After a much needed bye-week for us all, Iowa football is back in action tomorrow, traveling to Evanston, IL to take on the perennial thorn in our side Northwestern Wildcats.
Besides knowing that the Wildcats were a sleeper Big Ten team that hasn’t lived up to the hype, we don’t know a ton about jNW at this blog (my knowledge of the program begins and ends with the 1949 Rose Bowl squad), so we talked to Will Ragatz of Inside NU to break down tomorrow’s game.
Let’s get to it.
Max Brekke: Northwestern was picked by many to be competitive in the Big Ten West this season, but they haven't been able to consistently put it all together on their way to a 3-3 record midway through the season. What has been holding the Wildcats back the most to this point?
Will Ragatz: A combination of factors have led to Northwestern's disappointing start. The biggest problem the Wildcats have had has been struggles on the offensive line. When that unit is off, as it has been in all three of Northwestern's losses, a talented offense ends up looking like one of the worst in the country. In those three losses, the line has allowed Clayton Thorson to be sacked 16 times (8 against Wisconsin alone), and the running game failed to top 100 yards. The other big reason for the .500 record is that two of those three losses came against current Top-5 teams in the country. Northwestern was a competent third quarter away from potentially upsetting the Badgers in Madison, and despite an excellent defensive performance for most of the game, couldn't get anything going offensively against now-No. 2 Penn State. The Duke loss, however, was just a dud of a performance on the road.
There are other issues, too. The pass rush, while improved in recent weeks, let the Cats down against Duke. Both the offense and defense have struggled on third down. And Northwestern is second to last in the Big Ten in turnover margin at -6, mostly thanks to Thorson's 9 interceptions (he's thrown 2 picks in three straight games).
Max: Running back Justin Jackson is back for his ninth year in Evanston and the 'Cats are actually third in the conference in pass yards per game - how dangerous can this offense actually be, and what figures to give Iowa more fits this weekend, the pass or rush game?
Will: Well, when the line is playing well, this can be one of the better offenses in the conference. Jackson, who had been banged up early in the year, finally had a big game last week against Maryland, going for 171 yards and 2 scores while becoming the program's all-time leading rusher. Thorson has had his issues, but when given time, he's still a very talented passer who can get out of the pocket when needed. If he can start to cut back on the interceptions, his size, athleticism and talent still give him a chance to play on Sundays eventually.
As far as Saturday's game, I think the run game will cause more problems for Iowa than the pass, although both will have to be clicking for Northwestern to win. With Jackson back at full health, look for offensive coordinator Mick McCall to feed his star back the rock all day long. Jackson went for 171 yards in Iowa City last year, which in turn opened the passing game up for Thorson and Austin Carr to connect for 3 TDs. Also, remember the name Jeremy Larkin. The backup running back gets 4-6 carries a game, averages 11.5 yards per catch, and could be a star as soon as next season after his legendary predecessor graduates.
Max: Northwestern lost last year's leading receiver Austin Carr to graduation - who has stepped up in his absence and looks to make an impact against Iowa?
Will: With Carr gone, no one player has stepped up to fill the No. 1 WR role. Rather, it's been a collective effort; five players have between 180 and 310 receiving yards this season. Slot receiver Flynn Nagel was predicted by many to emerge as the top receiver, but he's had a bit of a slow start. However, Nagel does pace the team with 22 receptions and just scored his first TD of the season against the Terrapins. 6-foot-4 Bennett Skowronek is a big target on the outside and leads the group in yardage, but that was mostly due to a pair of big games in the non-conference schedule. Superback (aka tight end) Garrett Dickerson is another reliable target, and the No. 3 and 4 receivers, Macan Wilson and Riley Lees, are both averaging over 14 yards per catch. It's really anyone's guess as to who will have a big game on Saturday (if anyone).
Max: The Wildcats have had trouble with turnovers so far this year, including a career-high nine interceptions from Clayton Thorson, and rank 13th in the conference in turnover ratio, while Iowa's defense has averaged almost two interceptions per game. Is there a reason for all the turnovers this season, and does Northwestern have a solid chance at winning the turnover battle at Ryan Field this weekend?
Will: Oh hey, there are those fun turnover stats again. I didn't even look at this question before mentioning these numbers in my first answer. I didn't know Iowa averaged almost two picks per game, though, and I am now slightly more concerned. Thorson's picks have been a combination of bad decisions, bad throws, and some bad luck (at least one or two have come when he's been hit as he throws, and one came on a hail mary). It doesn't look great for winning the turnover battle on Saturday, but it's certainly possible. The line was much better last weekend, holding Maryland to a single sack, and Iowa doesn't boast a significantly better pass rush. If Thorson has time to throw, maybe this will be the game when he stops throwing picks? Northwestern has only forced 8 turnovers this season, which isn't great, but safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro are always threats to grab picks of their own.
Max: Finish this sentence: Northwestern will win on Saturday if...
Will: A) it wins the turnover battle.
B) Justin Jackson rushes for 100 yards.
C) Clayton Thorson is sacked twice or less.
I think two of those three could be good enough to win, and I'd be absolutely shocked if all three happen and Iowa leaves town with a win.
Max: Alright, prediction time. Who ya got?
Will: As much as I want to take Northwestern, I'm not sure I can do it. I'm still scarred from the last time Akrum Wadley played at Ryan Field (200 yards, 4 scores in 2015), and the Hawkeyes played Penn State a lot closer than the Cats did. I think it'll be a close game, but turnovers will doom Northwestern. I'm going Iowa 28, Northwestern 24.
Thanks to Will for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on all things Northwestern, check out Inside NU and find them on Twitter at @insidenu. Go Hawks.