IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s suspension of starting cornerback Manny Rugamba for the season opener vs. Wyoming isn’t a worst-case scenario for the defense. All-America linebacker Josey Jewell is still taking the field.
But losing Rugamba doesn’t feel that far off, especially for this game against the Cowboys.
If Wyoming is to engineer the upset, it will come through the passing game with potential No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Josh Allen. Losing Rugamba to a violation of team rules makes Wyoming’s path easier to navigate.
But let’s get this out there right now. The Hawkeyes still will be the overwhelming favorite to win the game. Unless Wyoming can significantly improve the 92nd run defense from a year ago, Iowa’s Joe Moore Award winning offensive line and running backs Akrum Wadley and James Butler may be all the Hawkeyes need to secure the victory.
But the most obvious path to a potential Wyoming victory comes with Allen, his big arm and a few big passing plays turning this into a higher-scoring contest than Iowa wants.
The Hawkeyes already are missing starting free safety Brandon Snyder, who tore his left ACL in spring practice. Now, Iowa’s projected No. 1 corner is out. The rest of the defensive backfield is young or relatively untested.
Making the most of the situation
This isn’t the ideal way to enter the first contest. Still, the Iowa tried to spin it positive. Junior Josh Jackson started the Outback Bowl and shows promise. Both coach Kirk Ferentz and defensive coordinator Phil Parker talked up redshirt sophomore Michael Ojemudia.
“I think we have three starting corners going into it,” Parker said, “before we got into [freshman] Matt Hankins [showing] positive signs of what he can do too. So I feel real comfortable about it.”
For Wyoming, that trio is down to two. Jackson appears to look the part, but he combined with Ojemudia for only 15 tackles and 5 pass breakups last season. They aren’t battle tested.
It didn’t take long for Hankins’ natural corner skills to show up in the preseason. Parker likes his vision, and Ferentz is a fan of his toughness.
“He has demonstrated the physical wherewithal, plus he is grabbing on to what we are trying to do systematically,” Ferentz said. “Right now he is in the lead and next week that could change also. He has done a good job.”
Safety is a lot like cornerback. Jake Gervase steps in for Snyder. He had a good spring game and is in the same position as Miles Taylor, who underwhelmed at safety last season. Both must show they can be consistent on Saturdays.
“I am really pleased with what Jake has done, Jake Gervase,” Parker said. “He has done a really good job. I think Miles is really starting to focus in on slowing down his reaction and playing within himself.”
Why the inexperience is important
Parker has a long track record of secondary success. There is talent at the position now, though most of it is young. If fans feel comfortable because of those two positives, go ahead.
But the secondary is inexperienced. Weird things can happen in the opener and in September. North Dakota State was proof of that last season.
Coaches learn more about their team in the first game than in preseason camp. Wyoming knows what it has in Allen. He can throw the deep ball. He reminds Parker of Ben Roethlisberger from 2003.
“Maybe when Ben, his second or third time we played [Miami of Ohio],” Parker said. “Seemed like he is more knowledgable. He’s more confident out there and he can zing the ball.”
What will Josh Allen do?
Allen can throw it downfield. Wyoming will look to do so. Iowa doesn’t know how its defensive backs will respond and if they’ll keep receivers in front of them to offset the big play Allen is fond of making.
If Allen chucks the ball for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns, the game heads into a direction where Wyoming entertains thoughts of an upset. No one knows if Iowa can handle a shootout early in the season, not with so many new pieces to its aerial attack.
It’s hard for Wyoming to win without a big game from Allen. And what if he goes for 250 yards and 4 interceptions?
Odds are it’s a 21-3 Iowa win, just like when Roethlisberger did it in 2003. The play of the Rugamba-free secondary will go a long way in deciding which is more likely.
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