Moving right along with our series of previews of Iowa football’s 2017 opponents, it’s time to look at the Northwestern Wildcats. Pat Fitzgerald’s club has gained a bit of a reputation over the years for being a thorn in the sides of all of the upper-crust teams in the Big Ten. In 2017, they have the talent to continue that trend. Luckily for Iowa, the Hawkeyes will get two weeks to prepare for them – thanks to the October 14th bye.
Northwestern won six games in the regular season, punching a ticket to the Pinstripe Bowl where they knocked off Pitt 31-24 for their seventh win of the season. That victory along with a win over Duke and the win in Iowa City were the highlights of the 2016. They also took P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan squad right down to the wire, losing a 1-point heartbreaker to the Broncos at home.
Who did they lose?
The biggest loss on offense was that of wide receiver Austin Carr. The Big Ten Receiver of the Year hauled in 90 passes for 1,247 yards and 12 scores. That’s exactly 800 more yards than their second-leading receiver. Suffice to say, his presence will be sorely missed.
On defense, they lost linebacker Anthony Walker, who was one of the better defenders the program has ever seen. They also lost defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. He had ten sacks in 2016.
Who do they return?
For starters, they bring back on of the most consistent and dependable running backs in the nation in Justin Jackson. He gets better ever season, toting the rock for over 1,500 yards and 15 scores a season ago. Clayton Thorson is back under center. He’s coming off a sophomore campaign where he tossed 22 touchdowns vs. nine picks and eclipsed the 3,100-yard mark through the air. The two of them will line up behind four returning starters on the offensive line. Flynn Nagel returns at receiver. He’s primarily a slot guy, but he figures to see an uptick in targets with the departure of Carr.
On defense, the entire secondary is back, including Godwin Igwebuike. It seems like that guy should be working on his doctorate by now. The also return two solid defensive tackles in Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster. Linebacker Nate Hall will be called upon to lead an inexperienced group of linebackers.
Why should Iowa be worried?
The Wildcats are going to be able to move the ball on the group with the best of them – and that includes the Hawkeyes. Thorson’s mobility and ability to throw on the run will make it tough for Iowa to just load the box to shut down Jackson.
When Iowa has the ball, it’s the same old story, as a lack of personnel at the receiver position is going to be a handicap, especially against such a seasoned secondary.
Why should Iowa not be worried?
If Northwestern’s run game is struggling, the Wildcats are not going to have a corps of receivers talented enough to dominate the young Hawkeye defensive backs all day. Iowa’s defensive line has the ability to make things difficult when Thorson does drop back to pass.
Key player for Northwestern
Clayton Thorson — Justin Jackson is going to get his. The Hawkeyes need for Thorson to be off in the passing game. If he has time in the pocket on obvious passing downs and is able to hit his targets close to 60-percent of the time, the Hawkeye defense could have a tough time getting off the field.
Key player for Iowa
Nate Bazata – The senior defensive tackle is going to need to dominate up front – both against the run and the pass. His ability to penetrate and force everything outside will be key. Iowa’s linebackers are good enough to beat Northwestern sideline-to-sideline, but they could have trouble when the interior offensive lineman for the Wildcats are free to get to the second level.