Very little news came out of the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in late July for Iowa Hawkeye fans. But head coach Kirk Ferentz may have subconsciously provided a glimpse into the season opener against the Wyoming Cowboyswhen he said, “I'm still trying to figure out who scheduled that one.”
Ferentz did his best to laugh off the possibility that the suddenly ascendant Cowboys could actually pull off an upset. But even as he veiled the concern in laughter, everyone in the room knew the truth. As the Wyoming program's profile has soared, so too has the possibility that the Cowboys could have an upset brewing.
Ferentz masterfully summed up the state of affairs for both teams in his weekly press conference in a single sentence. “It's time to get out and measure yourself against someone that's a little bit different and learn a little bit about your team.”
This is the third meeting between these two schools. Iowa holds a 2-0 advantage, beating Wyoming 20-19 in the 1987 Holiday Bowl in San Diego and earning a 21-7 victory at home back in ‘53.
Wyoming at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Iowa -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Hawkeye offensive capabilities
No one is questioning the ability of Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen to run an effective and balanced attack against the always-solid Iowa defense. What happens on the other side of the ball is far less certain. Sophomore Nathan Stanley earned the nod to start under center with the unenviable task of breathing life into an offense which finished 12th in the Big Ten last season in yards per play (5.2). While Stanley will lean heavily on the legs of 2017 Maxwell Award watch list member running back Akrum Wadley (1,081 yards, 10 TDs in 2016), it remains to be seen what the Iowa passing game will look like.
It doesn’t help Stanley that he'll be facing the Mountain West preseason Defensive Player of the Year in Cowboys safety Andrew Wingard, who racked up 131 tackles last season. The return of senior wide receiver Matt Vandeberg, who played in just four games in 2016 because of injury, should help ease Stanley’s growing pains, as will the use of more multiple-tight end sets by the Hawkeyes. Wyoming’s defense could be dealing with its own growing pains as the unit is under the direction of first-year coordinator Scottie Hazelton.
2. Josh Allen vs. Josey Jewell
With Iowa cornerback Manny Rugamba suspended for this game, the most important one-on-one matchup becomes Wyoming’s highly regarded quarterback vs. Iowa’s highly decorated linebacker. Allen is the preseason Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year after posting 3,726 yards of total offense and 35 total touchdowns (28 pass, 7 rush) last season. Jewell is a two-time All-Big Ten honoree and was named to the Associated Press’ preseason All-American team after finishing second in the conference with 124 tackles last season.
The Hawkeyes were prone to giving up big plays in 2016, and Allen would no doubt like to continue this trend, especially if it results in staking his Cowboys to a lead on the road. With no Rugamba in the secondary, Jewell will need to make plays all over the field to prevent Allen from carving the Hawkeyes up, whether it be with his arm or his legs.
3. Immediate impact players for Iowa
Rugamba’s absence in the secondary certainly presents an opportunity for another defensive back to shine. And that player could end up being his replacement, sophomore Michael Ojemudia. Another defender to keep an eye on Saturday is true freshman A.J. Epenesa, who is listed on the depth chart as the backup at right end. On the other side of the ball, Nevada graduate transfer James Butler was a late add during the summer, but he could pair with Wadley to give the Hawkeyes a potent running back duo. Butler rushed for more than 1,300 yards for the Wolf Pack in both 2016 and ’15. Another transfer, former New Mexico wide receiver Matt Quarrells, could be the complementary target to VandeBerg that the Iowa offense needs. Considering the Hawkeyes have just 13 returning starters, there is plenty of room for some new faces to emerge and establish themselves as difference-makers.
This is unquestionably the most difficult season opener for the Hawkeyes in recent memory. And the Cowboys have given no indication they intend to succumb to the Kinnick Stadium home-field advantage, which has clearly been on the wane in recent campaigns.
Iowa's biggest question marks remain at quarterback and wide receiver in an offense which was stymied by far lesser opponents than the Cowboys in 2016. Can newly anointed starting QB Nathan Stanley make the leap many expect, or will he be overshadowed by his Mountain West counterpart?
Don’t be surprised if the Hawkeyes throw a few wrinkles into the game plan as new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’ makes his debut as well. Because of what will likely be some growing pains displayed by the offense, look for Iowa to rely on its defense to hold off Wyoming as the Cowboys can’t muster enough scoring to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Iowa 31, Wyoming 17
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a UCLA-trained screenwriter and member of the Athlon Contributor Network since 2015. He attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and after nearly 25 years in Southern California now calls the Greater Chicago area home. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.