Iowa football postgame mailbag: Where do Hawkeyes stand ahead of showdown with Michigan?
PISCATAWAY, New Jersey — Iowa football had several questions looming entering Saturday's game at Rutgers. How would the team fare in its first road contest? Would the offense show progress? Would the team's performance inspire any confidence going into next week's Michigan game?
It wasn't perfect, but by all accounts Iowa passed its first Big Ten Conference test.
The Hawkeyes dominated Rutgers on Saturday night, winning 27-10 in front of SHI Stadium's first sellout crowd since 2017. The defense led the way early with two first-half touchdowns, but the offense had moments, too, including two 75-plus yard drives that ended in points. And the Hawkeyes won the special teams battle — punter Tory Taylor had three punts land inside Rutgers' 10-yard line, and true freshman Drew Stevens went 2-for-2 including a 51-yarder late the game.
"It's certainly the best way to start Big Ten play," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I think we saw improvement in all three phases, at least that was my vantage point."
With two straight wins, Iowa has built some momentum ahead of next Saturday's home game against undefeated Michigan, which beat Maryland 34-27 on Saturday. The two programs faced off in last year's Big Ten championship, a 42-3 rout by Michigan.
It's going to take a better performance than Saturday to pull off a big upset, but some of the things we saw against Rutgers were a good start. And with that let's get into some postgame questions:
Injury updates on Terry Roberts and Jestin Jacobs? Keagan Johnson?
An unexpected development from Saturday's game is that Terry Roberts is dealing with an injury. Ferentz didn't go into specific detail, but Roberts was a late scratch after going through pregame warmups with the team. Sophomore Cooper DeJean started in his place and junior Sebastian Castro got his first start at Cash in DeJean's place.
"He's been banged up a little bit," Ferentz said. "We thought he had a chance to go but he had to pull out in pregame today."
We'll know more on Tuesday during Ferentz's scheduled news conference, but the fact that Roberts made the trip and could have played on Saturday is a good sign. However, the status of linebacker Jestin Jacobs seems less optimistic. He had missed the last two games with a soft-tissue injury but made the trip to Rutgers and actually started on Saturday. He left the game shortly after and a quick return appears unlikely.
"I don't think it's good," Ferentz said. "I'll let you know Tuesday but it didn't seem good, the initial report doesn't sound good, so we'll see."
If there's a silver lining, it's that backup defenders played well on Saturday. Castro forced the fumble that led to Iowa's second touchdown, and reserve linebackers Jay Higgins and Kyler Fisher were solid in spot snaps as well.
Ferentz also provided an update on wide receiver Keagan Johnson, who didn't make the trip.
"It's soft tissue and there's just no way to predict how it's going to go," Ferentz said. "He was making progress and then had a setback a week ago. We'll just take it day to day."
Why weren't the Iowa receivers a factor? What else can the offense correct?
While the offense showed some good things, there were a few areas of concern. One of them is glaring: Iowa's wide receivers were targeted only twice on Saturday, with one catch for five yards by Arland Bruce IV. Meanwhile, Iowa tight ends combined for six catches and the running backs combined for four.
How is that possible? Quarterback Spencer Petras explained what he saw on the field.
"For the most part the defense dictates where the ball goes," Petras said. "We have play calls to attack the defense in all types of ways, it just so happened today that we were getting into plays where we were putting pressure on them with the tight ends and the backs. It could be another game, maybe next week, when it could be the flip of that. But the defense will dictate where the ball goes by how they play."
Ferentz noted in his postgame radio interview that Bruce's status had been questionable for the Rutgers game, which explains why he wasn't at punt returner as usual. With him not at 100 percent and Johnson out, that limited their options again. Nico Ragaini slipped on his lone target of the game, which Ferentz attributed to rust.
Not an ideal day for the receivers, but I expect them to have a bigger role against Michigan. They have to. This is particularly true for Bruce, who has only five catches in his last three games after five catches in the season opener. He's been one of the few constants offensively this season, and the coaching staff would be wise to game-plan around him more.
Another concern continues to be third-down conversions. Iowa entered Saturday ranked last in the Big Ten at 28% and converted just 1-for-9 against Rutgers. How can Iowa remedy that? Just looking at Saturday's result, they have to limit negative results early.
Five of eight failed conversions were preceded by negative plays: three penalties on first or second down, a first-down sack for minus-8 yards and another negative run on first down. Simply put, Iowa's offense has struggled enough moving the ball as is, and cannot afford to hurt itself by self-inflicted mistakes.
Heavy dose of run on Saturday. Should that be the game plan vs. Michigan?
Most of the injury attention on offense has been focused on wide receivers, and rightfully so, but Saturday was the first game in which all of Iowa's running backs were healthy and available.
Sophomore Leshon Williams returned to the team after missing last week's game to attend his father's funeral. He led the team in rushing with 11 carries for 64 yards and scored his second touchdown of the season.
"No one wants to go through that, especially at the age that I am," Williams said. "The support system of the team, they were there with me the whole week. They all texted me and made sure I kept my head high. When I got out there this week it just felt good to be with my brothers and bond."
It was a steady dose of Williams, fellow sophomore Gavin Williams and true freshman Kaleb Johnson. Gavin Williams had seven carries, and Johnson led the backs with 15 carries. Rutgers was allowing the fewest rushing yards per game nationally entering Saturday (32.3 yards per game) but surrendered 129 to Iowa.
Of Iowa's two long scoring drives of 87 yards and 75 yards, both were paced by the run game. Saturday was by far the offensive line's best performance and the unit appeared to get stronger as the game went on. Michigan's defense has the No. 4 ranked defense in the Big Ten but is considerably weaker against the run than the pass. And with injuries again at wide receiver, Iowa might need to lean on the run game even heavier next weekend.
The good news is that the main components of the running game appear ready to roll health-wise.
"It was good to have (Gavin and Leshon) together," Ferentz said. "Kaleb is a guy we've watched grow week to week to week. He's unbelievably positive and a great attitude. To have him with the other two guys is something we feel positive about."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at email@example.com.