IOWA CITY — During his portion of the weekly Big Ten Conference coaches teleconference on Tuesday, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked who he’d be paying attention to most among the wide receivers filling in for Iowa’s injured wide receiver Matt VandeBerg.
“You know, I wish I had enough time to worry about (Iowa), brother,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got enough problems of our own right now.”
Well, that’s fair enough.
The Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) host Fitzgerald’s Wildcats (1-3, 0-1) on Saturday in Northwestern’s first road game of the season, and while both teams certainly have things to worry about, Fitzgerald’s crew is in a much more precarious situation than that of Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa team.
The Wildcats have been outgained head-to-head in nearly every phase — 177.5-108 yards per game rushing, 257.5-239.5 yards passing per game, they’ve punted more and have a worse net average; time of possession is 33:58-26:02 in favor of opponents. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (16.3 points per game), total defense (435.0 yards per game), pass defense (257.5 yards per game), sacks by (getting 1.5 per game), sacks against (allowing 3.8 per game), opponent first downs (25.3 per game), the aforementioned time of possession and red zone offense (points on 42.9 percent of possessions inside the 20).
Fitzgerald’s team also has been gashed in the run game at a few points this season, ranking 11th (just ahead of Iowa in 12th) in run defense. While that might not seem as dire as the several other bottom-ranked facets of the game, it’s been in run defense where some of the most demoralizing damage has been done.
Northwestern opponents have 159 carries this season for 710 total yards. Among those carries, 25 have been chunk plays (runs of 10 or more yards) for a total of 398 yards — meaning 56 percent of the Wildcats’ opponents’ rushing yards have come in chunks. That was highlighted (or lowlighted, depending on perspective) by 12 chunk plays allowed in the 24-13 loss to Nebraska, including plays of 49 (ended in a fumble), 37 and 32 yards.
Fitzgerald pointed out it was Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong who did the most damage with six of those 12 chunk runs. One-on-one tackling was a major issue.
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“We were great in base run plays (against Nebraska), we unfortunately mishit on the quarterback,” Fitzgerald said. “(It’s) just limiting the explosive plays by tackling in space, hoping we have plus-one at the point of attack, and obviously we’re going to have to get off blocks. Iowa’s front does a great job of not only targeting the right people, but maintaining blocks with great physicality and toughness.”
Iowa doesn’t run the same kind of offense as Nebraska, but its schemes and combination of backs are what Fitzgerald correctly pointed out as the Hawkeyes’ hallmark in the run.
With LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley both showing the big play potential that has hurt Northwestern so much, there’s plenty of opportunity for more on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have 22 chunk plays in the run game this season for 392 yards, making up 61.5 percent of the total rushing yards (128 carries for 637 yards) this season.
Phase strength, meet phase weakness.
And though Hawkeyes players and coaches were quick to acknowledge a rush offense can’t always plan for explosive plays, they can exploit a few things if the execution is there. Daniels and Wadley have nine chunk runs apiece (Daniels a pair of 43-yard touchdown runs).
Especially given the fact that quarterback C.J. Beathard is going to be breaking in some wide receivers who haven’t had a ton of time, taking advantage in the run game will be invaluable.
“(Big runs) are the kinds of things that put points on the board and breaks a defense’s will,” Daniels said. “Especially with Matt being out, we’re going to have to (establish the run). We’re not going to be able to be in third and long situations. … We’re going to have to do a good job staying on schedule and establishing the run so (Northwestern) can’t just sit back and defend the pass game.”
The numbers say the Hawkeyes have a very good chance of digging Northwestern deeper into their current hole.
But Ferentz pointed out there have been plays in back-to-back games where explosive runs (a 62-yarder against North Dakota State and 75-yarder against Rutgers, both by Daniels) were called back by a penalty. While the cut block call on Ike Boettger can be debated, ultimately both plays turn out to be self-inflicted wounds.
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Northwestern has plenty of problems of its own, as Fitzgerald pointed out. Iowa can make them worse, but those chunk plays will likely have to play at least a small part.
“I’d be really happy if we could eliminate some of the mistakes that have kept us from having some big plays,” Ferentz said. “We’ve had about 140 yards of offense and two runs taken off the board, which to me that’s our focus right now is cleaning those kinds of things up. If we get a chance to hit a 60-plus yard run or a 75-yard run that would have been 175, you know, not having it come back, that’s where the focus is.”
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