Opinion | The Big Ten West is a mess, and Iowa football fits right in

The Hawkeyes fell into a six-way tie for the division lead after they lost to the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.


Grace Smith

Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins tackles Michigan running back Blake Corum during a football game between Iowa and No. 4 Michigan at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Austin Hanson, Pregame Editor

The Big Ten West is already a dumpster fire, and its teams have only played two league opponents each.

As of right now, six teams are tied for the division lead with 1-1 league records. Wisconsin, the team that has won the West four times since 2014, is currently 0-2. The Badgers lost to the Ohio State Buckeyes in Week 4, which is understandable. This week, they fell to the Illinois Fighting Illini, 34-10, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, which was unexpected, to say the least.

While Illinois was drubbing Wisconsin, No. 4 Michigan beat Iowa, 27-14. The Hawkeyes are now 3-2 overall.

Iowa has been a bit of a mess in 2022, but that doesn’t make it different from any of its divisional foes. Technically, Iowa is tied for the West division lead. No ties at the top can be broken because the Hawkeyes haven’t played any of their West brethren yet.

If the West had a bouncer, the Hawkeyes could easily get past it. The only things that seem to be required to compete in the division are good special teams and defensive units, so Iowa fits right in.

Counting sixth-rated Iowa, three of the six teams tied for the division lead ranked inside the top 10 in the nation in total defense after Week 4. Minnesota and Illinois were rated first and fourth, respectively, and Purdue was ranked 29th.

Given how well the Hawkeyes have played defensively and on special teams this season, I think they’ll be competitive in the race for the Big Ten West crown. To put it simply, West teams are going to make under bettors very happy this season.

The separator between the likes of Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue will be their offenses. Illinois has one of the top rushers in the nation in junior Chase Brown. He’s gained 733 yards on 120 carries this season — a 6.11 yards per carry average.

Minnesota’s offense ranked third in the nation through four weeks of action. The Golden Gophers’ featured running back, Mohamed Ibrahim, has racked up 670 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground this year.

Purdue has former Iowa wideout Charlie Jones at its disposal. He’s caught 47 passes for 588 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in five games.

The Hawkeyes don’t even have a signature weapon on offense this season. Currently, Iowa ranks last in the 131-team FBS in total offense.

The Hawkeyes are averaging 269 yards and just over one touchdown per game on offense. Senior quarterback Spencer Petras is the Hawkeye offense’s top producer from a yardage standpoint. He’s thrown for 770 yards — 154 a game — and two touchdowns. Petras has also been intercepted twice this season.

True freshman Kaleb Johnson, the Hawkeyes’ leading rusher, has picked up 206 yards on 31 attempts in 2022. He’s gaining nearly seven yards a run.

You know, we’re a work in progress,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday. “I’m not discouraged by our guys. In fact, I’m encouraged by some of the things I’m seeing. But we’re going to have to keep moving and obviously have to get better. We’re not going to win a game scoring seven points.”

While the Hawkeyes do fall short of the likes of the Golden Gophers, Boilermakers, and Fighting Illini on offense, I’m not willing to declare them unfit to win the Big Ten West.

Since its atrocious start to the season, Iowa’s offense has gradually improved in each of the last three weeks. In its last three games, Iowa has produced 298 yards and two touchdowns an outing. The Hawkeyes managed just 316 yards and one touchdown in their first two games combined.

The early hole Iowa dug itself will likely create a somewhat inaccurate reflection of what the Hawkeyes’ offense has been of late. Still, Iowa has faced two top-10 defenses in each of its last two matchups. In those games, the Hawkeyes have generated 279 yards, on average.

Iowa gained 281 yards and two touchdowns against a Michigan defense that ranked eighth in the country on Saturday. The Wolverines were only allowing about 245 yards a game in the first four weeks of the season — albeit they played against putrid opponents like UConn, Hawaii, Maryland, and Colorado State.

Still, Iowa exceeded the yardage total most teams were putting up against Michigan. And Petras had his best game of the year so far, completing 21 of his 31 attempts for 246 yards and touchdown. Petras’ quarterback rating was 145, and he did not turn the ball over.

Will that kind of offensive output be enough to win the West? That remains to be seen, but the Hawkeyes will probably need to get better on offense to win their division.

But, for the first time since its six-game win streak in 2021, Iowa has made some visible strides on the offensive side of the ball. The Hawkeyes are trending up, offensively. The two questions remaining for Iowa are: How quickly can the offense improve and how good can it actually get?

Some pause for concern with Iowa’s defense may be warranted after Saturday’s game. Though, not enough to think it will inhibit the Hawkeyes’ ability to win the West.

Iowa’s defense entered its bout with the Wolverines ranked sixth in the country, allowing just over 236 yards and less than one touchdown per game. Michigan racked up 327 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday. In the Hawkeyes’ defense, the Wolverines came into the game averaging nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns per game on offense.

The most eye-popping stat of the Saturday’s contest, however, was how helpless the Hawkeyes were against the run. Michigan picked up 172 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Iowa’s rush defense, which was formerly ranked sixth in the nation, let up just 73 yards per game in its first four contests.

I expect Iowa’s defensive performance to be more of an anomaly than a new standard. The Hawkeyes didn’t really perform too poorly against the Wolverines’ offense.

The problem for Iowa is, its defense will likely need to be perfect for it to win games this season, no matter how much growth its offense makes. An average defensive performance won’t translate to victories for the Hawkeyes this year.

We’ll know a lot more about Iowa’s odds to win its division after its first game against a West team next week. At this point, it appears the Hawkeyes’ matchup with the Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium in Champaign will go a long way in terms of shaping the West division standings for the rest of the season.