After starting the year with wins, Rutgers and Iowa square off in Iowa City for the Big Ten opener Saturday afternoon. In just the second meeting in the all-time series, Rutgers will look to play spoiler in front of the Hawkeye faithful, as the Scarlet Knights are a heavy underdog.
Rutgers is looking to go 2-0 to start a season for the first time since 2014, when they defeated Washington State and Howard to begin their first season as a Big Ten member. That year, Rutgers lost a heartbreaker at home to Penn State in the first Big Ten game in program history, but then the Scarlet Knights won the next three to put a bowl trip possibility in play. If Rutgers is going to sniff the postseason this season, they are going to have to steal some Big Ten games along the way. This road game at Iowa may have to be one of them.
Rutgers at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa -20
When Rutgers has the Ball
Rutgers had one of the finest offensive performances of the Chris Ash era last week at home against UMass, but now the degree of difficulty soars significantly higher with Iowa. McLane Carter, a fifth-year senior, showed last week why he was named the starter for the Scarlet Knights with 340 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he was also picked off three times by the Minutemen. Against Iowa, those turnovers could prove even more costly than they were a week ago, because scoring opportunities will be especially precious on the road.
Iowa’s defense, anchored by star defensive linemen A.J. Epenesa and Brady Reiff, allowed just 14 points last week. Last season, just two visiting teams broke the 20-point barrier in Iowa's Kinnick Stadium (both Nebraska and Wisconsin scored 28 points). If this turns into a scrappy game, Iowa’s defense should carry the team to a victory, because this side of the ball is the strongest advantage Iowa has.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Nate Stanley can be counted on to have a productive and efficient afternoon. Last week, the Iowa quarterback completed 21-of-30 pass attempts for 252 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. The Hawkeyes may still be working on replacing two NFL tight ends, but junior running back Mekhi Sargent proved capable of hauling in some passes with four receptions for 65 yards.
Iowa always can fall back on the running game and feel good about its chances. Last week, as a team, Iowa rushed for 213 yards with Sargent leading the ground attack with 14 rushing attempts for 91 yards and a touchdown. His ability to run and catch is a lethal combo.
The Rutgers defense has had its moments of growth under Ash, although the holes typically show the most on the road against some of the better teams in the conference. Iowa will give Rutgers some trouble, but don’t be surprised if Rutgers can manage to keep the score within reason to give the offense a chance to make something happen.
One area that should work in Iowa’s favor is third-down conversions. The Scarlet Knights struggled with their third-down defense last week against UMass, allowing seven third-down conversions out of 16 attempts. Iowa’s offense was the best third-down offense last week, converting nine of 14 attempts. And the Hawkeyes were one of the top Big Ten teams in third-down conversion success last season.
These two Big Ten teams have faced each other just once before, with Iowa taking a 14-7 victory in New Jersey back in 2016. Iowa is clearly the better team across the board this weekend, but this has all of the ingredients for an ugly and low-scoring game in Kinnick Stadium. What Rutgers lacks in offensive playmakers it can make up for on defense, but Iowa should still be able to find enough scoring drives to not have to worry about this one too much.
If you watch Iowa-Rutgers in hopes of seeing offensive fireworks and ridiculous touchdowns, you probably came to the wrong place. This game will be settled in gritty fashion, and that likely bodes well for the home team.
Prediction: Iowa 20, Rutgers 10
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.