Following a disappointing performance on both sides of the ball against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights this past Saturday, the Hawkeyes will look to bounce back against one of the worst teams in the Big Ten this weekend — the Northwestern Wildcats.
Coming into the season, Northwestern was pegged as a team that was possibly in the mix to win the Big Ten West. However, after a loss in the season opener against, in fairness, a good Western Michigan team and losses at home against Illinois State and Nebraska, Northwestern has gone from a program with Big Ten title aspirations to a team with a record of 1-3 on the outside looking in at the postseason picture.
An Offensive Line in Shambles
Arguably the most concerning part of this meltdown has been the atrocious offensive line play Northwestern has displayed in each game this season.
With a starting unit made up of two seniors, a junior, and two sophomores, experience really isn’t the issue here — it’s just not an overly talented unit. Through the first four games, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has been sacked 15 times — I’m not making this up — which makes the second-most sacked quarterback in FBS college football.
In regards to possible improvement, there’s really not one specific thing you can identify as the sole problem with this unit, as they’ve struggled to get any kind of push in the run game, they’ve struggled mightily in pass protection — especially when having to defend defensive stunts. They’ve lacked discipline in regards to committing penalties, and looked unbalanced or uncoordinated when asked to perform in space.
Coming into this game, the Hawkeyes have struggled to get much penetration up front on the defensive side of the ball. If that remains the case this Saturday, the coaching staff and fans should be really concerned as they progress through the Big Ten schedule.
A Fight for Every Yard
There’s no denying that Wildcats starting running back Justin Jackso, has been a shining light for this Northwestern program over recent years, as he’s amassed nearly 3,000 yards rushing in under three seasons with the team. However, when you’re forced to run behind an offensive line that’s performed as poorly as Northwestern’s has, running backs will be asked to break tackles, make defenders miss, and fight for every yard. That’s exactly what Jackson has done this season.
In previous seasons, the Wildcats offense has predicated itself on their ability to control the clock and progress down the field with a strong running game. This is not one of those seasons. Northwestern’s offense ranks 119th out of 128 FBS teams in yards per carry with 3.1.
Picking Up Where the Offense Left Off
Along with the offensive woes that this Wildcats team has experienced, things haven’t gone much better on the defensive side of the ball, as demonstrated by their poor showing in their most recent contest against Nebraska.
This past Saturday, the Wildcats’ defense gave up a whopping 310 yards on the ground and 556 yards in total. Although the final score only ended up being a difference of 11 points, that was aided by two Nebraska fumbles at the goal line; the final score should’ve appeared much worse than it actually did.
With all that said, there actually is a bright spot on this Northwestern defense and it comes in the form of junior safety Godwin Igwebuike.
In the Nebraska game, Igwebuike made plays all over the field, as he would register 15 total tackles, two tackles for loss, and one forced fumble in the loss.
With Igwebuike, the Wildcats coaching staff is able to line him practically anywhere on the defense, as he’s a sure tackler when asked to play up near the line of scrimmage and he’s talented enough to make plays in coverage on the backend.
Fitzgerald Monday press conference occurring right now. Fitz thought Jaylen Prater was "very active" during the game.— Inside NU (@insidenu) September 26, 2016
In addition to Igwebuike, the Wildcats have also seen some impressive linebacker play from senior Jaylen Prater, whose performance against Nebraska was characterized as “very active” by head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Lastly, a player who many fans around the Big Ten are aware of is junior linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. The reason I have yet to mention him is that he just hasn’t looked like the talented and productive player I saw last season. Whether it’s the missed tackles, the poor angles, or simply the lack of plays he’s made on the ball this season, Walker just hasn’t been much of a factor on defense for the Wildcats this season and it’s big reason why, overall, this defense hasn’t been as effective thus far.
Through four games this season, the Wildcats’ defense has given up 1,740 total yards or 435 yards per game; 177.7 yards per game on the ground and 257.5 yards per game through the air.
All things considered, Hawkeye fans should expect a big day on the ground from both Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels.
“When it rains…”
Heading into this Saturday, this Wildcats team appears to be in complete disarray on both sides of the ball and even on special teams, where Fitzgerald has announced that there is now an open competition at kicker coming on the heels of last week’s game, as the coaching staff witnessed senior kicker, Jack Mitchell, miss a 27-yard field goal followed by a missed extra point later in the game.
When you take the time to consider all of the issues this Wildcats team is facing, there’s no real reason why the Hawkeyes should come out looking flat on both sides of the ball, as you couldn’t really ask for a better “get-back-on-track” game than this one. If the Hawkeyes are able to execute, this game shouldn’t be all that close.