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Know Your Opponent: Iowa Hawkeyes

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This won’t be the typical Homecoming opponent.

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

When you think of a Homecoming opponent you usually envision your favorite team blowing out a much lesser foe to the delight of the fans watching — think Alabama vs. Idaho or Clemson vs. The Citadel. The Fighting Illini’s Homecoming game this Saturday is...not that.

Iowa has outscored Illinois 91-0 the last two matchups at Memorial Stadium. That’s not a typo. The Illini haven’t scored a point against the Hawkeyes in Champaign since 2014. They haven’t beaten Iowa at all since 2008. I can think of no better birthday present for yours truly than an Illinois upset — well, you could Venmo me a couple bucks, but I digress.

Here’s a closer look at the Hawkeyes.

Offense

Iowa’s biggest deficiency on this side of the ball has been at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore QB Spencer Petras has put up meager numbers in his first season as the starter. The 6-foot-5 signal-caller is averaging only 189.7 yards per game and 5.9 yards per attempt, while completing 56.2% of his passes, throwing four touchdowns and five interceptions. He hasn’t made a ton of big plays through the air, but he has been bailed out by Iowa’s run game. The Hawkeyes have scored 16 rushing TDs this season, second in the conference.

Individually, Tyler Goodson is second in the Big Ten in rushing with 564 yards. The sophomore from Georgia has rushed for at least 100 yards in three consecutive games, including 111 (30 carries) versus Nebraska last week. Complementing Goodson is veteran back Mekhi Sargent, who averages 6.2 yards per rush and leads the team with seven TDs on the ground.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota
Tyler Goodson (#15) is averaging 4.99 yards per attempt this season
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Nico Ragaini has emerged as one of the Hawkeyes’ top receiving targets. The redshirt sophomore led Iowa in receptions last season (46) and was third in receiving yards (439). So far this year, Ragaini is second on the team in catches (17) and yards (189).

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Iowa has a pretty good tight end. Highland, Ill., native Sam LaPorta has been Spencer Petras’ top target, leading the Hawkeyes with 23 receptions and 203 yards.

Iowa’s bread-and-butter, the offensive line, hasn’t been as dominant as we’re used to seeing, but they are still a rather large and physically imposing group, anchored by Alaric Jackson & Tyler Linderbaum.

Defense

The Hawkeyes’ defense is stout. Through six games Iowa has allowed a mere 100 points (16.7 ppg) and is third in the B1G in rush defense (109.3 ypg) and total defense (322.8 ypg).

Senior LB Nick Niemann had 80 combined tackles entering this season, but the Sycamore, Ill., native has already recorded 61 stops in 2020, second in the B1G. He’s waited his turn, and he has soared for the Hawkeyes so far.

Nebraska v Iowa
Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann (#49) leads the Hawkeyes in tackles with 61.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Like Niemann, Zach VanValkenburg has come into his own as a defensive stud for the Hawkeyes. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound senior has notched 22 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and four fumble recoveries. VanValkenburg came to Iowa City after spending 2+ years at Division II Hillsdale College, where he recorded 117 tackles and 13 sacks and was the Great Midwest Athletic Conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2018. Junior defensive tackle Dayvion Nixon leads the Hawkeyes up front — his five sacks and 11.5 TFLs lead the conference.

And as much as we like to talk about #LovieBall, the Hawkeyes are also incredibly opportunistic — Iowa’s 63 interceptions since 2017 are the most in FCS. Defensive backs Matt Hankins, Jack Koerner & Riley Moss have combined for six INTs and 100 tackles.

Special Teams

Kirk Ferentz’s special teams unit is rock solid.

Placekicker Keith Duncan has made 57 consecutive extra points. He sits fifth in the Iowa annals with 48 made field goals and is 10-for-14 this season. Freshman Tory Turner is second in the Big Ten in punting average (45.1 yards), while Iowa is sixth nationally in net punting (44.1 yds).

The Hawkeyes also boast two extremely talented returnmen. Buffalo transfer — and Chicagoland native — Charlie Jones has averaged nearly 13 yards per punt return. Senior wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the Big Ten’s all-time leading kickoff returner (29.3 yds/return). Smith-Marsette was the MVP of last year’s Holiday Bowl, scoring a receiving, rushing & kick return touchdown against USC. I’d expect the Illini to kick it away from him whenever possible.