IOWA CITY, Iowa — Quarterback Nate Stanley will take the field for his first start at Iowa on Saturday. He will line up behind four returning offensive linemen: James Daniels, Sean Welsh, Ike Boettger and Boone Myers.
Next to him will be 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley. James Butler, another 1,000-yard running back, may be in the huddle as well.
Those six faces will serve as a calming presence as Stanley calls out the plays. They’ll also serve as a reminder that he won’t need to beat Wyoming on his own on Saturday (noon ET, BTN).
In fact, Iowa may not need to rely on his right arm at all. The ideal debut for new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz may be if Stanley never attempts a pass.
“Definitely helps build a lot of confidence knowing that we won’t have to throw the ball every play,” Stanley said. “I mean we are obviously going to try to establish the run and do everything we have always done in the past.”
Run on first, second and third downs
Iowa wants to get the ground game going. Everyone, including the Cowboys, knows this. The offense’s engine is the line and running game. Always has been. Always will be under coach Kirk Ferentz.
Four starters return from the 2016 Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. Two established feature backs will line up at tailback.
The game plan isn’t complex, especially when factoring in a new quarterback and group of receivers. Heck, even Washington State coach Mike Leach would consider grounding his aerial attack and handing off the ball with this personnel.
“It’s always been a point of pride here, the run game,” guard Sean Welsh said. “It’s something here we definitely [make] a priority. That’s something really important to us. I think if you want to have a successful team at Iowa you need to be able to run the ball.”
Wyoming plays into Iowa’s strengths
The returning run-game components are the perfect companion for Stanley, and so is Wyoming’s defense.
The Cowboys couldn’t stop a sugar junkie by using a Snickers bar last season. They allowed 205.4 rushing yards per game. Wyoming safety Andrew Wingard is the preseason Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, but his play-making ability will be neutralized if the defensive line is pushed back and his first contact with a running back is 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.
It’s not hyperbole to say Iowa’s rushing attack may be all it needs from its offense to win the game.
Saturday is the unveiling of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s new scheme. The running attack — hello, inside and outside zone runs — will be the same. The passing plays is where the change will come, and this may not be the game to see it all.
Now, the Hawkeyes will throw the ball. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the first play, or one of the first plays, is a safe pass, something to give Stanley confidence.
It sounds like Iowa’s screens and play-action passes will be there against the aggressive nature of Wyoming’s unit, coached by first-year defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton.
“They like to pressure,” Stanley said. “Just putting stuff in right now to take advantage of that.”
A great spot for a new quarterback
Still, the biggest advantage Iowa holds is with its backs and line. Iowa designed its offense around them.
“[It’s a] powerful, smashmouth offense and we are trying to get downhill,” Butler said. “It’s not going to be easy to defend because we can go from sideline to sideline.”
Sounds like a team that will run the football. If the offensive line establishes superiority, Iowa can ease in Stanley. A screen here. A play-action pass there, with a heavy helping of runs in between. Once Stanley shows he is comfortable, the Hawkeyes can open up the playbook.
If this isn’t the optimal situation for a new quarterback in Kinnick Stadium it’s pretty close.
“[Stanley] is young,” Wadley said. “He has to get the feel for it. The line, they are returning and we all just need to do our role. Coach is always talking about doing our jobs and nothing extra.”
A game without a pass seems like the holy grail for a Kirk Ferentz-led team. The combination of Wyoming’s defense and breaking in a new quarterback is the closest the Hawkeyes might ever get to it.