiana gained 10 yards or more on just 7.6 percent of its rushing attempts last season, which was the second lowest rate in the Big Ten and ranked 124th amongst FBS teams.
Iowa, on the other hand, has a dynamic one-two punch at running back with junior Tyler Goodson, who made first-team All-Big Ten last season, and with fifth-year senior backup Ivory Kelly-Martin, who started six games in 2018, including the season opener.
Iowa also has arguably the best center in college football in junior Tyler Linderbaum.
Ferentz was asked at his weekly press conference how he felt about his running game at this point.
“Well, it depends on how we block,” Ferentz said. “I feel good about our backs. And there’s some depth there. But, again, it’s being able to put things together against a team like this. And when you play a team like this as well, because of their style, we’ll probably hit some good plays and we’ll probably have some ugly plays too. Our guys need to understand that and help play through those ups and downs.
“But if we’re going to be good, we have to run the ball successfully and effectively. We have to do both. But part of that depends on how they want to play, too. If they want to take the run away they can do it and we will have to throw it.”
Iowa will be without starting right guard Kyler Schott because of a foot injury. Schott is Iowa’s second most experienced offensive lineman behind Linderbaum, so his loss is significant, but also an opportunity for his replacement, sophomore Justin Britt.
Ferentz said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday that he expects six to eight offensive linemen to play in Saturday’s game.
” This is quite a test, because (Indiana) is very multiple in what they do, and they’re very aggressive with what they do — they bring a lot of pressure, add to the mix,” Ferentz said. “So it puts a little bit of pressure on those guys up front. It’s a tough preparation. It already has been. It’s going to be tougher on Saturday to see how they execute against a very aggressive defensive team.”
If the Hoosiers load the box to stop the run, Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras will have to make them pay, although, that’s easier said than done.
Petras started all eight games last season, and led Iowa to six consecutive victories after a 0-2 start.
But he also struggled at times with accuracy, especially on shorter passes.
Turnovers often determine the outcome of games and that could be the case on Saturday with both teams so evenly matched.
Indiana intercepted 17 passes and recovered three fumbles in 103 opponent possessions last season, meaning 19.4 percent of the drives ended in turnovers. That was the best percentage in the Big Ten and ranked fourth nationally.
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“One of the things that comes to mind is playing clean,” Ferentz said. “And that’s true, you watch any early season football. You consider the turnover, take-away margin, this Indiana team was so good at that last year. They forced a lot of turnovers, to their credit.
“And part of that is their style, the way they play defense; they come at you aggressively. We have to really protect the football. True in any game, but it’s going to be important in this game. First games are all about unknowns. We say they have an established staff. I can’t imagine they’ll change dramatically because they’ve been so successful.
The hope from Iowa’s perspective is that with a season of starting under his belt, albeit a Covid-shortened season in which few fans were in attendance, that Petras will use that experience to lift his performance to another level.
“It’s hard to simulate and to recreate experience,” Petras said. “The best way to grow is to go out there and compete and compete your hardest. Hopefully, you do great. And the good plays, you look at them and you’re objective about them and critique them. And the bad plays, the same thing. You’re objective about it and that’s a great way to grow. And I feel pretty good about that.”
Petras should also feel good about having home-field advantage because it ultimately could prove to be the difference with fans back in the stands.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Indiana 27
Iowa vs. Indiana
When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Kinnick Stadium (69,250)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
Series: Iowa holds a 45-28-4 advantage and has won seven of the last eight games in the series. The Hawkeyes are are 24-10-3 all-time and have won three straight games against Indiana in Iowa City.