IOWA CITY, Iowa — In a league where trophy games seemingly show up on the sideline for every game, this week’s Iowa-Rutgers game won’t have that distinction. It’s not even close.
This is the teams’ first meeting, which is odd considering each has played football more than 125 years. Iowa, of course, has played in the Big Ten for nearly the entire time. Rutgers joined the Big Ten football ranks in 2014. So there’s no common history, other than some personal relationships among the coaches and players (which we’ll reveal later this week), and it has the feel of a nonconference game. Only this time it counts in the Big Ten standings.
Here are five key things for Iowa entering Saturday’s matchup:
1. Daniels, Welsh solidify Iowa’s offensive line
It appears center James Daniels and guard Sean Welsh will return this week, and Iowa needs them both badly.
The team ranks 98th nationally in rush offense, down from 52nd one week earlier. In the team’s first two games, Iowa averaged 205 yards per game rushing. With their 34-yard performance against North Dakota State, the Hawkeyes are down to 148 yards per game.
“It’s great going into the next game that we’ve got James Daniels back,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said. “He’s a great athlete. (But) we’re still going to be ready if he can’t go.”
2. Involving Akrum
Wadley was Iowa’s most explosive player in its first two games, rushing for 170 yards, catching passes for 54 yards and scoring four touchdowns. But last week Wadley ran for 20 yards on only four carries, including zero in the second half. Part of his limited touches are because of a bruised right knee that has Wadley rehabbing and icing.
As a New Jersey native who wasn’t offered a scholarship by Rutgers, Wadley is stoked to return home. He’s had tons of ticket requests, and many of his teammates have donated their allotment to the cause.
“I just want to do good,” Wadley said. “I definitely want the team to win but (I’m) definitely excited.”
3. Switching captains
When Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz opens his weekly news conference by announcing his weekly list of captains, it’s rarely noticed by the media because most of the time they are the same players. But this week was different. Three of the four — quarterback C.J. Beathard, wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and linebacker Josey Jewell — remain the same. But running back LeShun Daniels will be the fourth captain instead of consensus All-America cornerback Desmond King.
“The leadership group votes on them, and last year was one of those years where we just kind of settled in,” Ferentz said. “I don’t think we had a change with the four guys for the entire season. You know, we’ll see. In years past we’ve had a lot of multiple ones, so no big story there.”
4. On the road again
Iowa opens Big Ten play on the road for the fourth straight year and 14th time in Ferentz’s 18 years as head coach. The last three seasons the Hawkeyes opened at divisional foes Wisconsin (2015), Purdue (2014) and Minnesota (2013).
The four seasons Iowa opened Big Ten play at home under Ferentz include 2001 (Penn State), 2008 (Northwestern), 2010 (Penn State) and 2012 (Minnesota).
5. Standing up for the anthem
Multiple professional football players, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have chosen not to stand for the “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement.
All of Iowa’s players stand for the national anthem, but what if one chose to sit or kneel?
“That’s a really tricky topic, as we all know,” Ferentz said. “I would hope they’d come to me and let’s talk about it first. My preference, I’m not saying it’s a mandate, my preference is that we all be unified, be it our uniforms on the field, how we do things, certainly how we stand for the national anthem. That would be my preference. But that’s in a perfect world.
“But the biggest thing is I’d hope we could have some discussion, and a national commentary — I’d like to think there are better ways to voice how we feel about things.”