Kent State is a program clearly on the rise, as displayed by rattling off eight victories in its last 10 outings. But the Golden Flashes’ non-conference schedule is going to make that stretch difficult to replicate.
The three FBS opponents Kent State will face prior to MAC play combine for a 6-0 record. The Flashes started the season against a top 10 Texas A&M team down in College Station, and now they travel to America’s heartland to battle another top 10 opponent — No. 5 Iowa.
Iowa convincingly suffocated Indiana and Iowa State to open its 2021 campaign, and now the Hawkeyes are the highest ranked team in the Big Ten for the first time since 2015. To preview the red-hot Hawkeyes and their upcoming matchup with Kent State, we bring in Jonah Parker (@JPinIC_BHGP), the managing editor of SB Nation’s Iowa site Black Heart Gold Pants (@BHGP).
Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: What’s your reaction to Iowa sitting at No. 5 in the AP Poll this early in the season, positioned as the highest Big Ten team in the country? Have the first two performances instilled a belief in the fanbase that this team can win a conference crown in Indianapolis this December?
Jonah Parker, Black Heart Gold Pants: I think most Hawkeye fans are a bit cautious with the high ranking this early in the season. Iowa is a program that typically starts slow and builds momentum as the season progresses so playing a pair of ranked teams out of the gate was a concern. Winning both and in the fashion the Hawkeyes did was a bit of a surprise, so I think the résumé warrants the ranking but given the offensive output we’ve seen, I’m certainly skeptical about this team living up to the ranking all season long.
In line with that, I think the expectation is that Iowa stumbles somewhere and likely more than once. This is an excellent defense, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find many Hawkeye fans who truly believe this team will win its first Big Ten title in more than 15 years.
Helwick: Iowa’s defense has been a turnover producing factory this season, and the Hawkeyes have already generated three defensive touchdowns. This appears to be no fluke, as Iowa ranked seventh in forcing turnovers a season ago. What makes these turnover opportunities so frequent and what causes Iowa’s defense to suck the life out of opponents on a weekly basis?
Parker: The defense under Phil Parker has been exceptional for years and this year is no different. Part of the recipe for success has been teaching fundamentally sound football in a scheme that’s highly replicable. Iowa almost never has the type of athletes of a program like Ohio State or Penn State, but they’ve built a foundation on smart football players who buy into the concepts and execute very well. They’re rarely out of position and when opportunity presents, they pounce. Since 2017, no team has intercepted more passes than Phil Parker’s Iowa defense.
Beyond the turnovers, however, the thing that makes the defense click is the integration with the rest of the team. That is, Iowa is perfectly happy to suffocate opponents in all three phases. The offense is never going to be terribly flashy as avoiding turnovers and eating clock are nearly as important as scoring points.
And Kirk Ferentz may value special teams as much as any coach in college football. So when an offensive drive stalls out, Iowa will trot out the best punter in the nation and flip field position or pin opponents deep. The staff is incredibly patient and willing to chip away at field position over 2-3 drives until the offense gets the ball in good enough field position where it’s difficult not to score points.
I’ve heard it called death by a thousand paper cuts. I’ve heard it referred to as the boa constrictor approach. Whatever it is, it has to be maddening for an opponent, but Ferentz has really delivered on the old joke that punting is winning.
Helwick: Three defensive touchdowns through two weeks is impressive. But for a top 5 team, four offensive touchdowns in two weeks is not so much. Are you concerned with the lack of output from the Hawkeyes’ offense this season? What needs to get going in order for this team to live up to its full potential?
Parker: Concerned? Yes. But also no. As I said when discussing full season potential, the offense is a major concern if this team is truly aspiring to a Big Ten title or CFP berth.
But outside those improbabilities, the offensive output through two games is less concerning given what I just mentioned in terms of the overall team philosophy. Part of the reason the offense has been so limited this year has been because the defense has been so good. The Hawkeye defense has scored more touchdowns than Iowa’s first two opponents. When you get that sort of productivity on the defense, the offense can really go into a shell and focus on eating clock. That’s a Kirk Ferentz dream.
The concern here is obviously what happens when the defense looks human for a stretch. The offensive line, which is breaking in three new starters, has looked suspect in a very un-Iowa way. That’s hurt the run game, which outside one big run to open the game against Indiana, has been pretty miserable. And the passing game has been non-existent. Junior QB Spencer Petras has shown improvement after a miserable first two starts a season ago, but has yet to really show he can win a game if asked (outside a single, very good drive in the second quarter against Iowa State last week) and the line has given up far too much pressure.
If the OL can get things straightened to where the run game is chugging along with 4+ yards per carry to set up an effective play-action game, that would go a long way in appeasing Iowa fans looking for more than a good season.
Helwick: What is your early impression of Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum and the Flash Fast offense? Are there any concerns you have about Iowa against a unit which led the country in scoring in 2020?
Parker: When we ran our preseason preview on Kent State, there were loads of concerns about not only Crum, but also the rushing attack. Entering the season, the biggest question mark on this Iowa defense was the defensive line. Many a Hawkeye fan was concerned about Iowa stopping high-powered rushing attacks.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think those concerns had dissipated after two weeks of strong defensive performances. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t think most casual Hawkeye fans simply looked at a box score of the Week 1 matchup with Texas A&M and assume this will be a cakewalk for Iowa.
But as you’re well aware, that would be a mistake. I suspect the Golden Flashes move the ball with quite a bit of success, especially in the first and fourth quarters of this one. Crum is incredibly accurate and his mobility is something that has traditionally put strain on Iowa’s defense. Given what we saw from Michael Penix Jr. in his return from knee surgery, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Crum will be the best QB the Hawkeyes have faced to-date. His ability to hit receivers in the soft spot of Iowa’s zone and Kent State’s ability to move the ball on the ground present a real challenge for the Hawkeyes in week 3.
Helwick: What is your prediction for Saturday at Kinnick?
Parker: I suspect this one is a bit closer than Iowa fans expect for some time. I fully expect Crum and the Kent State offense to come out attacking and likely have some success early. For the Hawkeyes, I suspect they try to use this as a get-right game for the offensive line and the running game.
However, I do expect Iowa to get that run game going and eventually succeed in that big constrictor approach, punting and field positioning Kent State to death.
Iowa 38, Kent State 10
Kent State travels to Kinnick Stadium in hopes of upsetting No. 5 Iowa and recording its first ranked victory since 2012. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network and kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. ET.