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Four Factor Friday: Northwestern

An alliterative look at the keys to the game for Iowa against Northwestern tomorrow.

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

In a weird way, Iowa and Northwestern are very similar teams. Yeah, stylistically they aren't anywhere near the same.

Let's start with the running backs. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the polar opposite of Mark Weisman. He's a tiny little guy at 5'8", 175 and very elusive. He gets the ball off of the zone read or option and gets his yards by making guys miss. Of course, Weisman is a big bruiser who isn't making guys miss and only runs out of the zone read when Greg Davis is being stupid. But, both of these guys are the main threat on their respective offenses and both are coming off of injuries. Weisman's ankle is still healing and Mark is coming off what looked like a concussion last week in the 3rd quarter against Nebraska. Both are expected to play.

Then you look at the passing game. Northwestern uses a 2-QB system that has worked out as bad as you would expect with any 2-QB system. And of course, Iowa has its own problems throwing the ball. When you look at the passing numbers in conference play, the 2 teams are very similar. Iowa is completing 52.4% of its passes, averaging 5.1 yards per attempt, and 171.7 yards per game. Northwestern is completing 56.8% of its passes, averaging 5.0 yards per attempt, and 159.5 yards per game.

A couple of others:

  • Both teams have good kick returners. Mark is an excellent punt returner and NW is 3rd in the country on punt returns. But they are also 117th in kick returns. Iowa, on the other hand has a good kick returner in Jordan Cotton, but punt returns have been pretty non-existent.
  • Iowa and NW are top 25 in turnover margin. Turnovers in Iowa games come primarily on interceptions by both teams (7 INTs gained, 5 thrown). Northwestern though, is more of a fumble forcing/fumbling team (12 fumbles gained, 5 lost).

On to the factors.

Play assignment defense

Iowa is well known for playing a simple defense, but playing it well. Every defender knows precisely where they should be on any given play. That's the way it's been for years under Norm Parker.

This year it has been a little shaky at times. Phil Parker hasn't really changed much of anything, but there have been missed assignments at times. A linebacker fills the wrong hole and suddenly the opposing QB is rushing for a 70-yard TD. A safety takes the wrong angle and a should be 10 yard pass now goes for 40.

Against Northwestern, and specifically against tiny and speedy running back Venric Mark, the Hawkeyes can't afford these defensive mistakes. One player out of position and Mark will be flying down the sideline on his way to 6 points. QB Kain Colter can hurt you on the ground too, and the two of them running read option plays can be tough to defend.

Attack the corners

Northwestern's passing defense has been pretty awful this year. They are 10th in B1G in pass efficiency defense and dead last in passing yards allowed per game.

To make matters worse (or better for the Hawks) is that the secondary has been decimated by injuries. Safety Hunter Bates has been out for a few weeks and isn't expected to play tomorrow. Both cornerbacks (Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans) are also out. So they're down to a bunch of sophomores back there trying to defend the pass.

So, Iowa needs to, needs to, try and take advantage of the Wildcat's poor pass defense. I don't know how they're going to do it with James Vandenberg, but if there's any week for him to rebound and get on the right track, this is it.

Keenan Davis has proven that he can make plays one-on-one against a corner. He can go downfield and make catches in coverage, and he can take a short passes, make a move, and get some yards after the catch.

So last week I said, get it to the tight ends, this week I say get it to the outside and attack the young corners.

Keep it close

Iowa started really, really slow against Penn State and then let things completely spiral out of control. Even if Iowa starts slow tomorrow, it needs to keep its head in the game and keep within striking distance because Northwestern is a bad 4th quarter team.

In the two games they lost this year, Northwestern held a 2 score lead in the 4th quarter only to squander it. On the season, NW is being outscored 63-48 in the 4th quarter.

Iowa has been a pretty solid 4th quarter team. With the game on the line Mike Meyer, has been great and the offense has put together important drives. Against NIU, Iowa scored a late TD to win. MSU, a late TD to take the game to OT. CMU, well, a late TD that should have sealed the game.

So the Hawks just need to stay within striking distance and come up with a big play when it's needed in the 4th quarter. Maybe try an outside zone to the left on 3rd down or something. That seems to work.

Have the bigger return

The aforementioned Venric Mark isn't just a slippery running back, he's also a deadly returner. He leads the nation averaging over 25 yards per punt return. That is just insane. On kick returns though, he hasn't been as effective (kind of weird, right?) and is averaging just 16 yards. I imagine he could still easily break lose on a kickoff though.

For Iowa, Jordan Cotton has emerged as a pretty solid returner of his own. He has had kickoffs that he's run back for TDs in back-to-back weeks (yeah, one was negated by a penalty).

With neither team really having much of a passing offense, I don't expect a lot of points to be put up on the board, so a big return either way could really swing this game.


Kirk Ferentz does not lose two games in a row very often. There is no way Iowa comes out and looks a terrible as they did against Penn State. I think the passing game looks better against NW's beat up secondary and the defense finally, after years, figures out a way to limit the Wildcat's short passing game.

Mark Weisman gets 2 TDs and Mike Meyer redeems himself with a couple of big FGs.

Final Score: Iowa 23 - Northwestern 21