The blogger interview series is back! The guys over at Go Iowa Awesome have been around here for a very long time, as they were the former staff at Black Heart Gold Pants. They have been our partners in HATE when it comes to the bitter rivalry between Iowa and Purdue. This week I spoke with RossWB over at Go Iowa Awesome about the season opener and the seething, passionate hatred we have for their inferior corn.
T-Mill: IT’S HATE WEEK! Feel free to begin with a two minute OMHR rant.
RossWB: Can you imagine if there hadn’t been any football this year and Iowa and Purdue weren’t able to resume their hostilities on the football field? And we had to wait until 2021 to get our hate on again? Honestly the pent-up aggression that would have been released probably would have been too much for any stadium or team to handle. It’s good that the Big Ten was able to find a way to have a season this year so all that hate can be released in a more natural fashion. Both teams gotta be worried about starting out the season and getting too high after one game, though. It’s all downhill after a game against your Most Hated Rival, after all. Conversely, the season will already feel like a lost cause if you start things off with a loss to your Most Hated Rival. Lots on the line here, frankly. As ever, I wish you guys the absolute worst of luck.
T-Mill: Needless to say Iowa’s coaching staff and players have had an eventful offseason even discounting the COVID mess. How do you see all of that having an affect on the opener?
RossWB: No. Freaking. Clue. The racial disparity controversy that rocked the program this summer was a huge deal and the sort of thing that could easily tear a program apart. On the surface, though, it doesn’t seem like that has happened. There weren’t many current players that departed in the wake of that story and most of the talk from the players this summer and fall has been how much closer together they feel. So maybe it’s something that they’ve managed to use as a unifying force? That’s the hope anyway. I don’t think we’ll really know what impact it’s had until the season gets underway and we see how things play out.
T-Mill: You have a new QB. We might have a new QB. Who has the edge there?
RossWB: I think Purdue probably has the advantage at QB at this point. I’m excited to see what Spencer Petras, Iowa’s new starting QB, can do now that he has hold of the starting QB position with Nate Stanley’s graduation. He was a solid recruit and the practice buzz on him has been pretty strong. (I know, I know...) That said, he’s also never thrown a pass of significance yet in his college career. Purdue has two guys who saw a lot of action last year in Plummer and O’Connell. So assuming one of them is the starter on Saturday, Purdue will definitely have an experience advantage. They know what it’s like to face a live defense and what actual in-game pressure feels like. I’m hoping Petras has a fast learning curve, but at least to start, I’d give the edge to the Boilermakers here.
T-Mill: As usual, Iowa has a great offensive line to help a new backfield. What are your offensive expectations?
RossWB: Iowa lost their best offensive lineman from last season when Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year Tristan Wirfs left early for the NFL, but there are still some solid pieces in place in the trenches. Alaric Jackson had some NFL Draft buzz a year ago but opted to return for his senior year and Tyler Linderbaum had a very good debut season at center; hopes are high that he can get to another level this season, too. There’s a lot of experience (and options) at the guard positions and Iowa landed a multi-year starter to replace Wirfs in Indiana grad transfer Coy Cronk. So there’s reason to believe the OL will be pretty solid this year.
And if the OL can hold things down up front, Iowa fans are pretty bullish on this offense’s possibilities overall. Petras doesn’t have a lot of (or any) experience at QB, but he has talent — and a lot of weapons. Tyler Goodson took over as the starter at RB in the second half of the season and gave Iowa a talented weapon there that they haven’t had in a few years. He’s a smart, powerful, shifty runner. Iowa also has solid depth behind him with Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin. And while Iowa’s receivers don’t have the 1-2 punch of Moore and Bell, they do have a lot of talent and experience in Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Tyrone Tracy, Jr. Sam LaPorta looks like the next standout pass-catcher at tight end for Iowa. That should give Petras a lot of weapons to work with on offense, which gives us a lot of reason to hope for better-than-usual production for the Iowa offense this year.
T-Mill: How does the defense look in terms of returning production vs. newcomers?
RossWB: Yeah, the returning production count for Iowa’s defense is not ideal. Iowa is down five of their top seven tacklers from last season; Kristian Welch and Michael Ojemudia graduated, A.J. Epenesa and Geno Stone left early for the NFL Draft, and Djimon Colbert is sitting out the season due to COVID. They’re also down their biggest playmakers on defense from last season with Epenesa, Welch, Stone, and Ojemudia all gone. That is a lot of productivity and disruption to replace. In Phil Parker We Trust, though, so the defense ought to be solid, even if it is a bit of a work in progress to start. The biggest absence is probably Epenesa, who was a phenomenal pass rusher and commanded so much attention from the defense. Iowa doesn’t like to blitz, so getting pressure from the front four alone is critical. Epenesa helped with that a lot, so finding new faces to fill that void will be crucial. Stone was the anchor of Iowa’s secondary last year and Ojemudia’s was Iowa’s most consistent coverage guy, so replacing them is also going to be important, especially against an offense like Purdue’s.
In terms of new faces, I think Iowa fans are excited to see what Jack Heflin can do at defensive tackle. He’s a grad transfer from Northern Illinois and he was pretty productive there last year — 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 QB hurries, 3 forced fumbles. Jack Campbell is taking over at middle linebacker and he’s a guy that’s apparently made some big strides from last season. In the backfield, we’re pretty excited to see if Matt Hankins and/or Julius Brents can become the next standout Iowa cornerback and Dane Belton is next in line at strong safety, where Iowa has had some very good players lately (Geno Stone, Amani Hooker). The secondary is going to get a massive test from Purdue and those receivers; nothing like getting thrown into the deep end right away.
T-Mill: Let’s talk COVID: What has Iowa been able to do in terms of preparation and how weird do things get now?
RossWB: It sounds like Iowa has been able to have a pretty normal practice routine since preparation for the season started up in earnest about 3-4 weeks ago. I’m not aware of any COVID-induced shutdowns in practice over that stretch and it seems like they’ve been able to avoid having any significant players (or coaches) test positive thus far. What happens now? Yeesh. Your guess is as good as mine. We’re all going to be winging it for this weird, abbreviated season and just hoping for the best, I think. I’m nervous about adding travel into the mix — it seems like that’s when things have gotten more problematic in other conferences and leagues. But travel is unavoidable if you want to have any sort of a season, so again: hoping for the best. No whammies, no whammies, no whammies...
T-Mill: Finally, what is your prediction for Saturday?
RossWB: It’s Week 1, so I’ve gotta have some optimism, right? I’m (very very) nervous about Iowa’s ability to cover Bell and Moore, but I am also reasonably optimistic about the Iowa offense’s ability to do damage against Purdue’s defense, too. Spencer Petras is making his first start, but Ross-Ade isn’t going to be the most hostile environment with no fans in attendance. I think Iowa wears Purdue down and pulls away in the second half when the running game gets going. Iowa 37, Purdue 24.