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Saturday's Iowa-Northwestern winner faces an uphill climb in the Big Ten West Division.
No. 5 Wisconsin is rolling at 6-0 and already has a two-game lead on the Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-2 Big Ten) and Wildcats (3-3, 1-2). Saturday's winner will have little to no margin for error in the B1G West.
The loser is out, not mathematically but realistically.
Iowa is coming off a bye week. Was it enough time to get offensive lineman Boone Myers, cornerback Manny Rugamba and running back James Butler healthy? In order, maybe, maybe and not this week. Linebacker Josey Jewell left the Illinois game after a shoulder injury. He said he’s fine and playing. Let’s face it, it would take a trank gun to keep Jewell — named midseason all-American by anyone with a brain and eyes — off the field.
Northwestern won at Maryland last week, 37-21. The Hawkeyes went 4-1 last season in Big Ten road games. They scored victories over Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois. All road wins are quality, but the Wildcats aren’t at the kiddie table (neither is Purdue and Minnesota is working on it).
The game kicks off 11 a.m. at Ryan Field and will be televised on ESPN2.
One of the reasons the Wildcats were a popular breakthrough pick in the B1G West was the depth along the defensive line. Northwestern plays eight D-linemen. Six of them have recorded at least one tackle for loss this season. Senior tackle Tyler Lancaster (6-3, 315) is sprinting toward some sort of B1G postseason honor with 4.0 tackles for loss and a sack. True freshman defensive end Samdup Miller (6-3, 261) is NU’s A.J. Epenesa. Miller has 5.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
OK Iowa, it’s time to run the football like, you know, Iowa. Coming out of the bye week, head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz listed the running game as the No. 1 thing that needs to be fixed. The Wildcats have played Wisconsin and Penn State and still only allow 3.44 yards per carry. The Hawkeyes average 3.67 yards a carry.
With true freshman Tristan Wirfs’ promotion to starting right tackle, senior Sean Welsh was able to move back to right guard. That helped against Illinois. Does Iowa try to get freshman Toren Young on track? He’s a 220-pounder who has the potential to wear a defense out. By the way, the Wildcats racked up 17.0 tackles for loss against Wisconsin (five) and Penn State (12, most against a B1G opponent since 2000).
If the running game happens for Iowa this week, it’ll be fueled by explosive plays from running back Akrum Wadley (345 career yards and seven TDs vs. NU).
The Wildcats lost three cornerbacks to season-ending injuries, so they’ve had to reconfigure. Still, NU has a lot of experience in the secondary. Safety Godwin Igwebuike (6-0, 212) is an NFL player. He has an interception and four pass breakups, but run support is his strength. Junior Montre Hartage (one interception, four passes broken up) is the No. 1 cornerback. Safety Kyle Queiro has 5.5 tackles for loss.
Redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher (6-4, 245) leads the linebacker corps, which will be probed for matchups.
At one point in the third quarter against Illinois, Iowa QB Nate Stanley had a 1-for-8 streak. It would’ve been easy to junk the passing game and just run the Illini into submission. But Brian Ferentz stuck with it and Iowa pulled away.
Brian Ferentz does that for two reasons: 1) Stanley is a quality quarterback. He’s fifth in the league with a 149.3 pass efficiency. His 15 TD passes are second. His 7.7 yards per attempt is fourth. With Brian Ferentz calling plays, Stanley at QB and emerging names in the receiving corps, Iowa’s pass game is fixed and the next step is becoming a weapon. 2) Ferentz is well aware of Iowa’s struggles with the run. He knows he’s going to have to lean pass at least in a few games, maybe this one, in the second half of the season.
The Wildcats are kind of in the same boat as Iowa. The Cats’ 3.65 yards per carry is 13th in the B1G. NU has partied at the expense of shoddy defenses (303 rush yards vs. Bowling Green; 238 vs. Maryland last week). Good defenses have boxed up the Cats (114 total rush yards vs. Duke, Wisconsin and Penn State).
Senior running back Justin Jackson (5-11, 200) remains relatively consistent. He was held to 18 yards against Duke, but he’s still fourth in the B1G with 510 yards. Jackson had 171 yards and a pair of TDs vs. Maryland last week. The Cats’ O-line takes a hit for where the running game is, but three starters return from an O-line that helped pave the way to 198 rushing yards and 38 points in a victory at Kinnick Stadium last season.
The numbers aren’t great for Iowa’s rush defense (the 4.51 yards per carry would be the highest against the Hawkeyes since 2000), but even after 295 rushing yards allowed to Penn State, Iowa was in it until the final play. The 200 yards allowed to Illinois is an eye opener.
Linebackers and defensive backs have to provide solid coverage on the edges. If Iowa can protect the perimeter, it can slug this out. Plus, linebacker Josey Jewell, who left the Illinois game briefly with a shoulder injury, says he’s playing and it’s going to be awesome.
It’s been kind of a mixed year for NU quarterback Clayton Thorson. He’s completing 60.7 percent of his passes, but he has eight TDs to nine interceptions, his 199.4 pass efficiency is 10th in the league and his 6.6 yards per attempt also is 10th.
Thorson is without wide receiver Austin Carr, a Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2016 with 90 receptions. Still, NU has four receivers with 20-plus catches led by junior wide receiver Flynn Nagel’s 22 receptions for 223 yards. Sophomore Bennett Skowronek is a matchup problem at 6-4, 218. The Cats’ superbacks (tight ends) Garrett Dickerson and Cameron Green have combined for 32 receptions.
Northwestern has had its problems in pass protection. NU has allowed 20.0 sacks, last in the Big Ten. Wisconsin took a bite with 8.0 sacks. Penn State had 4.0.
With the return of junior safety Brandon Snyder, Iowa’s secondary is almost there. Sophomore cornerback Manny Rugamba has been out most of the last two games with a foot/ankle injury. His loss has probably hurt the secondary as much as the O-line losing Ike Boettger and having a limited Boone Myers. Ferentz said this week he was making progress, but nothing definitive on his status.
The Hawkeyes are 12th in the B1G allowing 242.7 (NU is 13th with 249.7) yards per game, but other numbers fall in Iowa’s favor. Quarterbacks have a 114.2 efficiency against Iowa (sixth). Iowa’s eight interceptions (three coming against Illinois and first-time starter Jeff George Jr.) are third.
The safety spot opposite Snyder will be interesting. Sophomore Amani Hooker seems to have pulled even or ahead of senior Miles Taylor.
NU kicker Charlie Kuhbander was named B1G special teams player of the week after becoming the first freshman in school history to boot three field goals in a game. Kuhbander has made six consecutive field goals. NU is 10th in the league in punt coverage (9.2 yards per return) and fourth in kick coverage (17.2).
The Hawkeyes’ coverage units remain a plus (third vs. kick; fourth vs. punt). Freshman running back Ivory Kelly-Martin is fifth in the B1G in kick returns (22.9). Kicker Miguel Recinos is 5 of 6 in field goals and has had a hand in kick coverage with well-placed kickoffs.
Iowa has to figure out punter, but no matter who it is — sophomore Colten Rastetter or true freshman Ryan Gersonde — they’re still going to be inexperienced and probably somewhat shaky.
1. Is Northwestern Iowa’s new “Michigan State”? — When it was Legends and Leaders in the Big Ten, Iowa and Michigan State had tussles. Since the Spartans moved to the East Division, the teams have met just twice, Michigan State has won both and the two won’t face each other again until 2020. Iowa and Northwestern are tied at the hip in the B1G West. Victory Saturday won’t be a season-maker for either team, but it certainly pushes one side toward a successful season and the other to something unsatisfying.
2. Ryan Field — It’s a bottom-tier B1G stadium, but when the Wildcats win, they don’t seem to give a rip. It’s also one of those atmospheres that can lull a team to sleep. Of course, there’s a decent possibility the bleachers are 25 to 40 percent Iowa fans. It’s also a grass field, but NU isn’t going to let it grow to slow down Iowa. They’ll save that for Michigan State next week.
3. Bus ride — Weird factlet for 2017: The Hawkeyes have three bus rides this season. Each Big Ten school determines its method of travel without direction from the league office. Logistics and the difficulty getting to a Chicago airport put the Hawkeyes on a bus to Evanston. Iowa also chooses to bus to Wisconsin and Iowa State. A bus ride after a win isn’t a bad thing. The key phrase there is “after a win.”
Iowa will win if ... it can scratch its way to efficiency on offense. Iowa averages just 3.44 yards on first-down rushes. Flip side is it averages 7.8 yards on first-down throws. There’s a comfort zone in there somewhere, and it’d be good for Iowa to find it and take some air out of the game.
Northwestern will win if ... it rushes somewhere near 200 yards. That would mean NU found its efficiency sweet spot and that Jackson has taken over the game.
Prediction: Iowa 27, Northwestern 24
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