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McNamara and Iowa’s Early-Game Offense Beat Utah State

Iowa Utah State

Things started out fast for the Hawkeyes in the season opener. So fast, in fact, that they did something in seven minutes that last year took the team five games. They completed two passing touchdowns, which in this case gave Iowa a 14-0 lead just seven minutes into the first quarter. Quarterback Cade McNamara finished with a very solid day, getting to rest for the final half of the fourth quarter. The Hawkeye offense began to sputter in the second half, slowing down a bit. Seven of the final 10 drives finished with less than 15 yards gained. A late Utah State touchdown cut the final score. But it was Iowa’s early-game offense was the difference in the 24-14 victory in the home opener.

First Quarter Fireworks

Iowa won the toss and elected to receive, and Kaleb Johnson ignited the team on the opening kick. The running back returned the kick 54 yards into Utah State territory, setting up the Hawkeyes in prime field position. After a three-yard rush, McNamara connected with transfer wide receiver Seth Anderson on a 36-yard touchdown pass to put Iowa in the scoring column just 42 seconds into the game. The play marked the first opening-drive touchdown pass to start a season since 1991.

On Iowa’s second possession of the day, the trend continued. McNamara drove the Hawkeyes 75 yards for another touchdown. On fourth and goal from the three, the transfer quarterback connected with another transfer pass-catcher, former Michigan Wolverine Erick All. The immediate impact of the transfer players was felt early on in this one, with both reception touchdowns hauled in by transfers. 

Iowa Offense Observations vs. Utah State

A lot of expectations and a lot of unknowns were the general feelings heading into this season. As far as the formations we saw against Utah State, Iowa showed some new looks. That included a five-wide, empty-set backfield seen multiple times throughout the first half. The majority of these plays were successful, finding Luke Lachey for a first down on one of them. Late in the second quarter, Iowa was lined up in the red zone and ran the RPO to get inside the two-yard line. Both of these looks are completely new for this offense. It shows their willingness to adjust the offense to the type of players they now have at the skill positions.

The offensive line was one of the biggest question marks heading into the season, and it looks to still be a step or two behind their expectations. On a handful of passing sets, McNamara had plenty of time to make his throws. But the group struggled to open up run lanes against a Utah State defensive front with several backups in. On the day, Iowa averaged just 2.4 yards per rush and 88 total rushing yards. Those are numbers that need to be better if Iowa hopes to compete for the West Division. The pass protection was a little better, but there were clear miscommunications up front with defensive tackles getting in the backfield to disrupt the rush. 

Third and Long Success

One of the most notable improvements observed was Iowa’s success on third and long. The Hawkeyes converted three of six third downs of more than nine yards. That included a third and 15 conversion that helped lead to the second touchdown drive of the day. In the fourth quarter, Iowa converted back to back third and longs of 12 and 11 yards, respectively. The two conversions kept the drive alive and turned into a rushing touchdown for Johnson. 

Converting on these third downs will be a major contributing factor to Iowa’s success on offense this season. They are electing to throw the ball deep in these situations rather than going underneath and settling for a punt. This change in decision-making directly led to 14 points in this game against Utah State.

McNamara’s Performance

McNamara played very effectively in the first half, completing 13 of 20 with two touchdowns. There were critical drops by wide receivers, one of which was a would-be touchdown through the hands of Nico Ragaini. McNamara was accurate and on time on nearly every pass into the third quarter. However, late in the third, McNamara was escaping a sack and came up a little shaky, grabbing his right hamstring. He did not come out of the game at that point, but he was visibly not at 100% after that play. McNamara later came out of the game midway through the fourth quarter after taking a three-score lead, finishing with 191 yards on 17 completions with two touchdowns. He was sacked only once. 

Iowa Defense 

The Hawkeye defense was strong, but there were some struggles in certain areas that we weren’t used to seeing last year. The defensive line was strong as expected, recording four tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. The struggles were minor but noticed when Utah State lined up in the spread formation. They forced mismatches out wide when linebackers Nick Jackson and Jay Higgins were matched up with quicker receivers. Iowa locked down as the Aggies approached the red area, forcing the field goals. However, they were able to work quickly and drive the field somewhat effectively. 

Late in the game, the Iowa secondary began to look like they were sleepwalking. In the fourth quarter alone, the Hawkeyes allowed five explosive plays. That included a 16-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Terrell Vaughn. The two-point conversion cut the final score to 24-14. One of the areas of concern for the largely stout defense is the secondary depth. Late in the fourth quarter, the backups were in and there were visible communication issues and missed assignments. One of which led to the Aggies’ only touchdown of the day. Credit to Utah State for exploiting this late, as it’s a clear area where Iowa will need to continue to progress.

Iowa Player Standouts against Utah State

On offense, Iowa had eight explosive plays, five of which came through the air. Lachey finished the day at tight end with a career-high seven receptions. That included a big third and 12 catches in the fourth quarter for 31 yards. Deacon Hill finished out the game in the fourth quarter and completed his first collegiate pass for five yards. Defensively, Higgins led the team with a career-high 15 tackles in his third career start. Sebastian Castro had two tackles for loss. That included a tackle for loss where he shed a double team to take down the receiver. Xavier Nwankpa made a diving interception that helped lead to a Hawkeye field goal in the second quarter. It’s his second straight game with an interception, with the first coming in the Music City Bowl at the end of last year.

Iowa Beats Utah State

Iowa begins the year 1-0 with a 10-point victory over Utah State. The offense showed what it was capable of early in the first quarter with two quick passing touchdowns. However, there are still improvements to be made on the offensive line. Defensively, the starting group is very solid and did a great job keeping Utah State out of the end zone. There’s a drop-off to the second-string players that could be a question mark going forward. The 24 points scored put Iowa behind the eight-ball when it comes to Brian Ferentz‘s contract. But a win is a win. Iowa is on the road in Ames next week to take on Iowa State.

Iowa Utah State

Photo courtesy: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

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