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KEYS TO THE GAME: IOWA HAWKEYES VS. NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS

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It’s just Northwestern...right?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

“Chicago’s Big Ten Team” is paying a visit to Kinnick Stadium this Saturday to help the Hawkeyes celebrate Homecoming weekend.

Quick side note: There is nothing about Northwestern that makes them Chicago’s B1G team. Nothing. There is a reason they are known as “just Northwestern” (jNW).

The Wildcats’ statistics and national rankings through the first four games of 2016 are underwhelming (to say the least):

Offense

Points per game: 16.3 (125th nationally)

Yards per game: 347.5

Passing yards per game: 239.5 (61st)

Rushing yards per game: 108 (119th)

Defense

Points allowed per game: 17.0 (22nd)

Yards allowed per game: 435 (94th)

Rushing yards allowed: 177.5 (84th)

Passing yards allowed: 257.5 (92nd)

Total sacks: 6 (88th)

That. Is. Pitiful.

Only Bowling Green, South Carolina, and Florida International have averaged fewer points per game than Northwestern. Not only can the Wildcats not score points, but they apparently can’t run the football they also can’t stop the run, the pass and can’t put pressure on the quarterback. I mean...Tommy Armstrong threw for 246 yards on Northwestern. Yes, the same Tommy Armstrong who is apparently incapable of attempting a screen pass without it getting intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Wow! Tommy Armstrong threw for 246 yards on Northwestern? A team like Iowa should win this one in a landslide! Right? Right?

If that’s the case, then why do I feel like I’m going to throw up every time I picture myself watching this game on Saturday? I feel terrible about it. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because Iowa has won three in a row against the Wildcats and they are due for a loss. Maybe it’s because, in my heart, I don’t think that Iowa is a very good football team, even though I wake up every morning and trick myself into believing they are. Maybe it’s because I believe in voodoo and that we will never truly stop being haunted by Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald breaking his leg against the Hawkeyes in 1995.

Because it just wouldn’t be an Iowa football season if I hadn’t completely lost my mind by the end of September.

Almost every statistic I have seen indicates that Iowa should win this game by a comfortable margin. But this is Iowa we are talking about. We know it’s going to be more fun than that.

The Permanent Key to the Game

Thunder and Lightning need to continue to be Thunder and Lightning, and I wouldn’t mind if Lightning (A.K.A. Akrum “Wildcat Slayer” Wadley) showed up for this game just like he did in 2015.

If Northwestern’s rushing defense is giving up 178 yards/game to Western Michigan, Duke, Illinois State, and Nebraska, then I expect Iowa to be dominant on the ground in this game.

Pressure Clayton Thorson

In last year’s match-up, the Hawkeyes did a great job of pressuring Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. He never appeared to get comfortable, and it showed in the way he played: 17/35, 125 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Putting pressure on Thorson dismantled the Wildcat spread offense that has crippled Iowa over the years.

Thorson has already been sacked 15 times this season, when he was only sacked a total of 22 times in 2015. The Iowa defense is currently 13th in the nation with 13 total sacks. The match-up of a below-average Wildcat offensive line with an above-average Hawkeye pass rush should play a significant role in the outcome of this game.

Stop Justin Jackson

Wildcat running back Justin Jackson hasn’t seemed like the best version of himself yet this season, only tallying 339 yards on 83 carries (a 4.1 average). However, you need to give respect to a player coming off a season in which he rushed for over 1,400 yards. Jackson only managed to gain 30 yards on the Hawkeyes in 2015, but it strongly appears that the Iowa run defense is not what it was a year ago. Jackson leads the B1G in carries, and I expect him to tote the rock early and often in this game. Iowa’s rushing defense needs to tighten up against the jNW spread offense, or Jackson could have a huge day.

Austin Carr??

Who the heck is Austin Carr? I’ll be honest—I live in Chicago and had never heard his name in my life until this week. Carr didn’t do anything ultra-impressive during the 2015 season, catching 16 balls for 302 yards and 2 TD’s, but he has been downright incredible this season. Look at what he’s been able to do through the first four weeks of 2016:

Week 1: 5 receptions, 75 yards

Week 2: 7 receptions, 73 yards, 1 TD

Week 3: 6 receptions, 135 yards, 1 TD

Week 4: 8 receptions, 109 yards, 1 TD

Hawkeye Nation lost it’s collective mind when Matt VandeBerg went down with a foot injury in practice on Monday, because we all know how important Meercat is to our offense. He has accounted for over 36 percent of Iowa’s total receiving yards thus far. Austin Carr has been responsible for over 40 PERCENT of Northwestern’s receiving yards in 2016. His 392 total yards are 267 yards more than the Wildcats’ number two receiver, Flynn Nagel. Quarterback Clayton Thorson relies A LOT on Austin Carr. If the Hawkeyes can make him a non-factor (or just slow him down, what’s up, Desmond King) they should be in great position to contain what is a very, very containable Northwestern offense.

The Prediction

I feel uncomfortable heading into the Northwestern game every year. Again, I can’t really explain why. There have been very, very few times (if any at all) that I felt Northwestern was as good or better than Iowa, yet somehow they’ve managed to be a thorn in our side. I don’t think they are as bad as their statistics show, and really, the Wildcats are only 3 points away from owning a 3-1 record and being considered completely differently throughout the nation.

And so I’m about to do something that I don’t want to do, but I have to go with my gut on this one.

Prediction: Northwestern 17, Iowa 14

Oh, what the hell.

Prediction: Northwestern 17, Iowa 14

Prediction: Iowa 17, jNW 14

Go Hawks.