Key to success for Rutgers against Iowa lies at line of scrimmage
Kirk Ferentz has been at the helm of the Iowa football team for quite some time — 18 years to be precise.
The longest-tenured football coach in all of college football alongside Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops — who worked alongside Ferentz at Iowa when both were assistants throughout the 1980s — won’t be leaving Iowa City any time soon after signing an extension to bring his contract to 2026.
Just as the name has been the same at the top of the coaching food chain in Iowa, so has the style of play his team’s have become known for.
Rutgers head football coach Chris Ash identified winning the battle at the line of scrimmage as one of the main keys to winning every game his team partakes in, but the concept has never been as crucial as it is for the Hawkeyes.
“It all starts up front on both sides of the ball. They’re extremely physical up front, extremely sound,” said the Knights defensive line coach Shane Burnham, who coached at Iowa’s in-state rival Iowa State for seven seasons. “I told my guys when I first got here … In my opinion, I don’t know the Big 10 like I know the Big 12, but every year, they were consistently the best offensive line we played against. And that’s on both sides of the ball … that has not changed. They will not beat themselves.”
Luckily for the Rutgers football team (2-1), the units on either side of the line have been praised as the strengths of the team by Ash on a multitude of occasions throughout the preseason and have been gradually building towards living up to expectations.
Disastrous performances in the first quarter of all three games this season for the Scarlet Knights, in which the defensive line conceded 302 rushing yards while the offense has only been able to muster up 16 of its own, have been corrected as games have gone along.
Rutgers has allowed just 232 rushing yards in the other nine quarters they’ve played, including holding Howard to -2 yards rushing in the second half of a 52-14 win in its home opener.
“I think they've done a pretty good job so far,” Ash said of his defensive line. “You look at this last week, the D-line is the reason that we were able to end up defending that option fairly well in the last three quarters of the game because of the way they played … I like the progress that I'm seeing, the work ethic, the chemistry of that group. Their performance continues to me to get better every Saturday.”
Iowa’s (2-1) offense, on the other hand, is trending in the opposite direction.
After putting up a combined 97 points and 839 total yards against Miami (Ohio) and Iowa State in their first two games, the Hawkeyes were held to 231 yards and 21 points in a 23-21 upset loss to 5-time defending FCS champions North Dakota State last weekend.
Iowa’s first regular season loss since a 37-34 overtime loss to Nebraska in November of 2014 knocked it out of the national rankings after it entered the matchup at No. 11 on the AP Coaches Poll, but that doesn’t change the challenge it presents to Rutgers as the first opponent of a brutal three-game stretch to begin Big Ten play.
“I feel like it’s the same way,” said redshirt freshman wide receiver Jawuan Harris on whether an undefeated Iowa would’ve been different than the 2-1 team coming in Saturday. “They’re coming in same team as last year, they played a good team in North Dakota State so they’re coming in to win. Even if they won or lost, they’re coming in to win.”
The key to the Bison’s win was the ability to control the line of scrimmage and limit the Hawkeyes to 34 rushing yards, Burnham said.
“What those guys did is they won the battle of the line of scrimmage,” he said. “(They) got them into some 3rd-longs where you can get your third-down package on the field. If you’re in third-and-short against these guys — I’ve been there a couple of Saturdays — if it’s third and one, it’s just not a lot of fun. Not many calls you can go to, they kinda got ya where they want ya and I think what North Dakota State was able to do was limit the run game and get them into predictable situations.”
The Knights aim to repeat North Dakota State’s success to be the second consecutive team to upset the Hawkeyes before they travel to Columbus to face No. 2 Ohio State and then return home to host No. 4 Michigan.
The game will be the first test to see where Rutgers stands among the Big Ten elite after a full offseason and three games under Ash and his staff.
“I can’t wait to see what happens Saturday,” Burnham said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, it’ll tell a lot about ourselves, certainly a different ball game than we played the first three weeks ... It’ll be a great barometer. I’m sure we’ll play a lot of great offensive lines in this league, but I can’t imagine we’ll play a ton that are a whole lot better than Iowa.”