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Breaking down Iowa (3-1, 1-0) vs. Northwestern (1-3, 0-1). Kickoff is 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (ESPNU).
Northwestern isn’t handling the rush this year and the competition is only going to rise. The Wildcats are 11th in the league with 177.0 yards allowed per game. Teams average 4.47 yards a carry. On 88 first-down rush attempts against the Cats opponents have averaged 4.99 yards a carry.
That’s given offenses a huge comfort zone and allowing them to set up shop, operate and sustain drives.
The Wildcats play a base 4-3 defense and quarters coverage. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz seems to be a mode trying to figure out the strengths of his defense. NU has been injured in the secondary. NU needs middle linebacker Anthony Walker to be a superstar and he hasn’t been at that level. The D-line has largely been corralled.
Four of the front seven for NU played against the Hawkeyes last season. Several others on the NU depth chart rotated in and out of the lineup during the game. It’s top two players on defense, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, have moved on. So, are their replacements going to stand up to the Hawkeyes?
Remember, Iowa seemed impossibly vulnerable going into Evanston last season. Guard Sean Welsh was moved to right tackle. True freshman James Daniels made his first career start at guard. RBs Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels were hurt. Iowa still ran wild, putting up 294 rushing yards, its biggest number since 304 against Illinois in 2014 and its biggest number since.
This was the Akrum Wadley game. The junior RB rushed 26 times for 204 yards and four TDs, all career highs. Iowa’s O-line rebounded after the Hawkeyes totaled their lowest rushing output in 36 games, paving the way for 193 yards at Rutgers last week. Welsh and Daniels returned from injury and gave Iowa a huge boost.
This is where everything fits together in football. Senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg will miss an extended period of time with a foot injury. Northwestern will pile bodies on the line of scrimmage in hopes of slowing the run game and forcing QB C.J. Beathard to make something happen with a group of makeshift receivers.
It has to work and it might. Recent history shows it probably won’t sustain.
The numbers say NU has the worst pass defense in the Big Ten. The Cats allow 257.5 yards per game, which is last in the Big Ten. The secondary has allowed just two TD passes and has held opponents to 6.6 yards per attempt (winning number). The 65.2 completion percentage opponents have put on the Cats is a killer (and puts NU No. 117 in the nation in that measure).
The Cats have been solid on third down against the pass (43.9 completion percentage and just nine first downs gain), but the 80.7 completion rate (46 of 57) on first down is atrocious. The Wildcats’ six sacks are tied for 11th in the league.
NU has talent in the secondary with safety Godwin Igwebuike and cornerbacks Montre Hartage and Trae Williams. Hartage and Williams are new starters and there is a learning curve.
So, let’s get into how Iowa’s pass offense might work without its most important player.
On his radio show Wednesday, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said true freshman wide receiver Devonte Young had a great practice. OK, that’s not much, but file it away. Young is put together at 6-0, 195. He’s a definite possibility. Sophomore Ronald Nash (6-2, 210) has played and likely will have a shot at rotation time. Junior Jonathan Parker returned to practice this week after suffering a foot injury in August. Good timing on his part.
Those three are likely the only ones who’ll get serious looks for playing time. How this likely goes will be WR Jerminic Smith on the outside in the X position. He’s the team leader in targets in VandeBerg’s absence. Senior Riley McCarron probably takes over VandeBerg’s spot at slot receiver. He’s smart. He’s going to graduate and be in the working world sometime after semester. He had to move out of his place with Beathard because he couldn’t do the year lease. Smarts count right now, probably more than we know. Sophomore Jay Scheel will get the call up at the B position, the receiver who usually lines up outside of the slot.
Read More: Hawkeyes in total 'This is fine' mode
This green lights the Cats to stop Iowa’s run, but don’t expect Iowa to go outside of itself. Last week at Rutgers, 31 of Iowa’s 61 plays included only two wide receivers.
Two safety valves for Beathard will be senior TE George Kittle (10 catches, 192 yards, two TDs and 14 targets) and Wadley, who has seven catches for 92 yards and is tied with McCarron with nine targets.
Junior running back Justin Jackson remains the heart and soul and the legs and the vision of NU’s rush offense. The 5-11, 195-pounder has 339 yards and three TDs this season. The most eye-popping number is his 83 carries, which lead the Big Ten by 17 (Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is No. 2 with 66 and Daniels and Wadley combine for just 89). Jackson led the league with 312 attempts last season. He appears to be on his way to shattering that.
Lots of teams tilt toward their one great RB. If you look at the production this year, it’s clear Jackson is NU’s one great RB. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is the Cats’ No. 2 rusher and he has 41 yards. Northwestern wants to run read option, but the question is can Thorson get it to the point where the offense is a consistent read-option threat? Through four games, that’s a no.
Lots of fingers have been pointed at NU’s offensive line. The Cats’ 3.13 yards per carry is 13th in the league. NU got an encouraging performance on the ground last week against Nebraska (137 yards), but it was held to 86 yards in back-to-back weeks against Illinois State and Duke.
“There’s no way I could have predicted that our offensive line would be as inefficient as they were today,” NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Illinois State. “We’re not consistent enough fundamentally, we’re not executing well enough and that’s really disappointing.”
The leads to the Cats not finishing drives. NU is last in the Big Ten in scoring (16.3 points a game, which is 125th nationally). NU’s nine TDs are tied for 113th in the nation. It’s 65 total points scored this season is No. 122.
Now, Iowa’s run defense has been vulnerable. Teams average 179.0 yards per game against the Hawkeyes, which is 12th in the league. Opponents have averaged 4.49 yards on 81 first-down carries against Iowa. Teams have sustained drives this season. The 285 plays run against the Hawkeyes this season is 12th most in the Big Ten (it took five games last year for teams to go over the 300-play mark vs. Iowa).
Iowa had one play against Rutgers where it flexed and destroyed the best laid plans. It was on the fourth-and-2 from the Hawkeyes’ 17 late in the fourth quarter. Iowa went into a cover 0 defense and crowded the line of scrimmage with safeties. But what blew up the play was fantastic inside penetration from tackles Nathan Bazata and Faith Ekakitie and linebacker Bo Bower, who shed a block and attacked the ball carrier for a loss, basically sealing the victory.
There needs to be more penetration up front.
“Definitely,” defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “We need that all game. This game, this running back is really good. If we don’t get penetration, he’s going to make plays all day.”
Senior wide receiver Austin Carr has built a nice rapport with Thorson. He leads the Big Ten with 26 receptions and 392 receiving yards. He has three of NU’s nine TDs. Against the Huskers last week, Carr (6-1, 200) had eight catches for 108 yards and a TD. He’s caught a TD pass in the last three games, becoming the first NU player to do that since Jeremy Ebert in 2011.
You can probably put him down for 100 yards. He’s recorded 100-yard games in NU’s last two games, arguably its toughest two opponents. Northwestern’s receiver corps is a little like Iowa’s. Carr has earned a ton of the targets and gets open. NU’s No. 2 receiver is Flynn Nagel, who has 10 catches.
Thorson’s 239.0 passing yards per game is No. 3 in the Big Ten. His 53.2 percent completion percentage is No. 13. Only Michigan’s Wilton Speight has more third-down pass attempts than Thorson (39 to 37), so the Cats have found themselves behind schedule probably a bit too much. Thorson’s third-down completion percentage is 45.9, which is 12th in the league.
Here’s a huge reason why the passing numbers for NU are strained: The Cats have allowed 15.0 sacks this season. That’s last in the Big Ten and No. 121 in the nation. Offensive tackles Blake Hance and Eric Olson have struggled vs. pass rush. Iowa might have the best set of DEs the Cats have faced so far.
Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes are enjoying a bit of a renaissance as far at getting to the QB. Iowa is tied for No. 2 in the Big Ten with 13.0 (that ties Iowa for 13th in the nation), led by sophomore defensive end Matt Nelson (4.0) and freshman defensive end Anthony Nelson (3.5). With defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (2.5) and end Parker Hesse (2.0), Iowa has four players in the top 14 of the league in sacks.
It doesn’t end there. Iowa also has 26 QB hurries (Anthony Nelson leads with 10) and six QB hits (linebacker Josey Jewell leads with two).
“It’s not something we’ve explicitly said,” Hesse said. “Obviously, that’s kind of a momentum swing in games, if you can get a good hit on a quarterback and rattle them a little bit or whatever.”
Iowa’s pass defense has held QBs to 53.3 completion percentage, that’s No. 4 in the league. The Hawkeyes have just two interceptions this year, but that’s a product of pass rush and the fact that Desmond King is one of the least-targeted cornerbacks in the country.
Northwestern might have a kicker controversy this week. Senior Jack Mitchell is listed as an “or” in all caps on the depth chart with fellow senior Matt Micucci. Against the Huskers, Mitchell missed a 26-yard field goal and an extra point.
Mitchell is now 1-for-4 on field goals this year and 8-for-9 on PATs. He pushed the 26-yarder that would’ve given the Cats a 3-0 lead. He clanked the PAT off an upright.
Coaches hate missed field goals in the 20-yard range. They really hate missed PATs. Like hate hate. Northwestern’s offense just isn’t good enough to leave points on the table.
“That job’s obviously wide open right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We can’t just leave four points out there. If we get those, it’s a totally different game down the stretch.”
Iowa is good here. Senior punter Ron Coluzzi earned B1G special teams player of the week with his performance at Rutgers. Between Coluzzi and Iowa’s punt coverage unit, the Hawkeyes have allowed just two returns and zero return yards this season.
Read More: Ron Coluzzi is manna from heaven
We still don’t know what the range might be for true freshman kicker Keith Duncan. He’s attempted one FG this season, a 22-yarder. Iowa had a first down inside Rutgers’ 20, but passed on what would’ve been a 30-ish yard FG and went for it unsuccessfully on third down. Ferentz clearly has a card on this. He said it has nothing to do with Duncan and everything to do with opportunity.
1. Season on the brink — If the Wildcats lose, they are 1-4 and 0-2 in the Big Ten. They still have at Michigan State, at Ohio State and Wisconsin on the schedule. A victory over the Hawkeyes would keep the wolves off the door step and keep bowl hopes and any Big Ten West Division hopes alive. Northwestern is in desperation mode.
2. It’s week 5 and ... We’re still asking ourselves what does Iowa want to be this year? What can it be? Are there signs team chemistry is awry? Everyone connected to the captain thing with King and LeShun Daniels last week has said no big deal, nothing to see here. What else is out there? The anthem protests and Ferentz’s stance on keeping it away from football? Nothing public there. There is no tangible read on team chemistry except that maybe you know it when you see it. That hasn’t been there with the Hawkeyes.
3. Rallying for VandeBerg, but probably not — That makes sense. VandeBerg was sewn into what this program is when it’s at its best. Kid from nowhere working his spindly body into a Big Ten football body and contributing to the team in a big, big way. VandeBerg would probably tell you to stow the “rallying” stuff. Certainly, the other wide receivers practiced with a heightened attention this week. Ferentz said it Tuesday, the games aren’t going to stop coming and won’t be handicapped for what Iowa lost in VandeBerg. He’ll be in his teammates’ thoughts, but the purple-helmet guys still will be there. VandeBerg would want his team thinking about the guys in the purple helmets.
NORTHWESTERN WILL WIN IF ... Jackson can hit a couple of big runs and the Cats can keep Iowa’s offense muddled.
IOWA WILL WIN IF ... It puts the same moves it put on NU last season, dominant running game, disruptive defense and no big plays.
PREDICTION: Iowa 28, Northwestern 14
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