IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa is a 13-point favorite over Rutgers.
This may not be the best game to gauge how much improvement the Hawkeyes made following a North Dakota State loss.
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a way to try to see if Iowa improved from the end of the nonconference slate to Big Ten play. The key will be in the performance of individual players.
Here is a list of the five most important players to watch during the Iowa-Rutgers game. Tracking what these players do may be the best way to determine if the Hawkeyes truly did improve during the last week.
5. DTs Nathan Bazata and Jaleel Johnson
Yes, this is cheating a little, but what follows applies to both. The Iowa defensive tackles weren’t always where they needed to be against the Bison. They were more active and did a better job of getting off blocks and making plays against Iowa State. Pro Football Focus rated them as the two best Iowa defenders in that game.
To get a run defense back on track that allowed 239 yards last week means Bazata and Johnson must become key factors again on the defensive line. They need to clog running lanes and to get off blocks better.
4. C James Daniels
Daniels, who didn’t play against North Dakota State, is arguably the best Iowa offensive lineman. He’s athletic. He’s effective at pulling. And he’s a pain to go against for an entire game — or practice. Just ask Johnson, the defensive tackle.
“The thing about James is he’s very detailed with where he puts his hands,” Johnson said. “If you are going against him, you have to keep working no matter. If you take a play off, he is going to get you. I think that’s what makes him really special. He is going to go after you.”
Was Daniels not having played last week part of the offensive line problems? Probably. Was it all of it? Not a chance.
Will his return stabilize the play up front? That will be worth monitoring.
3. LB Bo Bower
The good news: Bower made 11 tackles against North Dakota State. The bad news: He wasn’t always in position and didn’t always react fast enough.
The Bison made it a point to run away from Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell. That resulted in plays heading in Bower’s direction. Bower will likely see runs at him again. The key here isn’t if he makes the tackle. It’s how quickly he reacts. Look to see if Bower is more assertive and meeting ball carriers closer to the line of scrimmage.
2. LT Cole Croston
It wasn’t a good day for the offensive line last week. The pass blocking wasn’t up to par. It was Croston in the clip below who failed to pick up the blitz that led to Beathard throwing the interception.
Defensive line stunts gave the Iowa offensive line, especially the tackles, trouble, including on the previously mentioned sack.
Don’t be surprised if Rutgers tries something similar. How Croston handles pass blocking and any exotic pass rush schemes will be an indicator of improvement on the offensive line.
1. QB C.J. Beathard
Beathard’s health is one of the bigger lingering questions this week. He took a series of shots, like this one.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 17, 2016
He left for five plays as trainers examined his left shoulder/collarbone against North Dakota State. Beathard said he’s fine, but his shoulder is sore.
Beathard has a history of getting dinged up. He is someone to watch to see how he looks. He only threw three passes after his injury last week. Beathard is the biggest piece of Iowa’s offense. The Hawkeyes need him healthy. That’s what you need to see.