Better Know An Iowa Football Opponent: Northwestern Wildcats (Part Two)

The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it?  By looking ahead to next year, of course.  So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored).  Next up: meow mix.

In case you missed it... PART ONE

NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS (@ Evanston, IL; November 13, 2010)

OK, what should we expect when Northwestern doesn't have the ball?  One of the strengths of the 2010 Northwestern defense should be a position near and dear to Pat Fitzgerald's heart -- the linebackers.  All three starters from 2009 return, led by outside linebacker Quentin Davie, who had 90 tackles (11.5 TFL), 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 1 INT last year.  He's the defender garnering most of the preseason plaudits -- Phil Steele named him 2nd team All-Big Ten and ESPN's Adam Rittenberg listed him in his preseason top 25 player rankings.  Joining him at LB are Ben Johnson and Nate Williams; Johnson had 28 tackles (3.5 TFL), 1 sack, and 1 INT in '09, while Williams has made 18 starts in his previous three years at jNW amassing 158 tackles, including 86 (7 TFL) last year, along with one sack and two interceptions.  The guys behind that trio, sophomores Roderick Goodlow and David Nwabuisi and junior Bryce McNaul, have seen limited playing time so far, so depth could be a concern.

The Wildcat secondary should take a hit in 2010, after the loss of a pair of All-Big Ten performers in CB Sherrick McManus and FS Brad Phillips.  Jordan Mabin is a returning starter and strong option at CB; he had 75 tackles and two interceptions a year ago; the problem is who will be joining him in the secondary.  The currently slated starters look a bit green; Jordan Vaughn is currently expected to slot in at the CB spot opposite Mabin, but he started just one game a year ago and had only seven tackles.  There's a bit more experience at the safety spots: SS Brian Peters started five games and had 67 tackles in '09 (3.0 TFL) and three interceptions, though FS Jared Carpenter had just 17 tackles in '09.  His primary back-up, David Arnold, at least appeared in nine games and had 34 tackles a year ago.  Mabin is very solid, but this secondary could still end up getting picked apart quite often if their new faces don't emerge as consistent starters quickly.

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The potato is out of eligibility, thank god. via (who else?) HFMR

Finally, the defensive line returns two starters from a year ago, DE Vince Browne and DT Corbin Bryant.  Browne is the other relative standout on the jNW defense, alongside Mabin and Davie; he had 39 tackles (8 TFL) a year ago and should be the leader of the defensive line in 2010.  Bryant, the other returning starter on the line, had 30 tackles in 13 starts a year ago.  They're slated to be joined by newbies Kevin Watt and Jack DiNardo (and, yes, he is related to BTN talking head Gerry DiNardo -- he's the elder DiNardo's nephew).  DiNardo's had a quiet career thus far at jNW: just six total tackles through two years, but he's appeared in 16 games, so it shouldn't be a totally new experience.  Watt had 10 tackles and two sacks in limited action a year ago; he's also a ginger.  Quentin Williams and Niko Mafuli could also work their way into the mix; Williams had 14 tackles and one interception a year ago, while Mafuli had six tackles (1.5 TFL) in 2010.  

And just how "special" are their special teams?  With Stefan Demos, one of the goats of the Outback Bowl loss, still around?  Oh, pretty damn special... just not special in the "Lou Groza or Ray Guy Award frontrunner" sense.  A year ago, Demos handled placekicking and punting and excelled at neither; he was adequate at kicking (18/25, although two missed extra points is certainly concerning), at least until a diabolical performance in the Outback Bowl (0/2 FG, 3/4 XP).  While Demos was mostly solid as a kicker in '09, he was a below-average punter, averaging just 35.0 yards per kick (31.7 ypk net), which is probably why he's slated to be replaced by redshirt freshman Brandon Williams -- it won't take much for him to be a better option at punter than Demos.

Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen?  Let's get it out of the way right away: yes, Northwestern has won four of the last five from Iowa, including three in a row at Kinnick Stadium.  Yes, they've had Iowa's number in recent years (and further back, as their 8-5 series record since 1995 would suggest).  Yes, if you put a lot of stock in that particular trend, the obvious (only?) pick is Northwestern.  Does that mean we're going to call it a day and write this one off as a loss to our good friends at just Northwestern?  Hell no.

So why do we think Iowa has a good shot to reverse jNW's recent run of success in this series?  For one thing, it's because while we tip our caps to Northwestern for making just enough plays to be the better team on a given day, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge the utterly bizarre, fluky circumstances in those games.  And look, it's not just us saying that -- it's Northwestern head coach and living legend Pat Bitchgerald Fitzgerald saying it

"I don’t think we’ve had a secret, I think we’ve been fortunate," Fitzgerald said. "When we’ve won, we’ve won the turnover battle. And that doesn’t matter if you’re playing Iowa or Illinois State or Vanderbilt or anybody on our schedule. You’ve got to be able to take care of the football.

"You look at last year; we get a freak play and we get a turnover in the end zone. So now we have momentum. That whole game changed on one play. It’s football, man. You get lucky. You get fortunate."

The 2005 team needed a perfectly-placed onside kick to pull out a win.  The 2008 team recovered four fumbles (including one apiece by Andy Brodell and Amari Spievey on punt and kick returns, Iowa's only lost fumbles on returns all season) and knocked out Iowa's best offensive weapon (Shonn Greene).  The 2009 team forced four second-quarter turnovers (one of which was Brandon Wegher's only lost fumble of the season) including the aforementioned "freak play," a play which not only handed Northwestern a giftwrapped seven points, but also (again) knocked out Iowa's best offensive weapon (Ricky Stanzi this time).  The 2006 team didn't need any particular breaks aside from overcoming their own inherent inconsistency and lousy play (that same team got pantsed by New Hampshire, 34-17, earlier in the season, and set a D-I record by blowing a 35-point lead against Michigan State).  But in three of their last four wins they needed a lot of things to break their way -- key in-game injuries, a cornucopia of turnovers, a picture-perfect special teams play with a low percentage of success -- and they all did... and jNW still won those three games by a combined margin of 13 points.  It's not just that Northwestern outsmarts or outschemes Iowa or merely takes advantage of known flaws in Iowa's gameplan (although they do some of that, too, as evidenced by the pair of interceptions they've snared in zone blitzes the last two season), it's that they get the strange, "happens once a season" plays as well -- and they get them multiple times in a single game.  

But simply expecting that good fortune to turn and average out isn't the only - or even primary - reason why we like Iowa to reverse its recent rend of misery against Northwestern.  The fact that it's a road game isn't at all daunting; even without looking at the tremendous success Iowa had on the road in 2009, Ryan Field is one of the worst home field environments in the Big Ten -- hell, Iowa managed to win there during their painful 2007 season with Jake Christensen at the helm, a game that also featured some of the earliest breakout performances from two young defensive linemen -- Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, now two of the senior anchors on the current beastly Iowa defense.  We like a lot of the matchups, too, like Iowa's veteran secondary facing a relatively young quarterback (and a less experienced set of receivers than what they had a year ago) or Iowa's veteran quarterback and receivers facing a relatively young secondary.  And we like some of the intangible factors, like the fact that Stanzi & Co. are surely a little pissed off to have lost two such bizarre games to Northwestern in '08 and '09... not to mention the fact that last year's loss cost Iowa a chance at a perfect season.  Revenge is typically an overrated motivation in college football, but in this case it really might have some merit.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of reasons to be wary of this game.  Its placement on the schedule -- a week before the potentially epic clash with Ohio State in Iowa City -- screams "trap game."  The dink-and-dunk offense employed by jNW has had a fair amount of success against Iowa also; not necessarily in terms of points scored (taking away the seven points gifted to them by Stanzi's fumble in the endzone, the jNW offense scored just 10 points last year, on the heels of 22, 17, and 21-point outbursts in the three games before that) but in terms of frustrating the Iowa defense and controlling possession (in particular, last year's team managed to control the ball for over 34 minutes, which kept Iowa from having more opportunities to even the score).  There's the fact that no matter who the Wildcats throw in there at QB, they seem to play well against Iowa -- Brett Basanez, C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, now Dan Persa...

Look, at some point the Herky voodoo doll that Gary Barnett made and passed down to Pat Fitzgerald is going to run out of juice.  At some point the fact that Iowa has better players is going to matter.  At some point jNW isn't going to have all (or almost all) of the bounces go precisely their way.  At some point Norm Parker will add some wrinkles to the defense that will stymie the jNW offense.  At some point Iowa's matchup advantages will be decisive.  And dwe think "at some point" is going to be this year.  It will probably still be close, but Iowa wins.

So how's the rest of their season gonna play out?  We gave Indiana a lot of grief a few days ago for their woeful non-conference schedule and rightfully so -- it's an absolute dog of a schedule, full of lousy non-BCS and I-AA teams.  But at least they manage to balance it out a little bit with a solid conference slate (they do play Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State).  According to Phil Steele, Northwestern has not just the easiest schedule in the conference -- they have the easiest schedule among all BCS squads (94th toughest in his rankings).  With a schedule like that, it would be one hell of a surprise if jNW didn't make history and reach their third consecutive bowl game.  In fact, they could get off to a very fast start with their schedule.

The Wildcats loaded all of their non-conference foes into September, opening with a road game against Vanderbilt, then entertaining Illinois State before heading back on the road to Rice, and wrapping up the month at home against Central Michigan.  On paper, that's a schedule that should enable jNW to jump out to a quick 4-0 start.  Vanderbilt is a consensus pick to finish at the bottom of the SEC East.  Illinois State was a middling (6-5) FCS team a year ago and they aren't among the preseason top 25 in 2010, either.  Rice is projected to finish near the bottom of Conference USA.  Central Michigan is the one team among that group that's expected to be any good; they've been tabbed by most previews to finish 1st or 2nd in the MAC West.  That said, they're still a MAC team and Northwestern is still a Big Ten team and the latter usually beats the former.  

Yet one of the reasons Northwestern is just Northwestern is because they don't always win game like this, games that they absolutely should win.  No one wins all of those "should win" games... but few ostensibly good teams lose as many of them as jNW has in recent years.  One of the most astounding stats noted by Phil Steele in his jNW preview is that the Wildcats are just 1-3 in road games against non-BCS teams over the last six years;  in other words, they've only won 25% of the time when they go on the road against MAC-caliber opposition.  Then again, losing to non-BCS opposition is not a radically new phenomenon for jNW; even in their magical 1995 campaign, their lone pre-Rose Bowl defeat came not at the hands of then-heavyweights like Michigan or Notre Dame... but at the hands of Miami.  The Ohio Miami, not the Florida one.  Moreover, jNW just can't seem to stand any level of prosperity in the early going of a season.  A year ago, they dropped a road game at the Carrier Dome to a poor Syracuse team.  In 2007, they dropped a home game to Duke.  In 2006 they got absolutely blasted by New Hampshire and dropped a road game to Nevada.  In 2005 they got blitzed on the road by Arizona State.  Over the last decade, the only year in which they haven't dropped an early season game was 2008, when they started out 5-0 and swept their non-conference opposition.  Which is to say: they should beat Vanderbilt, Illinois State, Rice, and Central Michigan... but don't be surprised if they drop one of those games anyway.  

The slate gets only marginally more difficult when the calendar flips to October and jNW dives into conference play; their October slate features road games with Minnesota and Indiana sandwiched around home games with Purdue and Michigan State (and a bye week).  Those are four eminently winnable games and it's not that far-fetched to imagine the Wildcats at 9-0 heading into November.  Except that they're just Northwestern and that sort of thing just doesn't happen to them -- they typically find a way to screw it up somehow and drop games they shouldn't and it doesn't take much imagination to see them losing to any (or all) of those teams in 2010.  They did lose to both Minnesota and Michigan State in '09 and needed semi-bizarre circumstances to escape both Purdue and Indiana in 2010.  Frankly, a 2-2 split in October wouldn't be the worst result imaginable tor them, though 3-1 seems pretty possible, too.

But while the scheduling gods giveth with the first two months of the season, they taketh away in November, which features two road games with Penn State and Wisconsin lumped around a pair of home games with Iowa and Illinois.  The Illinois game is the much-hyped return of football to Wrigley Field and should be an interesting clash, as well as perhaps a massive distraction to the jNW players, coaches, and fans (yes, all 12 of them).  Indiana had them on the ropes a year ago, before letting up and ultimately losing the game.  Two of Northwestern's three wins over Penn State came in 2003 and 2004, when PSU was utterly miserable; against respectable PSU outfits, jNW hasn't had much in the way of success.  They have had plenty of good fortune against Iowa, but for reasons detailed above, we're still pegging Iowa to get the win this year.  A 2-2 mark in these four games would be excellent; 1-3 might be most likely.  All told, Northwestern seems likely to finish somewhere in the range of 6-6 to 8-4, either of which would be good enough to send them to a third straight bowl.

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