Iowa Football: Three Keys to Defeating North Dakota State
Three things the Hawkeyes need to do on Saturday to escape with a win
The slate of games in college football for week three is phenomenal. The top three teams are all on the road against a top-25 opponent, but there will still be sizable interest when the Iowa Hawkeyes and North Dakota State Bison take the field.
The Bison are putting their five game FBS win streak on the line against the 13th best team in the country. On the other hand, the Hawkeyes will march into Kinnick with 14 consecutive regular season wins. Not to mention that neither C.J. Beathard nor Easton Stick have lost a game in their collegiate career.
Despite the Hawkeyes paying North Dakota State $500K to play them, Iowa can’t take this FCS team lightly. Many people are marking this as the Hawkeyes biggest non-conference test of the season. They already blew through their first two opponents, however a win over an FCS team whose won the past five championships will speak loudly.
With the help of a couple of upsets, Iowa has a chance to jump into the top-10 of the AP Poll for the first time this year. Although, in order to do so, they’ll have to hold off North Dakota State. Iowa will be one of the most common upset picks this week, but here’s how they can head into Big Ten play 3-0.
Stop the Run
Easton Stick isn’t a bad quarterback by any stretch of the imagination. If Iowa overlooks his arm then they’ll get burned through the air. That being said, Stick isn’t Carson Wentz and North Dakota State has put an emphasis on running the ball this season.
They rushed the ball 44 times in week one and an astounding 47 times in week two. With the Bison averaging 5.6 yards per carry, it makes sense why pounding the ball on the ground has been their forte this season. Despite their offensive line and numerous running backs being their strength, Iowa’s defense has given up just 3.7 yards per carry.
In both games the Hawkeyes jumped out to an early lead, which forced their opponents to pass. Still, they’ve been able to get to the quarterback numerous times and rarely allow a big run when a team hands the ball off.
Jaleel Johnson and Anthony Nelson have combined to record six tackles for loss and five sacks in the early season. They form one of the most dominating defensive fronts in the Big Ten, and a rush that the Bison haven’t experienced before. If they’re able to dominate the line then the Bison will have a hard time moving the ball, and it will put more pressure on a young quarterback.
It’s easier said than done, though. Just like the Hawkeyes, the Bison have multiple running backs they can use. King Frazier has started both games, however Lance Dunn has five more carries on the season. Either way, both are averaging more than 5.5 yards per carry and each scored a touchdown on the first play of overtime in back-to-back weeks.
Despite the Bison’s dominating run game, the biggest problem on the ground for Iowa could be Easton Stick. Despite the Hawkeyes recording a solid seven sacks in their first two games, they haven’t faced a quarterback who can move as well as Stick does. Not to mention that Joel Lanning was able to break a couple of decent sized runs late in the game last week.
Stick is second on the team in carries (21) and rushing yards (129), meaning the Hawkeyes will have to watch him on the ground as well as through the air. That’s a dynamic the Hawkeyes haven’t faced this year, and it could cause problems if the Bison establish a ground game early.
Teams have tried to establish a ground game against Iowa and both have failed so far. A mobile quarterback might be the solution. Either way, the Bison have a deadly running back duo that the Hawkeyes can’t overlook even if they don’t allow Stick to make an impact on the ground.
A Receiver Needs to Step Up
It’s evident that Matt VandeBerg is more than capable of being the team’s top receiver for a second straight season. At the same time, the Hawkeyes have had to rely on him too much over the first two weeks. C.J. Beathard doesn’t force passes or turn the ball over often, however someone in their receiving core has to step up if they want that to continue.
In week one, Jerminic Smith was the star alongside VandeBerg. He caught three passes for 51 yards and a touchdown, but only recorded one catch in week two. Riley McCarron and George Kittle stepped up in week two, though. They combined to record seven catches for 57 yards and a score.
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While the Hawkeyes were able to get away with VandeBerg being the only consistent target through two weeks, they’ll run into problems during Big Ten play and possibly this week. Simply put, Beathard needs more options to throw to and someone needs to break away from the group and cement themselves as the second option through the air.
The Hawkeyes aren’t going to rely on the passing game, however, if they’re in a close game with the Bison, they need more than just the VandeBerg – Beathard combo.
Against the Bison, opposing quarterbacks are only completing 57 percent of passes. Plus, the Bison have intercepted four passes, including three last week against Gage Gubrud who also threw for 450 yards.
So far this season, the Hawkeyes passing game has worked very well. Beathard has completed 66.7 percent of his passes and he has a characteristic four touchdowns and no turnovers. At the same time, they have yet to face a defense as stifling as the Bison’s.
The emergence of McCarron and Kittle last week is what Iowa expected in week one. While the thoughts of both dropping potential touchdowns against Miami (OH) still fresh in everyone’s mind, the Hawkeyes need at least one of them to step up in week three against a defense who has the defensive backs to slow down VandeBerg at least a little.
One of the best ways to deflate a team looking to pull an upset is to score early. The Hawkeyes have had no problem doing that through their first two games. Averaging an uncharacteristic 43.5 points per game thus far (26th in nation), the Hawkeyes have done a lot of their scoring early.
Iowa has outscored their opponents 35-3 in the first quarter. Jumping up 21-0 in the first quarter against Miami (OH) deflated the Redhawks and seemingly ended the game before it really got started. The same thing happened against Iowa State as the Cyclones had a couple of key drops from receivers on their first drive, allowing Iowa to march down the field to get an early lead.
For underdogs it’s easier to play with the lead. They play more relaxed and don’t try to hit a home run every play, rather just sticking to their game plan. Plus, the longer you let teams hang around, the more they think they can win and it only adds more pressure to the favorite.
The first quarter has not been a strong suit for the Bison’s offense, though. They have scored just seven points. On the bright side, their defense has yet to allow a point. Considering how the Hawkeyes have come out firing in the first two weeks, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bison can slow them down early because they only get better as the game goes on.
The main thing for North Dakota State is that they don’t want to get down in a hole early. Sure, they have the firepower to potentially comeback from a 14-point deficit, but it’ll be extremely hard against a top-25 team with a raucous crowd against them.
Just like in the first two games, the Hawkeyes want to squash any hope of a potential upset that North Dakota State has. Scoring and big plays have been commodities during the first quarter in 2016 for the Hawkeyes, as they scored at least a 25-yard touchdown in the first quarter during both games. If that trend continues, the Hawkeyes will be in great shape.