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Matchup to Watch: Iowa’s Defensive Line vs. Northwestern’s Offensive Line

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Can the Hawkeyes’ big uglies get the requisite pressure against the Wildcats?

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, the Iowa staff built high expectations for Iowa’s defensive line. Phil Parker raved about their ability to knock down passes. Matt Nelson had to move from end to tackle to make room for all the talent.

Through six games, they’ve underperformed. The group has averaged ~1.5 sacks a game (9.5 total) and have only defended 5 passes, via sports-reference.

Can they get the train back on the tracks? If there’s a game for Iowa to do it, it’s this one.

Northwestern’s Offensive Line

Very quickly in this week’s Pants Party, MNWildcat maligned the Wildcats’ offensive line. After some Googling, it wasn’t hard to see why. Going into last week, Pat Fitzgerald ripped his team’s ability to run the ball:

“I really thought we would be better running the football at this point. That’s not on one group. That’s collectively as an offense.”

While it wasn’t calling out the group up front publicly, he did so behind closed doors. After last week’s win over Maryland, Fitz confirmed what many thought:

“(I) went after them a week ago, and I think they handled it well,” Fitzgerald said, “You don’t play well, you have high expectations, and I think they shut the noise off and went to work.”

The stats bore it out. After limping out to 3.2 yards per carry with a bellcow running back in Justin Jackson during the first five games, they ran the ball at 5.4 yards a clip against the Terrapins, including three scores.

They’ve also struggled in pass protection. Hat tip to MNWildcat, Northwestern has allowed 3.33 sacks a game (20 total), which ranks them 120th in FBS. Clayton Thorson has also tied his career high in interceptions (9) with the limited time being provided by their line.

Seriously, if there ever was a game for Iowa to reassert themselves on defense, this is it.

Iowa’s Defensive Line

To be frustrated with Iowa’s defensive line is not to be frustrated with its talent, but with its consistency. They’ve shown significant ability up front through six games. Yet they’ve shown it only in flashes.

Against Penn State, they wreaked havoc on Trace McSorely, as they accumulated 4 sacks and were constantly forcing errant throws, including many batted balls. The sack/dropback ratio for that game (7.7%) was well above the season average of 4.8%. Yet, they also allowed Saquon Barkley to run roughshod (partly by design) on the Kinnick field turf.

After a rough first quarter, Iowa’s defense, particularly the line, tightened up against Michigan State. They allowed 2.2 yards per carry and tallied a couple sacks before an ill-advised stunt sprung Brian Lewerke for a scramble resulting in a first down.

The defense allowed North Texas and Illinois to average over 6.6 yards a carry. Of course, that is a defensive stat and does not fall specifically on the line, but it starts up front.

Northwestern runs a similar offense to Penn State - namely, power out of the shotgun. If they can execute a gameplan much like the one we saw four weeks ago, I would expect similar results - bend but don’t break.

Iowa’s line should be up to the task of disrupting Northwestern's offense by any means necessary. I expect we see more batted balls than we have grown accustomed to and a lot more straight-forward looks to ensure Iowa maintains its lanes and keeps the backfield contained. They do not need to be pretty but they need to be effective.

And please, more A.J. Epenesa.