Iowa Football

No. 20 Iowa at Northwestern: The Big Analysis

This is arm wrestling/meat packing and you might get wet and bloody just watching

No. 20 Iowa takes on Northwestern this Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (The Gazette)
No. 20 Iowa takes on Northwestern this Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (The Gazette)

Welcome to Iowa and Northwestern. Welcome to a game that features the ninth- and 13th-ranked offenses in the Big Ten. Welcome to a game that could very well come down to one misaligned defensive player missing a run fit.

It’s been that way between the No. 20 Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) and Wildcats (1-5, 0-4).

Northwestern has won the last three matchups and is going for its second four-game winning streak over Iowa (the last one was 1926 to 1932). The last two games have a collective score of 27-20.

This is a game that’s going to feel like a chore. The Hawkeyes pride themselves as a team that does its chores.

Iowa showed life after dropping two straight to big dogs Michigan and Penn State. Northwestern has lost four consecutive after last week’s 52-3 loss at the hands of biggest dog Ohio State and is trying to snap its longest losing streak since 2013.

This is a tough sell. If the Hawkeyes take control and win, you’ll forget it five minutes after it happened. If they lose, it’s hard to see a championship scenario for the Hawkeyes and it’ll take awhile to get over it.

Let the field goals begin. First one to 16 wins. Seriously.

The Wildcatters

1. Quarterback struggles — The Wildcats had a quarterback. T.J. Green, son of former NFL QB Trent Green, won the job in camp. He suffered a foot injury in the opener against Stanford and is out for the season.

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NU moved on to Hunter Johnson, a former 5-star recruit who transferred in from Clemson. Green beat him out for a reason. He played in three games and clocked in with yards per attempts of 6.6 (kind of bad), 3.4 (horrific) and 2.8 (next).

Next is Aidan Smith. In his second career start, the 6-2, 215-pound junior, completed 19 of 32 passes for 136 yards and ran 16 times for 64 yards.

It’s an “or” on the depth chart right now, but this looks like Smith’s show.

2. Run for it — Running back Isaiah Bowser (6-1, 215) rushed for 866 yards last season, 99 percent of which came in the final eight games. The NU O-line and Bowser complemented a stingy defense and allowed the Cats to milk clock and win eight of their last 10 games en route to their first Big Ten West Division title.

Bowser was banged up in the opener against Stanford. He’s missed two games and has 165 yards on 48 carries this year. He did return to the lineup last week and gouged out 65 yards against Ohio State.

3. There’s always some number with Northwestern ... — That makes you believe the Wildcats can beat Iowa. Hey, they’re trying for their second four-game winning streak against Iowa since 1932.

This year it’s red zone defense. Iowa is one of three teams in the country that has scored 100 percent (LSU and Notre Dame are the other two) when it has reached the red zone (inside the opponent’s 20). Last week, you can make an argument that Purdue’s red zone defense kept the Boilermakers in it. They held Iowa to two TDs in four red zone reaches. The mantra in the postgame was 7s are still better than 3s.

 

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Yes, the Wildcats have some troubles on offense. The defense has stood up, particularly in the red zone, where Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten, allowing scores just 79 percent of the time.

4. And the other thing ... — The Wildcats have defense in their DNA. Iowa and Northwestern play to their defenses. That is as obvious this year as it is necessary. Case in point: Yes, NU lost to Wisconsin, 24-15, but it held UW to a season-low 243 total yards. For a comparison, in its other six games, Wisconsin has averaged 477 yards of offense.

Linebacker Paddy Fisher leads an experienced group, especially up front. The 6-4, 246-pounder was first-team all-Big Ten last season.

5. Relevant numbers — The Cats have played Michigan State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. They’re 1-5 with six games left. They need to win at least five to be bowl eligible. Backs are against the wall. NU’s schedule this year is one of the toughest in the Big Ten. It’s not as tough as Iowa’s 2020 is going to be (Michigan State, at Ohio State and at Penn State in successive weeks), but it’s time if the Cats want to see the postseason.

On Iowa

1. Conference numbers — Not going to spend a lot of time on this. The numbers will be what they are and are subject to different variables every week. But we do have to review Iowa’s offense and how it has done in the conference that it plays in:

Scoring offense: 11th at 17.8 points per game. Rushing offense: 12th, 91.7 yards per. Passing offense: third at 262.5.

The game of chicken for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz every week is the running game. It’s just a matter of when the run isn’t viable and the pressure mounts on the passing game.

2. No Smith — With Iowa being a passing offense, of course, losing Brandon Smith is just rotten luck.

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The junior was having a career year before he suffered a leg injury last week against Purdue. All the details are out, so why not take a guess on how the reps will go?

Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy was the first name head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week. Tracy is around 5-11, so he doesn’t have Smith’s size (6-2, 218). The fade route probably goes away with Tracy, but he leads Iowa receivers with 10 missed tackles induced this year. Maybe quick flat routes and wide receiver screens.

3. What about Oliver Martin? — There’s simply not enough information to entertain a serious discussion on how much the Iowa City West grad can contribute. He’s fifth in the group in snaps (57). So, don’t know, we’ll see.

If Iowa is looking to replicate Smith’s size outside, you’re probably looking at redshirt freshman Calvin Lockett (6-2, 186) or true freshman Desmond Hutson (6-3, 200).

This will be interesting.

4. More turnovers — Kirk Ferentz asked this out of his defense. Last week, they delivered two and the Hawkeyes scored a TD off a turnover and won the “points off turnover” battle 7-3 in a game that was decided by six points.

You can understand Ferentz’s frustration. The Hawkeyes led the Big Ten with 27 takeaways last season. The defense can’t freak out about this. Pass rush and positioning should come through, but it’s also a mentality and safety Geno Stone reinforced that last week when he crashed a pile and dug out a fumble when Purdue was inside Iowa’s 10.

5. Relevant numbers — Speaking of turnovers, Northwestern is 13th in the Big Ten in turnover margin at minus-6. Junior Keith Duncan leads the nation with 17 field goals. He’s missed just two this year. Think that’ll show up in this arm wrestling deal?

Prediction

Iowa 13, Northwestern 12

This is going to be like going to work at a meat packing plant. You’re going to get wet and maybe bloody.

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

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