IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — For the first time in school history, No. 20 Iowa will open a season with a home game at night.
The game against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday night will also mark the debut of wide receiver Oliver Martin, a highly touted transfer who has finally been cleared to suit up for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa spent all summer wondering whether Martin, a four-star recruit who spurned the Hawkeyes for Michigan out of high school would be a part of its offense in 2019. The Hawkeyes found out the good news Wednesday.
Martin, who caught 11 passes for the Wolverines in 2018, might not have to be the savior he was hyped to be as a four-star recruit out of Iowa City West High. Junior receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith have emerged as key cogs in Iowa's passing game with freshman Nico Ragaini in the slot.
Still, Martin's first game as a Hawkeye will only add more juice to an opener that will also mark the debut of Iowa's completed north end zone.
"If we get the green light, he'll be in there playing at some point, absolutely," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, a day before learning of Martin's eligibility.
Iowa is looking for its 18th win in 19 openers dating to 2001.
SCOUTING THE REDHAWKS
Miami was picked to finish second in the Mid-American Conference's East division. The RedHawks return 12 starters, but quarterback Gus Ragland has graduated after tossing 56 TD passes in 28 starts. Miami has listed three underclassmen — Jackson Williamson, AJ Mayer and Brett Gabbert, the younger brother of NFL QB Blaine Gabbert — as potential starters under center. Whoever gets the nod will face Miami's second-biggest crowd of the season outside of a trip to Ohio State on Sept. 21.
"It's not even that it's Saturday night at Iowa and it's a big crowd and it's noisy. It's more the Iowa defense," Miami coach Chuck Martin said.
Martin is right to be wary of Iowa's defense. The Hawkeyes return many of their key players, including first-team preseason All-American A.J. Epenesa at defensive end, from a unit that was one of just nine nationally to allow less than 300 yards a game in 2018.
Juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young will get the bulk of Iowa's carries this season after separating themselves from a crowded group of running backs. They'll be looked upon to spring open a running game that's been unusually stagnant over the past two years, ranking just 95th nationally in rushing yards in 2018.
"Both guys have improved a great deal. I really think they were better players in the spring than they were last fall, and I think we've seen growth and improvement this August," Ferentz said.
Arizona State transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton won Iowa's punting competition. The Australia native can punt with either foot. ... The RedHawks averaged 34 points a game in finishing 6-3 down the stretch a year ago. ...The Hawkeyes picked off 41 passes in 2017-18, the most in the country. ... Smith-Marsette led the Big Ten and was second nationally with a 29.5-yard average on kick returns.
HE SAID IT
"You watch games and they just plod along, and the other team is up and it looks like they're being outplayed, and then you look up in the fourth quarter and Iowa has the lead because Iowa just does what it does." — Martin.