IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa opened the season in nondescript fashion with a 24-3 win over Wyoming on Saturday, after which Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes’ 19th-year coach, somewhat joyfully announced that the flood of NFL scouts at Kinnick Stadium arrived to watch a visiting player over anyone from his team.
Josh Allen, the Cowboys’ dynamic quarterback considered among the potential headliners in the NFL draft next spring, threw for just 174 yards. Iowa intercepted him twice, and Wyoming did not penetrate the Iowa 20-yard line.
“We just couldn’t get our run game going,” said Allen, who was right but surely could have done more to hurt the Hawkeyes if they had given him time to operate and room to throw downfield.
Iowa had four turnovers but minimized the damage with otherwise smart, physical play.
Somewhere in a faraway region, where observers of this game don’t identify Iowa’s lack of flash as a badge of honor, a skeptic saw these Hawkeyes and squinted in annoying recognition.
Yes, it was only two years ago that Iowa thoroughly unimpressed much of the nation en route to a 12-0 start and the doorstep of the College Football Playoff.
The Hawkeyes this year bear a fuzzy resemblance to their 2015 brethren. Expectations dipped after a five-loss finish last season, but this is when Iowa typically thrives. At first glance, the defense -- the backbone of any Iowa team with championship aspirations -- looks as good as two years ago.
But for all of the football public positioned outside of this state, rest easy. You likely won’t have to talk to your kids about Iowa this season.
Why? Take note of the Hawkeyes’ schedule.
Iowa visits fellow Big Ten West contenders Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska, just as in 2015, when it ran the regular-season table before losing 16-13 to Michigan State en route to a Rose Bowl bid. Instead of Maryland and Purdue out of the East, Iowa gets Penn State and Ohio State -- both in Iowa City -- in addition to a trip to Michigan State.
It’s favored by less than a field goal at rival Iowa State on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN2).
If first-year QB Nathan Stanley helps Iowa eliminate the turnovers (and that defense continues to be strong), don’t entirely forget Iowa. Hey, the formula nearly worked in 2015 against the fifth-ranked Spartans, who needed a late, 22-play, nine-minute drive to finally beat the Hawkeyes.
(Note that Stanford then exposed Ferentz’s team with a 45-16 rout in Pasadena.)
Common sense says the Iowa may have visions of Christian McCaffrey when it meets Saquon Barkley or the Buckeyes’ stacked backfield this year. For now, though, Iowa is 1-for-1 in stifling elite offensive talents.
The Hawkeyes’ defensive effort on Saturday started with linebackers Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower. The senior trio combined to make 38 tackles. Jewell, the Walter Camp national player of the week, collected 14 stops, including two sacks and forced a game-shaping, intentional-grounding call against Allen in the second quarter.
“We lead the defense,” Niemann said. “We control the front.”
To prepare for this opener, Iowa watched film of its 23-21 loss in September 2016 to North Dakota State -- seemingly a harsh homework assignment. But Wyoming coach Craig Bohl largely constructed NDSU’s FBS juggernaut, and he took the blueprints to Laramie four years ago.
Bohl, a former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Nebraska on two championship teams in the 1990s, left Iowa City with a strong impression of the Hawkeyes’ front seven on defense.
“It harkens to some of the defenses that I was around,” Bohl said. “They’re well-schooled. They’re in the gaps, and they tackle well.”
A finalist last year for the Butkus Award, Jewell no doubt impressed the scouts on hand to study Allen.
“He’s a pretty good player,” Ferentz said of his star linebacker.
There he goes again, gushing.
Look, fans from the ACC and SEC got their fill of Iowa talk two years ago. If somehow Penn State and Ohio State fail to take care of matters this year, remember that in 2015, Iowa ranked among the top four in the Big Ten in QBR, yards per play, third-down conversion rate, goal-to-go efficiency, rushing yards allowed per game and interception rate.
Last year, it repeated the feat in none of those categories.
As for the Hawkeyes in 2017, they’ve got a fresh start and enjoyed a fruitful first step.
Don’t tell your kids yet.