The Northwestern Wildcats come to town this weekend for homecoming, and it should be a good matchup to get the Hawkeyes back on track. Iowa defeated Northwestern 40-10 last year in Evanston by way of 204 yards and 4 TDs by Akrum Wadley (and 79 yards on the ground by Derrick Mitchell), while annihilating them in Iowa City in 2014 by a final score of 48-7, behind 100+ yards by Wadley and 96 yards and 3 TDs by Mark Weisman. As of late, Iowa has been able to run the ball on the Wildcats, which should provide some hope for fans as the offensive line has been inconsistent this season.
While Iowa has been inconsistent at best this season, Northwestern hasn’t been any better. One could look to the 1-3 record to see that, but to get a better read on it, I talked to Zach Pereles from Inside NU to see what we could expect from the ‘Cats in this week’s game. Spoiler alert: things look very, very bad for the Wildcats. You can see his answers to our Q&A with Zach below.
Max: Northwestern was supposed to be really good this season! What happened?? Are they getting any better, or does this look like the Wildcats are actually downright bad this year?
Zach: The biggest things you can point to are the offense somehow getting worse from last year and the defense falling apart. And the kicking game being—to put it nicely—unsightly (Jack Mitchell is one for four and has succumbed to an ongoing kicking battle with former backup Matt Micucci). Offensively, the guys up front have been awful, limiting star running back Justin Jackson's ability to make the impact we've sen him have in his first two years in Evanston. Defensively, losing Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson to graduation has wreaked havoc on the group up front, thus making the linebackers' job much more difficult. On the back end, the secondary has lost three of its four projected starters to injury. It's bad. Very bad. When you can't win in either one of the trenches, it'll be tough to win. This team is downright bad.
Max: Despite Northwestern having the 3rd ranked passing offense in the conference, it doesn't seem like Clayton Thorson has taken that huge next step people were hoping for in his second season. At the same time, Justin Jackson is really good, but Northwestern has the 13th ranked rushing attack in the conference. What's this all about? What is the true identity of this offense and how will they attack Desmond King and the Hawkeyes defense?
Zach: It all goes back to the line. Thorson has certainly improved, but you're right: He hasn't the big step people had hoped for. He's still erratic at times, and his decision-making leaves much to be desired. When he has time to throw, he's generally good. When he has to deal with pressure, he struggles majorly, and that's got to be the next step in his progression as a passer. Additionally, the line has been so bad that the team has completely gone away from the run. Last year, the team threw 28 times per game and that's up to 33 this year. It's been forced to go away from using its best player because he simply has no help from the guys up front. Expect a similar plan from the first four games: relative balance early, but once the run game proves unsuccessful, it will be all on Thorson's shoulders, which is not a great look for this team.
Max: Iowa has been giving up a lot of yards so far this season, but has kept opponents out of the end zone for the most part. Northwestern has really struggled on offense when it comes to both gaining yards and putting up points - will the Wildcats be able to remedy their offensive woes against what has been a sub-par Iowa defense?
Zach: With the offensive line as bad as it is, there's not a ton of hope for remedying the issues this weekend. Remember, this is a team that got dominated in the trenches by both Western Michigan and Illinois State as well as Nebraska. There's some hope—there have been instances here or there of good play—but this team is just not equipped to be able to hang in the trenches with a team like Iowa.
Max: On the other side of the ball, Northwestern is 94th in yards allowed per game but 22nd in points allowed per game. How are the Wildcats keeping opposing teams out of the end zone (other than simply letting Nebraska fumble the ball in for a touchback?)
Zach: It's a combination of luck, as you mentioned, and forcing the corners to play closer. There's not much room to operate down in the redzone, which forces cornerbacks to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Between the 20s, Northwestern's young cornerbacks (six starts between them) have played way off, but they press up—and have done a solid job—in the red zone because they don't have to deal with the threat of giving up the deep ball.
Max: Iowa has not been particularly good in the trenches on either side of the ball this season, although they had dealt with some injuries on the offensive line early on. On which side of the ball do you think Northwestern will be able to exploit this weakness best?
Zach: I will tentatively say the defense, but that's an answer with absolutely no confidence behind it, especially considering what the Iowa run game has done to NU over the past two weeks. But this area hasn't been quite as awful as its offensive counterpart—Northwestern is in the bottom 15 in the nation in sacks and sack rate. The defensive line has been bad, too, but at least they have the depth and skill (though we haven't seen either) to put it together.
Max: Iowa is a double-digit favorite to win this week, for whatever reason. Do you think it would truly be an upset if the Wildcats won? What will they have to do in order to secure a victory over the Hawkeyes in Iowa City?
Zach: It would absolutely be an upset, especially given how downright bad this team has been through four weeks. I can't envision a single one of our writers predicting Northwestern to write, and I am almost certain readers think similarly. The things the Wildcats would have to do are all the things they haven't done this year: play well in the trenches, cash in in the redzone and tackle well. And even then, I just don't know if a mediocre quarterback and a struggling defense can get it done.
Max: Prediction time - make your pick.
Zach: Iowa 35, Northwestern 14. Iowa will run for over 250 yards in a very straightforward win that gets the Hawkeyes back on track (I know that was the plan last week against Rutgers). The Wildcats return to Evanston with even more serious concerns after a third straight embarrassing loss to the Hawkeyes.
Thanks to Zach for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw a hundred points on your team. For more on Northwestern football, check out Inside NU’s blog and follow them on Twitter at @insidenu and Aaron at @zach_pereles. You can read my answers to his questions on Friday. Go Hawks.