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Better Know An Iowa Football Opponent 2010: Northwestern Wildcats (Part One)

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.

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

Where the devil do they play?  At Ryan Field, a half-empty glorified high school field where jNW's dozens of fans gather to trade tips on Ferrari detailing and Armani upkeep.  Oh, and to occasionally watch a bit of the "foot-ball."

What did they do last year?  Won some, lost some, lost another bowl game.  Rinse, repeat.  On the bright side, they went to a bowl game for a second consecutive season for just the second time in their history (The other time? 1995-1996, a.k.a. The Big Bang, or The Beginning Of History) and largely maintained the momentum of 2008's 9-win season.  For a program that had grown accustomed to slipping back to life among the Big Ten's dregs for a year or two after every decent season, that's a step forward.

They opened the season with a 47-14 blowout of Towson, but needed a field goal in the closing seconds to avoid blowing a 21-0 lead and heading to overtime against mighty Eastern Michigan (who went 0-12 in 2009).  jNW followed that near-loss with an actual loss against Syracuse -- a Syracuse led by Duke hoopyball refugee Greg Paulus, no less.  The shame in Fitzville only got deeper after they suffered a home loss to Minnesota, but they staunched the bleeding by knocking off Purdue and Miami (OH) in consecutive weeks.  After that, the roller coaster that was the Wildcat season hit another dip as they lost at Michigan State.  The drop was momentarily suspended by a 29-28 win over Indiana that featured them taking advantage of Indiana's own choke-tastic performance before plunging downward again in a 34-13 loss to Penn State in which Mike Kafka, their existential warrior-poet-cum-quarterback, was injured.  Shockingly, a little-used back-up quarterback was rushed into action and unable to pull out a win.  A week later, they returned the favor in the form of the WOOTENOCALYPSE and Iowa fans made their sad faces yet again after a game with Northwestern.  They rode the momentum of the Iowa victory to a pair of wins over ILOLinois and Wisconsin, before crashing back to earth with yet another bowl loss, this time against Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

Much like 2009 Iowa, 2009 Northwestern was XTREEM TO THE BONE, YO and liked to LIVE ON THE EDGE.  Or to put it in vocabulary understandable to those who don't speak the strange tongue of the 15-year old: they played a metric fuckload of close games.  Five of their games were decided by scores in the final three minutes and three more (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin) required late defensive stands by Northwestern to preserve a close win.  They went 6-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less; whether or not they were "lucky" in 2009 has been debated ad nauseum, but they probably aren't going to pull off a record like that again if they play so many close games.\

So do they have, like, history with Iowa?  Well, that depends on your perspective.  They're a longstanding member of the Big Ten and Iowa and jNW have been tangling on a regular basis since 1910, with Iowa holding a lopsided 46-22-3 advantage in the overall series.  Of course, since The Beginning Of History in 1995 (which is crazy because I totally remember the '80s and they were bitchin') Northwestern's held a 9-5 advantage, including wins in four of the last five encounters (and three straight in Kinnick).  The Iowa-Northwestern series took on increased importance among their fanbase when Gary Barnett took over in the '90s and made Iowa the black and gold-clad object of their ire, using as many perceived slights as he could latch onto in order to fabricate a rivalry where none had previously existed.  Having been a player under Barnett, current Wildcat coach Pat Fitzgerald has been all-too-happy to keep the Iowa hate a-flowin'.  

Yet there's a fundamental imbalance in the rivalry; the origins of the hate from the Armani Mafia side of things has as much to do with the fact that Iowa serves as a useful measuring stick for their own program as it does from off-hand comments from Hayden Fry (Hayden liked to quip; only a truly insecure coach or program would get that bent out of shape about a tossed-off one-liner) or getting beaten down 21 years in a row (Iowa was far from the only team to beat the shit out of jNW in the Time Before History Began).  But the reverse is not true at all: there's not an Iowa fan in existence who would measure the Iowa program against the Northwestern program.  

There's also the fact that all of Northwestern's recent wins over Iowa have yet to truly cost them anything of tangible value; indeed, they've usually wound up with a better record and/or better bowl trip anyway.  In 2005, Northwestern won, Iowa lost, the two teams ended up with identical records... and Northwestern went to the Sun Bowl while Iowa went to the Outback Bowl.  In 2006, Northwestern won, Iowa lost... and Northwestern wound up 4-8 and Iowa went 6-6 and went to the Alamo Bowl.  In 2008, Northwestern won, Iowa lost, the two teams ended up with identical records... and Northwestern went to the Alamo Bowl while Iowa went to the Outback Bowl.  In 2009, Northwestern won, Iowa lost... and Northwestern went to the Outback Bowl while Iowa went to the Orange Bowl. Even after the loss last year, Iowa still had an opportunity to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl with a win over Ohio State. Some people would argue that the loss to jNW cost Iowa a shot at a national title last year but (a) even a 12-0 Iowa team wasn't assured a spot over 12-0 Alabama and 12-0 Texas and (b) the pain of that loss would probably feel a lot more acute if they had finished the regular season at 11-1 (call it the 2002 Iowa State principle).  All those recent losses are annoying -- aggravating, even -- but that's true of all losses, particularly of the repeated variety.  Iowa lost a pair of games to Indiana in '06-07 (and more before that in the late '90s and early '00s) and a pair to Western Michigan in the '00s -- that doesn't make them rivals.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: fuck Northwestern.  Our rivalry dance card is pretty full already and we need to find a little room for those arrogant cornhusking folks to the west.  Go find a rival that has time to care about you for more than the one week a year when you're on the schedule.

What's the one thing you should know about Northwestern?  The fact that their own cheerleaders don't even like them ranks pretty high up there, but there's one truly correct answer here -- Pat Fitzgerald is a goddamn evil wizard:


Finally, photographic proof of Fitzgerald's evil wizardness. (H/T to the immortal HFMR, of course.)

Why has Jim Delany never investigated this serious breach of conduct?  Is he operating under the influence of one of Wizgerald's evil spells?  He needs to get this penny ante expansion bullshit squared away so that he can get to the bottom of the real issues affecting the Big Ten, like the black magic being employed at jNW.

How many of these fools were around a year ago?  Six dudes on offense (including 3/5 of the offensive line), six dudes on defense (including all three starters at linebacker), and the punter. 

What should we expect when Northwestern has the ball?  Dink and dunk passing and lots of it.  A Northwestern QB has ranked among the top two in pass attempts in the Big Ten in five of the last six seasons and in each of those seasons the QB in question threw for 400+ attempts... and usually well past that 400 attempt mark.  Last year, for instance, Mike Kafka tossed the ball 492 times, a figure that includes the mind-numbing 78 attempts he had in the Outback Bowl.  Suffice to say, Northwestern likes to hoist the rock and that doesn't seem likely to change, no matter how much lip service they give to concepts like a better running game or a more balanced offense.  After Kafka's one-year residency at the QB1 position, his replacement is expected to be Dan Persa, who went 20/34, 224 yards, 2 TD/2 INT and tacked on 167 rushing yards on 49 carries.  Persa is supposed to be more of a runner and could be expected to help shore up the jNW rushing attack... except we heard largely the same stuff about Kafka last year and he only went and through the ball almost 500 times and led the league in passing yards.  So, yeah, Persa's probably going to chuck it quite a bit and if the track record of jNW QBs in the last decade is any indication, he'll probably be at least decent.

The running game was Northwestern's biggest offensive weakness a year ago; they finished 8th overall in all games among Big Ten teams in rushing the ball (and 9th in conference-only games).  If you factor out sack yardage, Mike Kafka would have been the team's leading rusher by a landslide (almost 200 yards more than the actual leading rusher), albeit at a meager 519 yards.  True freshman Arby Fields was the leading runner among actual running backs (82-302-5), followed by Scott Concannon (68-241-2) and Stephen Simmons (59-233-2).  All three are back this year and between their experience and the experience along the offensive line, it's hard to see the running game being as woeful as it was in '09.  Still, jNW has ranked in the bottom half of the league in rushing in each of the last four seasons; until we see proof to the contrary, we're going to operate under the assumption that none of these guys are the second coming of Darnell Autry or even Noah Herron or Tyrell Sutton.  They're just dudes.

Northwestern's prolific, dink-and-dunk spread passing attack means lots of balls to be caught and lots of gaudy receiving stats.  A year ago, Andrew Brewer (57-925-9) and Zeke Markshausen (91-858-3) led the way, but both guys are off doing copious amounts of blow in their new Porsches out of eligibility, so new faces will need to step up and fill their void.  First in line?  That would be Drake Dunsmore (47-523-3) and Sidney Stewart (47-420-2), last year's third and fourth most productive receivers.  (And, frankly, the fact that jNW has receivers named Drake and Sidney seems utterly right; it's a wonder they haven't lobbied the NCAA to make monocles, ascots, waistcoats, and spats a permanent part of their uniforms; instead they'll have to make do with these retro unis.)  Jeremy Ebert (21-226-0) and Demetrius Fields (24-225-1) are the other primary options at WR; no one else has any experience of note.

Finally, keying the way for the entire Northwestern offensive attack will be an offensive line that returns three of five starters -- everyone but sophomore RT Patrick Ward, who did see action in 12 games a year ago.  C Ben Burkett and LT Al Netter are entering their third years as regular starters; each man has started all 13 games in each of the past two seasons and picked up a little recognition along the way (Burkett was 3rd team freshman All-America two years ago, while Netter was honorable mention All-Big Ten a year ago).  Brian Mulroe and Doug Bartels are the projected starters at guard; Mulroe started the Outback Bowl last year and saw action in four games, while Bartels started 13 games at RG in '09.  This could be one of the Big Ten's better offensive lines in 2010 and if they can find the correct algorithm for the problem that is their AWOL running game, they could have a really potent offense.