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2023 Know Your Opponent: Iowa Hawkeyes

Can the Hawkeyes’ offense finally click, or will the defense once again be hoisting the program on its back?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

As kickoff against Rutgers is under two weeks away, we continue to look at each squad the Wildcats will face this season. Today, we focus on the team that will match up with Northwestern inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

The Basics

Returning Production: 63% overall (76% offense, 51% defense)

2022 Record: 8-5 (5-4 B1G)

Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (24th season)

The Stats

2023 SP+ Overall: 29th

2023 SP+ Offense: 81st

2023 SP+ Defense: 1st

2022 Capsule

Iowa’s season began in the most Iowa way possible: a putrid offensive performance and an immaculate defensive performance. Iowa’s offense did not score a touchdown, yet the final score against eventual FCS champion South Dakota State was a 7-3 win. The Hawkeyes went into the locker room tied 3-3 at the half, but two safeties by the defense provided Iowa with the four-point win.

The Hawkeyes’ offense was not any better the next week, although the team did score its first touchdown of the season. Iowa’s offensive output ended there, allowing the Cyclones to pull out a 10-7 win. The Hawkeyes blanked Nevada 27-0 to close out non-conference play and defeated Rutgers 27-10 — aided by two defensive scores — to pick up their first Big Ten win of the season.

Despite starting conference play strong, Iowa found itself in a hole midway through the year. In their second conference matchup of the season, the Hawkeyes fell short of completing a fourth-quarter comeback against Michigan, losing 27-14. Iowa did not get on the scoreboard until the final frame. The following week, the Hawkeyes were in a battle of defensive titans, going up against the Fighting Illini. In a hard-nosed showdown, Iowa’s offense continued to flounder and the Hawkeyes fell short, 9-6. As if it could get worse for Iowa, it would have to keep up with the high-octane offense of Ohio State the next week. Spoiler, it didn’t. The Hawkeyes were boat-raced by the Buckeyes, 54-10, and fell to a dismal 3-4 record, dropping to 1-3 in Big Ten play.

The Hawkeyes got back on track, dismantling Northwestern, 33-13. For an offense that had been unwatchable all year, Iowa imposed its will on the Wildcats, tallying a total of nearly 400 yards. The win over the ‘Cats sprung the Hawkeyes to a hot streak. Iowa picked up another easy win the next week, beating Purdue 24-3. The Hawkeyes knocked off Wisconsin 24-10, and Minnesota 13-10, for their fourth straight win.

In their final game, the Hawkeyes lined up against Nebraska. The Huskers jumped out to a 24-0 lead, and by the time Iowa found the end zone midway through the third period, the deficit was too much to overcome. The Hawkeyes lost 24-17, finishing the regular season 7-5 — good enough to be sent to the TransPerfect Music City Bowl.

In the Music City Bowl, the Hawkeyes’ offense sputtered against Kentucky after scoring the first points of the game; however, two Iowa pick-sixes put the game out of reach, and the team went on to win 21-0, taking home the bowl trophy in the process.

Offensive Overview

How bad is your offense when the coordinator has a points incentive in his contract? Well if you’re Iowa, it means it's horrendous. The Hawkeyes were at the bottom of every major statistical category under Brian Ferentz, including landing in the bottom 10 in scoring offense and being second-to-worst in total offense across all 131 FBS teams. If it wasn’t for its admirable defense, which at times scored more than the offense, Iowa would have faced a similar fate as Northwestern did in 2022. Quarterback Spencer Petras was uninspiring all season, with the exception being against Jim O’Neil. He threw for only 1,725 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games.

In hopes of turning things around, the Hawkeyes brought in Michigan transfer Cade McNamara to guide the offense in 2023. McNamara tore his ACL in 2022, ending his season early, but he led the Wolverines to their first appearance in the College Football Playoff. In his lone season as the starter in Ann Arbor, McNamara passed for 2,576 yards and 15 touchdowns while only tossing six interceptions. McNamara will have a big target to look for in tight end Luke Lachey, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season. With Erick All following his quarterback from Ann Arbor to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes’ offense will rely heavily on their tight ends to make plays in the passing game.

Defensive Overview

Let’s be frank: the only reason Iowa was competitive last season was because of its defense. Unlike the offense, the Hawkeyes’ defense consistently ranked in the top 10 in many statistical categories. Iowa finished second in total defense, the exact opposite of its offensive counterpart, and second in points allowed across the entire nation. As Iowa’s defense prevented the opponent from scoring, it also found itself scoring often. The Hawkeyes scored 61 points off turnovers last year, including multiple games in which they notched two or more defensive scores.

The Hawkeyes' defense had two players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, but they still have a plethora of talent returning for the 2023 season. Led by defensive back Cooper DeJean, who had five interceptions, eight pass breakups and 75 tackles in 2022, Iowa’s back end will still be one of the best in the nation this upcoming season. The Hawkeyes will take the ball away from opponents — whether their offense can capitalize is still up for discussion.

Three Players to Watch

QB Cade McNamara

The main reason for Iowa’s offensive struggles last season was its quarterback play. Both Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla were abysmal last year, holding the Hawkeyes back from reaching their potential.

Enter McNamara. The former Wolverine is expected to be the missing piece of Brian Ferentz’s offense and get Iowa over the hump. McNamara was solid in his one season at the helm of Michigan’s offense, posting a 77.4 PFF offensive grade in 2021. His 2,576 passing yards would have put him in the top 15 for a single season in Iowa history. McNamara will attack downfield, unleashing nearly 50 passes of 20+ yards. With No. 12 at the helm, expect the Hawkeyes to open up the playbook and attack the field vertically.

DL Deontae Craig

The Hawkeyes had two members of their front seven come off the board in the first round, yet Craig may have been the best player on Iowa’s feared pass rush. Craig led Iowa with 10 tackles for losses and was tied for the most sacks with 6.5. At 6-foot-3, Craig uses his length to create separation and bend to beat tackles off the edge. Despite being listed as a second-teamer to start 2022, Craig was one of the most impactful players for the Hawkeyes last season. Now, as a first-teamer, Craig is expected to be the premiere edge rusher for Iowa, terrorizing Big Ten quarterbacks for the entirety of 2023.

P Tory Taylor

You cannot talk about Iowa without mentioning its best player: punter Tory Taylor. Taylor has a rocket attached to his leg, averaging 45 yards a punt. He dropped 38 punts inside the 20 last season, allowing the Hawkeyes’ defense to pin offenses deep and flip the field. There’s a reason Taylor was a second-team All-American in 2022 — because he was as dominant as any specialist in the nation. Now, is this my special teams bias talking right now? Absolutely. However, I find it extremely easy to believe that Iowa would have lost more games last season if it did not have a stud of a punter.