116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. NORTHWESTERN RUSH DEFENSE
Northwestern wins games with its defense. Until last week's kind-of implosion at Michigan (the Wolverines scored 38 points, but 14 of those were on special teams and an INT return), the Wildcats had only allowed 35 points through the previous five weeks and threw two shutouts. Saturday, NU is honoring the 1995 Northwestern team, which punched its way to the Rose Bowl with a monster defense. This group is following a similar path.
The Wildcats play a base 4-3 defense and quarters coverage, but defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has more speed to work with this season. This allows the Cats to be more aggressive and this is embodied in sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Walker (6-1, 235). Walker has been the Big Ten defensive player of the week twice this season. He simply gets to the ball, which shows in 9.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
The Cats control what offenses can do by winning third downs. NU is No. 7 in the nation in opponent third-down conversions (24.72 percent). In wins over Duke (5-1) and Minnesota (4-2), NU forced offenses to go 8.4 yards and 7.4, on average, on third down. By the way, there are a few anomalies (Kent State, most notably), but the top 10 teams in opponent third-down conversions are a collective 42-15 this season.
During Tuesday's media session, senior running back Jordan Canzeri (third in the Big Ten with 697 rushing yards) spent his entire time leaning against a steel beam. Give him a break, a school record 43 carries will do that to a guy. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week another running back will play against Northwestern — sophomores Derrick Mitchell and Akrum Wadley are the only candidates with junior LeShun Daniels out this week with an ankle injury — but let go of that. Canzeri might be the healthiest player on the offense.
Ferentz said of the offensive line this week: 'We'll just have to keep practicing several guys at several spots, because depending on where the water starts coming in the boat, that's where we've got to make the repairs and shift guys.'
The core remains intact with center Austin Blythe and guards Jordan Walsh and Sean Welsh. They remain Iowa's best foot forward that's not in a walking boot immobilizer thingie.
IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. NORTHWESTERN PASS DEFENSE
Northwestern's secondary calls itself 'Sky Team.' It has a hashtag and everything. Does NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald strike you as the kind of coach who would say 'cool' to a unit nickname if he didn't feel it was at least somewhat warranted? No. Northwestern has allowed just two passing TDs through six games with five interceptions.
The Cats will be without cornerback Matthew Harris, who suffered facial fractures last week against Michigan. He leads NU with three interceptions. Senior cornerback Nick VanHoose and senior safety Traveon Henry combine for 56 career starts. VanHoose finished with 12 pass breakups in 2014 and earned second-team all-Big Ten. Harris' loss is important. The Cats were able to allow Harris and VanHoose to lock up receivers in man coverage, giving NU the confidence and flexibility to blitz on third down.
Northwestern has turned up its pass rush in its two Big Ten games, racking up six sacks. Even in defeat last week, NU managed three sacks with senior DE Deonte Gibson (6-3, 265) collecting 2.5. Senior DE Dean Lowry (6-6, 290) gives NU an excellent set of experienced DEs. Sophomore DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (6-3, 250) also showed great rush last week with a hit and a couple of hurries.
You've seen Iowa use a 'speed' package on third downs, calling it 'raider.' Northwestern has something similar called 'NASCAR,' with a swirling array of coverages and personnel.
Iowa's pass offense has undergone a bit of a revival under first-year starter C.J. Beathard, who's efficiency (141.21) and decision making have been wildly underrated. It is, however, a somewhat delicate element. Beathard has taken a lot of hits (nearly 20 the last two weeks). He is nursing hip and groin injuries and was limited in practice this week. He says he's playing Saturday. Ferentz says he's counting on him. Maybe the force be with him?
True freshman wide receiver Jerminic Smith took major steps from his first start to last week's four-catch, 118-yard performance. Consider this measure: Tevaun Smith, who Jerminic Smith replaced and who'll be out again this week with a sprained knee, has had one 100-yard receiving effort in 39 career games. Jerminic Smith has one in six.
Senior tight end Jake Duzey continues to progress, but Henry Krieger Coble and George Kittle have provided a nice mix of short-area and long-range targets, respectively. They've combined for six catches, 228 yards and three TDs.
Junior left tackle Cole Croston has held up well in pass blocking. This will be his third career start and he'll be the veteran in the tackle duo. True freshman James Daniels is slated to become the first true freshman to start at tackle in Ferentz's 16-plus seasons.
This will shape Iowa's attack. It remains to be seen how, but between Beathard's limited mobility and a true freshman right tackle, this will shape Iowa's attack.
NORTHWESTERN RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
You think you have a running back with a lot of carries? Ha! Northwestern has THE running back with all of the carries. Sophomore Justin Jackson (5-11, 190) leads the nation with 150 carries through six games (661 yards, 4.41 yards per carry). Jackson is a physical marvel and seems to have the kind of attitude that fits perfectly at Northwestern.
The music kind of stopped for him and the Wildcats last week against Michigan. Jackson was limited to 25 yards on 12 carries. If you're Iowa, you probably throw away that video and go off something more like the 20 carries for 120 yards he had against Minnesota.
The Cats' O-line received a boost last week with the return of senior left tackle Geoff Mogus (6-5, 305). It's a veteran, athletic group. One of NU's go-to running plays is a scheme rush that asks the center and tackle to pull and try to pin linebackers inside and set an edge.
You've heard that term, 'setting the edge,' a lot in the last few years regarding Iowa's defense. When the Hawkeyes broke last season, the edge was a problem (Minnesota, Tennessee). It's been steady this season, but this week will be different without senior DE Drew Ott, who was lost for the season last week with a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Parker Hesse (6-3, 240) has the demeanor for this, but he will be in the crosshairs.
Beyond D-line, outside linebacker Ben Niemann has been a huge reason why Iowa has been better on the perimeter this season. Around 75 percent of the time, Niemann, the strongside linebacker, is asked to set an edge. He's come through quite a bit this season. On the backside, fifth-year senior Cole Fisher also has been solid at setting an edge.
Iowa's rush defense (fifth in the nation at 78 yards per game) has 'pinned' a couple of offenses in the rush game this season. Wisconsin and Illinois were reduced to one dimension for the most part. Iowa's defense has shown it can win in the phone booth game.
NORTHWESTERN PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson (6-4, 220) has gained confidence throughout the season, but he had his struggles against a Michigan defense that is the best in the Big Ten right now. He completed 13 of 27 passes for 106 yards and an interception that was returned for a TD. The Cats have allowed 8.0 sacks this season, and Michigan didn't allow Thorson to find a comfort level, with pressure coming on 17 of 30 dropbacks.
NU found itself compressed by excellent coverage. Thorson completed only 3 of 10 passes targeted more than 10 yards downfield. Superback/tight end Dan Vitale is a talent (16 catches for 207 yards and two TDs). WR Christian Jones has bounced back from a knee injury that cost him 2014 (16 catches, 179 yards). Wide receiver Austin Carr, who leads NU with 23.2 yards a catch (six for 139 and two TDs), wasn't listed on Monday's depth chart.
Northwestern didn't stay on schedule against Michigan and that put a lot of pressure on Thorson. The Cats also haven't been particularly explosive this season, sitting 13th in the Big Ten in plays of 20-plus (20) and 30-plus (seven) yards.
Iowa's secondary matches up well here. The question for the Hawkeyes will be pass rush. Ott was one of the league's premier pass rushers. When you have a DE who can rush the blind side and who had two strip/sacks on his resume already this season, you have something.
As you know, defensive coordinator Phil Parker isn't huge on blitzes. He's comfortable with 20 percent, and the Hawkeyes have been under that during Big Ten play. With two weeks of good looks at what Iowa has done with the raider (third-down pass package), the patterns are apparent. The linebackers cover the running back, spy the QB and/or blitz. Does Parker 'go for it' by peeling off someone covering a slot receiver? It's something Iowa has shown. Who feels like taking risks? Really, who does? One of these staffs will and it will be something.
Northwestern allowed a 96-yard TD return on the opening kickoff at Michigan and never seemed to catch its breath. The Wildcats are 11th in the league in covering kicks, allowing 22.4 yards. That might not sound like a make-or-break number, but offense in this game could potentially be frozen ketchup coming through a frozen ketchup bottle.
Invisible yards (field position) are going to be a thing. Where else are they? Northwestern leads the conference with a kind of nutty minus-1.6 yards on five punts returned against it this season. Iowa is 13th in the league, allowing 14.14. Iowa's Dillon Kidd is No. 2 in the league with 46.1 yards per punt. NU's Hunter Niswander is 13th with 38.1.
Iowa cornerback Desmond King is No. 2 in the league with 15.7 yards on 10 punt returns and is sixth in kick returns (22.5). Northwestern counters with running back Solomon Vault, who's No. 2 in the B1G with 28.89 yards on nine kick returns.
Iowa kicker Marshall Koehn has 22 touchbacks (No. 2 in the league); NU's Matt Micucci has six (tied for 13th).
With an offense that is dealing with key injuries, Iowa needs to score a decisive knockout here.
1. Honoring '95 — Northwestern shocked the world in 1995 (no seriously, that could happen in 1995) when the Wildcats stormed the Big Ten and landed in its first Rose Bowl since 1936. Gary Barnett coached the Wildcats then and wrote a book about it (High Hopes: Taking the Purple to Pasadena). Iowa was a chapter in that book. Barnett set up the Hawkeyes as a 'goal' program, but that quickly shifted to 'vengeance' when, after a 56-14 Iowa victory in 1992 — one of 21 straight Iowa scored against the Cats — former Iowa coach Hayden Fry asked Barnett, 'I hope we didn't hurt any of your boys.'
It's a fun story, nothing more really. Barnett will be on hand Saturday. Fitzgerald is smart enough to know moto wears out after running out onto the field.
2. Oh no, wait, the 'rivalry' thing works both ways — You could totally argue that Northwestern punctured the Hawkeyes in pretty big ways in 2009 and 2010. The '09 game was the one in which QB Ricky Stanzi suffered a shattered ankle and Iowa watched an early lead and a 9-0 start go up in flames. The Hawkeyes win that game and they're 10-0 headed into Ohio State with their senior QB instead of a redshirt freshman (James Vandenberg) making his first start. If Iowa beats the Cats that year, it would've won a share of the Big Ten title even with the loss at Ohio State. In 2010, the Cats ended Iowa's shot at playing for a share of the B1G title with a 14-point fourth quarter that pushed them to a 21-17 victory.
So lately, Iowa really should be the hater and not the hatee in this rivalry. Yes, rivalry. Ferentz made note of that this week. The 21 consecutive victories Iowa hung on the NU program is ancient history.
'Not to be disrespectful, but I think sometimes we have a perception problem here,' Ferentz said. 'Like some people are living in the '80s.'
3. Stiff-upper lip — This was one of those weeks where stoic Ferentz needed to throw the right vibe. We've been over the injuries the Hawkeyes are facing this week. Of course, Ferentz doesn't allow his players to sulk about who's not there. He certainly didn't whine during talk day on Tuesday.
'It doesn't do any good to cry about what you don't have and what could have been and all that stuff,' Ferentz said. 'It's really kind of counterproductive. So, there's really no sense talking about it.'
It won't heal anything, but when you have a true freshman starting at right tackle, you need to hit the right notes.
IOWA WILL WIN IF ... It might not be a matter of 'if' Beathard is limited, but more like 'how much?' If Iowa is forced to take the play-action passes out of its playbook, that's a big edit. Iowa will have to rush for 200-plus yards to hang in this. Expect the defense to hold up its end of the bargain. If Iowa wins, punter Dillon Kidd might be one of the stars.
NORTHWESTERN WILL WIN IF ... Does this game come down to which offense can rush for 200 yards? It can't be that easy. Northwestern can't allow Iowa to hurt it through the air. Beyond the 200 rushing yards and the control that comes with that, which offense can get off explosive plays? OK, maybe it really is as easy as the 200 yards rushing.
PREDICTION: Northwestern 21, Iowa 14
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