Sep 23, 2016
Rutgers (2-1, 0-0 Big Ten) opens its Big Ten season on Sept. 24 when Iowa makes its first-ever visit High Point Solutions Stadium for a cross-divisional game (noon ET, ESPN2). The Hawkeyes (2-1, 0-0) are licking their wounds after a shocking 23-21 defeat against FCS stalwart North Dakota last week.
Before declaring Iowa dead, think again. Head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad is a proud bunch built on fundamentally sound football. The Hawkeyes possess a solid defense and a balanced offensive attack that completely dismantled Iowa State to the tune of 42-3 and limited the Cyclones to 291 yards offense. Iowa enters this game with an eight-game Big Ten regular-season winning streak.
C.J. Beathard may be the best passer Rutgers faces all season. Last year, Iowa finally unleashed Beathard in the passing game, leading the Hawkeyes to a hair within the college football playoffs. He won’t dazzle people with gaudy stats, but he generally is solid and takes care of the ball. Beathard has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns to one interception. That one pick cost him, as North Dakota State returned it for a touchdown last week.
The knock against Iowa could be its inability to finish. The Hawkeyes were in control of the game against NDSU but allowed the Bison back in the game with suspect defense against the run. North Dakota State rushed for 239 yards on the vaunted Iowa defense employing misdirection and spread elements. Going back to last year, Iowa failed to stop Michigan State on a 22-play, 82-ard drive that won the game for the Spartans.
Iowa has made its name offensively playing a pro-style with a grinding running game. The Hawkeyes average 148 yards on the ground but were stymied for just 34 yards against NDSU. This could be the best matchup for Rutgers, as its front seven has been relatively stout against the run this year.
Receiver Matt Vanderberg has been Iowa’s best threat in the vertical game. He burst out with 129 yards and a touchdown against Iowa State a week after registering 99 yards receiving in a season-opening 45-21 win over Miami (Ohio). Rutgers could use better safety play to neutralize Iowa’s passing threat.
Rutgers will likely rely heavily on Robert Martin out of the backfield, much in the same way the Scarlet Knights relied on his 169 yards rushing to defeat New Mexico last week, 37-28. Iowa was unable to get push up front on the NDSU line.
However, NDSU was able to keep Iowa honest with Easton Stick, a very capable running and passing QB. Rutgers will need to find some semblance of quarterback play if it wants to keep Iowa off guard. Otherwise, the Hawkeyes can load the box to stifle the Rutgers attack. That may mean more touches for running back Justin Goodwin, the best pass catcher of RU’s backfield.
Linebackers Ben Niemann, Bo Bower and Josey Jewell (66 combined tackles) form the strength of Iowa’s defense who will try to make life tough on Rutgers up the middle. Yes, Ben Niemann is the son of Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann (Nick Niemann also plays LB for the Hawkeyes).
It’s no secret that Janarion Grant is the MVP for the Scarlet Knights through the first quarter of the season, but RU quarterback Chris Laviano is the key to this game. The Rutgers starter has been mostly ineffective, completing just 51.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions. While he tossed a nice pass over the top to Juwuan Harris for Rutgers first score in the New Mexico, he was 11-for-27 in that game and has completed less than 45 percent of his attempts over the past two game.
Once again, Rutgers faces a team that will likely neutralize Grant in the kick return game because it can put the ball in the end zone. Ron Coluzzi, who punts and handles kickoffs, averages 43.9 yards on punts this year and has registered 15 touchbacks on 19 kickoffs. Freshman Iowa placekicker Keith Duncan is still relatively unproven, having registered a lone 22-yard field goal in the Miami game. Rutgers kicker Nick Bonagura was a revelation in the New Mexico game when he drilled three successful kicks in as many tries.
This will be the first meeting between Rutgers and Iowa, but Rutgers defeated a Kirk Ferentz-coached Maine team, 40-17, in 1991. The Scarlet Knights travel to Kinnick Stadium in 2019.