IOWA CITY – Five things to think about following the Iowa football team’s season-opening 38-14 victory over Miami (Ohio):
1. The good
Iowa wanted to gain some traction on the ground in its season opener and Mekhi Sargent helped the Hawkeyes take steps in that direction.
The junior accumulated 156 yards of offense, 91 on 14 carries and the remaining 65 on four receptions.
Working behind an offensive line which had a lot of moving parts, Sargent ran hard and with confidence at the start of his second season in an Iowa uniform.
“When something was there, I was just trying to make the most out of it,’’ Sargent said.
He averaged 6.5 yards per carry, helping the team easily top its objective of an average of 4.5 yards per run. The Hawkeyes gained 5.2 yards on average whenever Iowa chose to run the ball.
Coach Kirk Ferentz believes experience made a different in Sargent’s performance.
“He’s more decisive, more confident out there and he made some really big plays,’’ Ferentz said. “There was a run he converted in front of our bench. It wasn’t really clean and somehow he got through there. It looked like a four-yard gain, but it was a heck of a run to make those four yards. He’s a great young guy who works really hard and found his rhythm.’’
2. The really good
Nate Stanley orchestrated a versatile offense filled with interchangeable parts, something that should only help the Hawkeyes as the season progresses.
The senior quarterback completed 21-of-30 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns, spreading the ball around to 10 receivers.
In addition to carrying five times for 20 yards himself, Stanley also handed off to six teammates who contributed to a rushing attack that accumulated 213 yards on its 41 carries.
Running backs, tight ends and fullbacks all caught passes against the RedHawks and Iowa receivers carried the ball twice as Iowa spread its offense around.
“We feel like we have a lot of guys who can contribute in a lot of ways,’’ receiver Nico Ragaini said. “We’re going to give defenses a lot of different looks to prepare for.’’
3. The bad
Iowa’s offense had found some rhythm by the end of the third quarter when the Hawkeyes committed their only turnover Saturday.
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After scoring touchdowns on the first two drives of the second half to open a 24-7 lead, a 22-yard pass from Nate Stanley to Tyrone Tracy Jr. had Iowa on the move again.
In a third-and-1 situation from the Miami 32-yard line, it seemed reasonable for Stanley to put the ball in the hands of senior fullback Brady Ross but he lost control and appeared to try to lateral it back to Stanley.
The ball hit the turf and the RedHawks’ Doug Costin recovered, setting up a touchdown drive which cut the Iowa lead to 24-14 with just under 13 minutes remaining in the game.
“A little turnover problem there and we didn’t respond very well on defense,’’ Ferentz said. “I thought we looked a lot better in the second half. First game, I think you anticipate those kinds of issues.’’
4. The ugly
The sight of all-Big Ten offensive tackle Alaric Jackson on crutches on the sideline before the end of the first half Saturday was a reminder of the risk that accompanies the game.
Jackson and Tristan Wirfs were being counted on to anchor the Hawkeyes’ front five on offense and when Jackson injured his right knee, it led to even more shuffling than Iowa coaches anticipated on the offensive front in a game where they expected to look at a few combinations.
Kyler Schott, Cody Ince, Mark Kallenberger, Justin Britt and Jack Plumb all found themselves on the field at times as Iowa mixed and matched lineup combinations throughout the rest of the game.
With returning starter Cole Banwart missing the Hawkeyes’ first game with a lower leg injury and Jackson’s status questionable for Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big Ten opener against Rutgers, Iowa’s offensive line depth is being tested early.
5. The reality
A.J. Epenesa made the first start of his college career Saturday night and the defensive received a taste of his new reality.
The returning all-Big Ten selection and preseason all-American played nearly every snap and finished with one tackle. He did break up one pass in Iowa’s opener, but was limited in part by the attention he received from the competition.
Miami (Ohio) routinely had two blockers assigned to Epenesa to make certain that its freshman quarterback, Brett Gabbert, had room to craft a 17-of-27 start to his collegiate career.
“I’ve got to get used to that because that’s probably the way it’s going to be,’’ Epenesa said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, we all do, and I’ll use this to get better and learn. I’ll be a better player in the future because of it.’’
Ferentz suspects that will happen, but won’t be surprised if the added attention continues.
“That’s the curse of being a good player,’’ he said. “Sometimes that happens, but that should free some other things up for the other guys. It’s a team effort out there, but he’ll be good, he’ll be all right.’’