5 Things: Iowa football vs. Northwestern

Hawkeyes head to Ryan Field for the third road game of the season

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Bye weeks are (almost) no fun. There’s a lot of waiting, usually not a lot of new information — save for the details offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz gave everyone regarding expectations in the run game and defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s blitz percentages — and on Saturday, boredom.

Well, the back half of the Iowa football season is upon us, and with some very (very) good football teams still ahead on the schedule, getting back in the win column out of the bye week is very important. Iowa heads to Evanston, Ill., to face Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team, so let’s look at 5 Things: Hawkeyes vs. Wildcats.

1. Passing the tests?

On the weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference on Tuesday, Fitzgerald was asked about learning some hard lessons this year. It was a fair question, given the Wildcats have been blown out in two of their three losses. That one of those was to Duke doesn’t play well in B1G country. The third loss, to Wisconsin, involved a failed comeback attempt after being down big.

Fitzgerald is typically a candid man. He was again Tuesday, but with a bit of a caveat.

“I tip my hat to Penn State and Wisconsin; those are two really good defenses (and) we didn’t have the success we needed to have anywhere offensively,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think we’ve flinched. I think our losses are against teams that are (16-3). Those are really good teams. We didn’t play well. At least in two of them we were in the game at halftime.

“Sometimes you get knocked down. The test of a man isn’t whether you get knocked down, it’s if you get back up.”

That’s a fair answer, and one that shouldn’t be surprising from any coach, let alone one as passionate as Fitzgerald.

But looking at Northwestern’s performances both ways: yes, Duke, Penn State and Wisconsin have combined for 16 wins and three losses, but the three wins Northwestern has have come against teams with a combined record of 5-15.

All three of the losses from that first group have been taken by Duke, and all three have come in a row. The Blue Devils have lost to Miami, Virginia and Florida State, the latter two not exactly football juggernauts this year. It makes the Wildcats’ lopsided loss look less acceptable by the week.

Plenty of coaches will tell you a team’s record is all the proof you need about what kind of football team you have. Well, sometimes you’re a .500 team. Northwestern has beaten the teams it should, and lost to the teams it should. That doesn’t make for an imposing opponent on paper. Fortunately for all the teams, they don’t play the games here.

2. In the weeds

Remember back in 2013, when Ohio State went to Ryan Field and the grass looked like it was that overgrowth you see in ditches along county roads — only if it had rained?

That thought came to mind this week because the Hawkeyes head on the road for the third time this year and will play on a natural grass surface for the third time this year. The difference? Iowa State and Michigan State haven’t been the subject of field quality scrutiny like this:

And that was just last season.

Let’s be clear here: things like the long grass and its dampness is a competitive advantage the home team gets, and is a fun part of college football. Patchy, uneven grass is not. To be fair, Northwestern by and large hasn’t had those patchy problems, but they have happened.

Not surprisingly, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz dismissed natural grass vs field turf as a big deal. He joked about needing to go to Iowa City High to simulate the surface (since Iowa’s practice field also is field turf now), though.

“It’s really no big deal,” Ferentz said. “I think this is our third grass game. The good news is that the grass surfaces we play on are really good grass surfaces. It’s not a big factor. I don’t see it being any impact on the game, unless you get into rain and mud, that kind of stuff. I don’t think that’s predicted right now.”

You can bet social media will think it’s a big deal if the field isn’t in good shape Saturday.

3. Fitz the LB

Pat Fitzgerald has a 6-5 record against Iowa as a head coach, including last season, when the Wildcats came to Kinnick Stadium and got October off to a bleak start for the Hawkeyes.

But given Fitzgerald also was twice a consensus All-American at linebacker for Northwestern, it raised some curiosity about how he did as a player against Iowa. He was on the team from 1993-96, not seeing any action as a freshman but being a significant contributor the final three years.

In the 1994 matchup against Iowa, Fitzgerald had five tackles and a fumble recovery in a 49-13 Iowa victory. The next year, Fitzgerald led Northwestern with 10 tackles and a pass breakup as the No. 5 Wildcats beat the Hawkeyes, 31-20, at Ryan Field, though that one came at a cost. Finally, in his senior year, Fitzgerald finished with seven tackles — three of which were for loss — as No. 18 Northwestern handily defeated No. 23 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

So 22 tackles, a PBU, a fumble recovery and three tackles for loss in a 2-1 stretch. I’m guessing Hayden Fry doesn’t have fond memories of Fitz. That 1995 game, some might remember, was the one in which Fitzgerald broke his leg - an injury that kept him from playing in the Rose Bowl. Fitz doesn't have fond memories of Iowa, either, and might even still hold a grudge about that whole thing.

His win at Kinnick as a player, by the way, goes with three other wins as a head coach (Northwestern lost the only game at Kinnick he coached as an assistant).

4. First quarter blues

One thing these two teams for sure have in common: slow starts out of the locker room.

To this point of the season, Iowa and Northwestern have scored a combined 51 points in 12 first quarters. It gets worse if you look at the third quarters, where the teams have scored a combined 41 points. That means, pretty much across the board, that these two teams are playing catch-up to start halves of football. Something has to give on Saturday. Well, maybe.

Both teams have had to battle back from early deficits to win. Iowa State and North Texas spring quickly to mind for Iowa. A 1-6 Nevada team (coached by former Hawkeye Jay Norvell) led Northwestern at halftime of the opener.

Especially for Iowa, getting on the board first allows the ability to play the game you want to play, instead of being forced into a different plan. When asked about starting faster on Tuesday, Ferentz linked it to turnovers.

“You think about two of our turnovers in the red zone, if you want to look at our red zone production, we’ve had three turnovers, I believe, and two of them came in opening drives,” Ferentz said. “So right there in itself, issues are interconnected sometimes. So not turning the ball over. First series of the last game we played and the first series, I believe, North Texas, same thing.

“A lot of times these things are kind of interrelated, just good fundamental football play. If we do a little bit better job in that area, it’ll help our red zone production, it’ll help the ball security issues, help opening series, all those kinds of things linked together.”

5. Against the spread

As of Tuesday, Iowa is a 1.5-point favorite against Northwestern.

Looking at their season-long play from a for-entertainment-purposes-only perspective, it’s basically matched their overall play. The Hawkeyes are 3-3 against the spread this season but have failed to cover both times on the road. The Wildcats are 3-3 against the spread as well, going 1-2 at home.

Again, something’s got to give (shoutout to my LeAnn Rimes-fan readers).

The over/under for this game is 47, which might be the most Big Ten number possible. Iowa is scoring 28.8 points per game while Northwestern sits at 27.5 per game, so the over very much is in play — especially considering the Wildcats are giving up 25.5 per game.

This feels like a game that’s played close throughout, given their styles and where they sit right now.

It also feels like a game everyone should stay away from given how tenuous betting either team has been this year.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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