Schwartz: Game of the Season is Upon Us

September 20, 2018

Written by David Schwartz

We saw glimpses of Iowa’s offensive potential in the second half of its season opener against Northern Illinois. A week later, the offense went quiet in the narrow win over Iowa State.

Then, last week against Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes finally put it all together. Five-hundred-forty-five yards of total offense in a 38-14 victory. But—all due respect to both teams involved—it was a Division I team versus a Division II team. Domination was an expectation.

So now Iowa’s Big Ten Conference schedule is upon us. More than that, its entire season is upon us.

Wisconsin.

It’s September, and we’re not supposed to say things like this in September, yet here we are: Saturday night’s game against the Badgers is a must-win for the Hawkeyes.

And as good as Iowa’s defense has been, whether the Hawkeyes win or lose won’t come down to the defense. It will be about offense, the overall quality of which remains mysterious.

Can the Hawkeyes score?

Is Iowa’s offense any good?

It’s the biggest unanswered question for the Hawkeyes as they enter the second quarter of their season. We just don’t know.

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As fun as it was to watch Noah Fant get to look and play like Noah Fant, and as encouraging and joyous as it might have felt to see Nate Stanley, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young flex their potential, almost nothing about the UNI victory left us any bread crumbs on the way back to reality.

Northern Illinois counts in the win column, but what analysis should one take from a college football season opener? None. Iowa State counts in the win column, but the annual CyHawk challenge is so wonky and so emotionally charged that it leaves us little to glean. And UNI was a sacrificial lamb.

As Iowa fans, we annually moan about the Hawkeyes’ nonconference merde de l’année. It’s fun to gripe about—perhaps therapeutic—but it has real ramifications for the Hawkeyes in seasons such as these, when games as crucial as Wisconsin pop up so early on the schedule.

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Consider some of the nonconference opponents on Big Ten schedules this season: Michigan faced Notre Dame; Ohio State played TCU; Nebraska had Colorado; Maryland scheduled Texas; Purdue hosted Missouri; Michigan State traveled to Arizona State. The Hawkeyes scheduled three teams, all of which could have hopped on a bus three hours before game time and arrived at Kinnick ahead of kickoff, none of which even remotely prepared Iowa for Wisconsin.

True, Wisconsin lost at home last weekend against Brigham Young. The Badgers aren’t invincible. But if our optimism for beating Wisconsin is tied up in, “Yeah, well, they lost to BYU,” instead of, “Iowa went to Washington and nearly won,” that’s no reason for optimism at all. That’s wishful thinking.

For the record, I think Iowa will beat Wisconsin by more than a touchdown. It’s a hunch wound tightly around Iowa’s eight-deep defensive line and an emerging linebacking corps.

However, predictions based on hunches are nothing compared to predictions based on evidence. The University of Iowa’s athletic department, unfortunately, in scheduling Northern Illinois, Iowa State, and UNI (combined 2018 record: 1-6), haven’t given us much evidence to go on.

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So not only is Saturday night’s game important from a conference point of view, it’s important as a season indicator. It is our first chance to see the real Hawkeyes, and it’s the Hawkeyes’ best chance to stake its claim to the Big Ten West.

The biggest game of Iowa’s season is upon us.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

 

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