Iowa Football

Play Action: Northwestern Wildcats at No. 21 Iowa Hawkeyes

Exactly how everyone thought the Big Ten West would turn out

No. 21 Iowa hosts Northwestern this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)
No. 21 Iowa hosts Northwestern this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. (The Gazette)

Northwestern (5-4, 5-1 Big Ten) comes to Kinnick Stadium with a hold on the Big Ten West Division lead. Holding tiebreakers over Wisconsin and Purdue, the Wildcats need to win two of their last three for their first berth in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. They close with 2-inch putts, at Minnesota and Illinois.

The No. 21 Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3) are playing for as many victories as they can get and the nicest bowl. There’s also a championship scenario, but it’s Iowa wins out and everyone else loses out, so nice bowls.

Kickoff is 2:42 p.m. and the game is on Fox.

The Wildcats’ Vibe

1. Another record-setting senior QB — Trace McSorley, David Blough and now Clayton Thorson. They sound like relatively anonymous members of Cobra Kai, but really are QBs who’ve put the cleats on the Hawkeyes a few times in their careers.

Thorson has started 48 consecutive games for Northwestern. The Wildcats have won nine straight Big Ten West games and six consecutive road games. Northwestern is 12-1 in its last 13 Big Ten West games. That’s controlling its backyard pretty well. Iowa is 8-7 vs. the West in the last three seasons.

Thorson is sort of a “fixer” for Northwestern. He just kind of does what the Wildcats need in the moment. He pulled NU through at Nebraska, directing a nine-play, 99-yard drive with no timeouts to force overtime. His numbers are average, but Northwestern is on the precipice of a program milestone and Thorson has been under center for a lot of big moments. He carries that caginess and makes it work for him.

2. No running game to speak of — Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire at the end of September when he was diagnosed with cervical stenosis. Going into the final weekend of September, Larkin led the Wildcats with 326 rushing yards.

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He still leads. Freshman Isaiah Bowser (6-1, 216) should pass him this week. He’s hit the 90-yard mark in three straight games. Still, Northwestern is deficient here. The Cats are last in the Big Ten at 93.0 yards per game. Northwestern’s 2.6 yards per carry is 128th in the nation.

This sets up for a one-dimensional performance, but NU’s offensive line is a veteran group with three seniors. Maybe it can scratch out something.

3. Northwestern isn’t going to beat itself — The Cats are a lot like the Hawkeyes that way. The programs reflect their head coaches, both of whom were college linebackers.

This season, the Hawkeyes have had a weird relationship with penalties. They had zero against Maryland on Oct. 20, but have had double-digit penalties called twice against them this season and had another eight last week that did haunt them in a two-point defeat at Purdue.

Northwestern lost to Notre Dame, but wasn't flagged. Northwestern is the least penalized team in the country with 26 for 245 yards. Iowa’s 6.1 penalties a game is its most since 7.6 in 2004.

4. Yes, the Cats have another WR made completely of grit and hustle — Senior wide receiver Flynn Nagel was added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list. He’s the second Northwestern WR to make the Biletnikoff list since 2016. Nagel is fourth in the Big Ten with 63 receptions for 744 yards and two TDs.

5. Relevant numbers — Northwestern is tied for 12th (last) in the Big Ten with 12.0 sacks. Junior end Joe Gaziano is the most disruptive of the team’s linemen. He leads the team in sacks (4.5), tackles for loss (8.5) and seven QB hurries.

Northwestern is second-to-last in the league with 104 plays of 10-plus yards. The Cats’ 31 plays of 20-plus is 13th.

What’s Happening With The Hawkeyes?

1. How much 4.0 yards per carry means — Everybody wants that one stat that tells them everything about the Hawkeyes. It’s never that easy. Rushing yards and attempts come pretty close.

In the last four seasons, when the Hawkeyes haven’t averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in a game, they’re 9-13. This year, they managed to beat Iowa State and Minnesota with less than 3.0 yards per carry. The failed to hit 4.0 yards in the last two games, both defeats.

It’s not just the one thing that pushed Iowa over the edge in three games this season. This might explain why Iowa’s offense has looked left-handed the last couple of weeks.

2. Under pressure — Iowa has a grade A pass rush this season. Last week was an exercise in frustration. Even at Penn State with McSorley’s elusiveness, Iowa ended up with 3.0 sacks.

Last week, against a well-conceived and super-fast offense, Iowa managed just one sack. End Anthony Nelson got close a lot, with two QB hits and three hurries, but didn’t get home.

With 26.0 sacks, Iowa’s rush is fourth in the Big Ten. If the Hawkeyes don’t hit double-digit victories but do find their way to 30.0 sacks, that’s going to be an empty feeling. The last two times Iowa hit 30.0 was 2015 (Big Ten West title, Rose Bowl) and 2009 (Orange Bowl victors).

3. Cornerback — It’s really been different this year. Freshmen Julius Brents and Riley Moss opened eyes in August camp, but not enough to win the corner jobs outright. Junior Michael Ojemudia and sophomore Matt Hankins started the first four games.

Ojemudia suffered a hamstring injury, but more or less was replaced by Moss going into Minnesota on Oct. 6. Hankins had a cast on a hand and a hamstring injury. He also was suspended for a disorderly house ticket after the Penn State game. He’s fully back this week and isn’t redshirting.

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This might be the product of the closer evaluation that goes on with the new rule for first-year players. They can play in four games without losing a redshirt. Maybe injuries opened the door for the true freshmen to take over, but Brents and Moss seemed to have a good jump on building equity and trust.

And then last week. There’s still trust. Purdue might be the fastest offense in the Big Ten West. Brents and Moss should bounce back, but what’s turned into a season-long competition at cornerback seems poised for another round.

4. Big Ten kick return leader — Sophomore wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette finally has enough kick returns to qualify for the Big Ten standings. So, he finally leads the Big Ten in kick returns with 31.5 yards per return. It’s a close margin — he averages 1.5 returns a game and needs to be above 1.2 — so he needs to keep returning kicks to keep the crown.

Smith-Marsette has a feel for kick returns. He’s probably getting a little eager to do something from scrimmage. Since three catches for 78 yards, including a 60-yard TD, Smith-Marsette has caught just one pass in each of the last four games.

5. Relevant numbers — Iowa has had four 100-yard receiving performances this season. Tight end T.J. Hockenson has two of those (107 vs. Indiana; 125 vs. Wisconsin). Tight end Noah Fant has one (102 vs. Indiana) and wide receiver Nick Easley has one (103 vs. Northern Iowa). The Hawkeyes had just one last year (Fant with 116 vs. Nebraska).

Iowa’s 12 interceptions is No. 3 in the Big Ten. Last year, with all-American Josh Jackson’s eight picks, the Hawkeyes had 21 interceptions. Iowa’s 17 takeaways are tied for third in the Big Ten.

Even with Purdue’s nine plays of 11-plus yards vs. Iowa, the Hawkeyes are still tied for third in the league having allowed 13 plays of 30-plus yards.

Prediction

Iowa 20, Northwestern 13

Time to put some shine on the season.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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