LOGAN — Utah State will begin its 127th season of football on Saturday with what will likely be its toughest test of the season, a trip to Iowa City to face No. 25 Iowa. It’s the 31st time the Aggies will face a ranked Power Five opponent in non-conference play and the eighth time they’ll do so in the season opener.
Both the betting spreads and history hint strongly at an Iowa win on Saturday. Vegas has the Hawkeyes favored by around 23 points depending on who you ask and history informs us that Utah State is winless against ranked Power Five teams going back to 1960. Victory is a longshot but there’s still much that can be proved by the Aggies even if they don’t win. Close losses to Power Five teams have previously heralded successful seasons. In 2011 USU lost a 42-38 heartbreaker to No. 23 Auburn but went on to break a 14-year run without a winning season. The next year in 2012 the Aggies fell short against Wisconsin (who received votes in the preseason AP Poll) 14-12 but went on to go 11-2 and win the WAC. And in 2018 a 38-31 loss to No. 11 Michigan State preceded a 10-game win streak which led USU to another 11-2 season.
As much as the term “moral victory” can be annoying for coaches to hear, there is value in the valiant defeat for a Group of Five program. The Aggies need to learn who they are and this game will show a lot of who this team is. If they fall flat on their faces much as last year’s team did at Alabama, that won’t be the greatest sign. Fight and either win or narrowly lose and it’ll prove this is a team with promise. But aiming for a moral victory isn’t the way to get a moral victory. Winning teams always aim for true victory.
Kickoff: 10:00 a.m.
Location: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, IA)
KVNU Aggie GameDay with Al Lewis: 9:00 – 9:45 a.m.
TV Broadcast: FS1
Radio Broadcast: KVNU (102.1 FM, 610 AM) in Logan; KZNS (97.5 FM, 1280 AM) in Salt Lake City; KRPX (102.7 FM) in Green River, Utah; KRPX (100.3 FM) in Moab; KRPX (95.9 FM) in Orangeville; KRPX (95.3 FM) in Price; KVSI (1450 AM/104.5 FM) in Montpelier, Idaho.
- (S) Omari Okeke – OUT FOR SEASON
- (TE) Josh Sterzer – OUT
- (TE) Broc Lane – Day-to-Day
- (DT) Hale Motu’apuaka – Day-to-Day
- (DT) Noah Shannon – OUT
- (QB) Cade McNamara – Probable
- (QB) Joe Labas – Questionable
The Aggies lost Omari Okeke for the season due to shoulder surgery, he was projected to be at least a rotation player behind Switzer and at safety. Josh Sterzer looks to be out 1-2 more weeks according to head coach Blake Anderson. Broc Lane and Hale Motu’apuaka are both questionable. Anderson said on Monday that had the game been on that day, neither Lane or Motu’apuaka would play so that’s not the best sign as it means they’ll need to make notable progress in recovery by Friday night to be available for the game.
Iowa has its own injury troubles to deal with. Most public among them is Noah Shannon who isn’t injured but has been suspended for the season due to violations of NCAA gambling restrictions. He’s a two-year starter for the Hawkeyes and was projected to be the starter yet again. Another major question is at quarterback. Transfer QB Cade McNamara represented hopes for an improved offense but suffered an injury on Aug. 12 and was not practicing with the team. He has been medically cleared to play and practice with ESPN reporting on Wednesday that “there’s an expectation” that McNamara be the starter on Saturday. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and McNamara himself were both non-committal about the QB playing when both spoke with the media on Tuesday.
If McNamara were to not be the starter, or if he had to leave in the middle of the game, sophomore transfer Deacon Hill would be the one to step in. Hill spent two seasons at Wisconsin before transferring to Iowa this offseason. The native of California is listed at 6-foot-3 and 258 pounds, possesses a strong arm, and is reportedly very willing to show off his arm strength on the field.
Tough Iowa defense the key matchup for the Aggies
If there’s anything people know about Iowa it’s that the Hawkeye’s possess a stout defense. For nine consecutive seasons they’ve ranked top 20 in the NCAA in points allowed. The team has been a factory for pro players on that side of the ball with 13 former Iowa defenders currently on NFL rosters. Anderson said it’ll potentially be “the best defense we’ll see all year” and he explained why.
“It starts up front. They’re able to move the line of scrimmage back to the quarterback’s lap,” Anderson said. “They rush the passer and really just dominate most fronts that they play against. That’s why they’re able to keep the scores down like they do. They create turnovers at a high number. It’s a huge challenge for us up front to get bodies on them.”
Though Iowa boasts one of the best defenses in the country on a year-in-year-out basis, it’s not a particularly complex system that’s used. Not that that’s a bad thing. On the contrary it’s part of the team identity. In an interview with The Athletic in spring of 2022, Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell referenced a quote from Bruce Lee where the famed martial artist said “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but a I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Iowa’s defensive scheme embodies the lesson in Lee’s words.
Since 1999 the team has run effectively the same defensive concepts, first under Norm Parker from 1999 to 2011 and then Phil Parker (no relation to Norm) from 2011 until the present day. The most significant change came when Phil Parker changed the base defense mid-season from a classic 4-3 look to the increasingly popular 4-2-5 which shifts one of the linebacker spots into a hybrid linebacker/defensive back position.
The simplicity of Iowa’s defense is its strength. Opposing teams may know what to expect, but that’s not necessarily a win for them.
“It’s not the most confusing defense I’ve ever seen,” USU quarterback Cooper Legas said. “They really stick to base stuff. They just do it really well, which is what makes them so awesome every year.”
It doesn’t really matter if other teams are fairly certain what the defensive backs are doing if the receivers never find an opening against the corners. Nor does it matter if the offensive linemen know exactly which gap the defensive tackles are going to if they can’t stop them from getting to the quarterback. Utah State will have a pretty good idea of what Iowa is doing on every play, all the Aggies have to do is beat look that the other side has practiced 10,000 times.
No turnovers is the goal, but that’s much easier said than done
Anderson spent the entire offseason emphasizing the team’s need to limit turnovers. He was clearly pleased with the offense not turning the ball over in both the spring and fall scrimmages. But that came against his own defense, not the top-flight unit the Hawkeyes boast.
“We’ve done a good job in practice but haven’t played (Iowa) yet either, and that’s something they’re good at doing,” Anderson said. “I love the fact that we have prepared the right way and we have controlled and protected the ball in practices, in scrimmages.”
Anderson went over a few different keys to not throwing interceptions, something the Aggies did 21 times last year.
“We’ve got to be willing to throw the ball away,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to be willing to dump the ball occasionally. Secure the ball in traffic and know that punting and kicking the ball is a good play. In a game like this that’s a win. Not turning the ball over, punting the ball, resetting the clock and doing it again. We’ve got to understand that’s part of this. I hope we can do that. I think we’ve prepared the right way. But it’s a completely different environment when you’re out there playing against this style of defense and this caliber of defense.”
Iowa’s defense certinaly won’t make things easy as turnovers are yet another thing that makes the unit special. In 2022 they ranked 19th in the country with 23 turnovers forced with 15 of those being interceptions (a number that ranked 14th). The entire defense works in concert to both force opportunities and capitalize on those opportunities.
“They’re really good at being opportunistic,” Anderson said. “The front making the quarterback rush or push the ball in places they shouldn’t and the back end gets to the ball. They do a great job of getting to the ball.
One particular player with a noes for the ball is Hawkeyes corner Cooper DeJean. Last year DeJean intercepted five passes, three of which he returned for a touchdown, an Iowa school record. If the Aggies throw a pick or two in this game, odds are it’ll be DeJean running the ball back the other way.
Can the Aggies manufacture big plays against Iowa?
A feature of Iowa’s great defense has been the ability to limit big plays. Some of that comes from a lack of blitzes on early downs and constantly having two or three-deep shells which limit deep passing windows. The Aggies like to get their receivers matched one-on-one with corners and win those matchups, but Iowa won’t be baited into those situations. Their style is to keep everything in front of them and it 100 percent works. In 2022 the team allowed the fewest plays of 10-plus yards, the fewest plays of 20-plus yards and the fewest plays of 30 or more yards. If teams were to move the ball against Iowa they did so largely by gains of five yards one play, three yards the next and four yards after that. Few teams got the luxury of relying on big plays to score against Iowa.
Big plays are a big part of USU’s offensive identity, but if those aren’t there the team needs to be able to sustain drives.
“Staying ahead of the chains is going to be critical. Getting the first first down is going to be critical,” Anderson said. “You’d like to think we can make them uncomfortable with the way we play, spread out and playing at tempo. But you’ve got to have some positive plays for those things to even matter.”
In this case, the term “big plays” should probably also be expanded to include impact plays by the defense, i.e. turnovers, blocked kicks and fourth-down stops. With such a strong opponent defensively, the best gift USU’s defense could give it’s offense is a short field. Close to half (42.8 percent to be precise) of the points Iowa gave up last year came directly off series where it’s offense turned the ball over, whether by failing on fourth down, throwing an interception of fumbling the ball.
Creating turnovers and giving the offense a short field is something the defense needs to prove it can do. For all the good that USU saw in not turning the ball over in camp, it came with the negative side note that the defense didn’t create any turnovers. The Aggie philosophy on defense the last several years was predicated on turnovers and tackles for loss. Not having half of that equation is a bad sign. This game will be the proving grounds for a young defense trying to establish its identity.
Iowa’s offense seeking turnaround
Teams with a top-tier defense don’t usually go just 8-5. They’re usually 10-win teams that challenge for conference titles at minimum. Iowa didn’t do that last year. The overwhelming reason why was a very underwhelming offense. The Hawkeyes ranked 120th or worst last year in eight different offensive categories including 129th in total offense and 122nd in scoring.
This inability to score points for Iowa is the weakness the Aggies must be able to exploit if victory is going to be even dreamed about. Shutting down Iowa’s offense is something plenty of teams have done. Even Nevada, a team that ranked 103rd in points allowed last year, gave up just 27 to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City (and Iowa needed two long touchdown runs to get even that much).
Keeping Iowa’s scoring down will be easier said than done. The 2022 season is likely the worst the Hawkeyes will ever see in terms of offense. This year there’s more talent, more experience, and more pressure on the team to put up points (offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz had his contract amended to effectively require Iowa’s offense to average at least 25 points scored per game or his contract wouldn’t be renewed).
Iowa’s two biggest transfers on the offensive side the quarterback, McNamara and tight end Erick All. In 2021, playing at Michigan with McNamara, All was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection catching 38 passes for 437 yards and two touchdowns. All missed most of 2022 with an injury. The wide receiver room also got a face lift in terms of depth in adding Seth Anderson out of Charleston Southern and Kaleb Brown, a former four-star recruit who transferred from Ohio State this offseason.