Las Vegas may view the Iowa Hawkeyes as ten-point favorites in their game against the odds-on Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats, but many Iowa fans are struggling to muster that same sense of optimism about their team. After two consecutive losses functionally eliminated the Hawkeyes from contention in the divisional race, the Iowa program must now adjust to a new set of expectations as they prepare to take on a formidable Northwestern team looking to spoil Iowa’s return to the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium.
The 2018 Northwestern football team is arguably the most “Fitzgeraldian” team fielded during head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure in Evanston. The Wildcats went 0-3 in non-conference play, which included a home loss to the 4-4 Akron Zips, yet have found tremendous success against Big Ten opponents with their only loss coming in a narrow defeat against Michigan. The Wildcats struggle to put away bad opponents as evidenced by their three-point victories over both Nebraska and Rutgers, but defeated Wisconsin by two touchdowns and played close games against both Michigan and Notre Dame. Northwestern’s defense is statistically average and its offense has been well below average for most of the season, yet the Wildcats are now closer to winning a conference championship than at any time during the Fitzgerald era.
Northwestern has found its identity as a gritty, hard-nosed football team that avoids mistakes, plays the field position battle, and relies on the discipline of its players and the game planning prowess of its coaching staff to put the team in a position to win virtually every game it plays. Iowa’s identity as a defensive powerhouse may be somewhat shaken after surrendering 38 points and 434 yards of offense against Purdue last week, but the Hawkeyes will need to rebound quickly to avoid extending their losing streak to three games.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s pass defense recover after last week’s abysmal performance?
While Iowa’s anemic offense resulted in understandable hand-wringing after the Hawkeyes’ loss to Penn State, it was the Iowa defense that struggled against the Boilermakers, particularly the secondary. Gone was the defense that held Hakeem Butler to 35 yards in early September, replaced by a porous unit that surrendered 333 yards and four touchdowns through the air. While Iowa largely kept Rondale Moore in check, David Blough capitalized on Moore being the focus of the Hawkeye defense by repeatedly finding Terry Wright, Brycen Hopkins, and Isaac Zito for big gains. Riley Moss in particular struggled to cover Wright on deep routes,
but fellow corner backs Michael Ojemudia and Julius Brents both had struggles of their own against the Boilermakers, including Brents’ fateful pass interference against Zico in the game’s final drive.
Iowa will once again be tasked with stopping a pass-heavy offensive attack this week. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is the third leading passer in the Big Ten, which has as much to do with Thorson’s arm strength and Fitzgerald’s desire to get the ball to star receiver Flynn Nagel as often as possible as it does with Northwestern’s struggles running the football. Injuries to Thorson and the retirement of running back Jeremey Larkin have forced the Wildcats to rely on freshman Isaiah Bowser who has brought a semblance of consistency to the run game, but little spark.
Still, Iowa’s secondary will be given a chance to rebound this week. Thorson has thrown almost as many interceptions (10) as he has touchdowns (11) and has struggled on 3rd down, producing a passer rating of only 113.51 during such plays. Additionally, Matt Hankins will make his long-awaited return to the secondary after missing the past five games to injury and suspension. Hankins was the number one corner back coming into the year for a reason, and while Moss has played admirably in his stead, the Hawkeye defense would be best served by Hankins usurping the freshman’s spot in the starting lineup this week. If Ferentz elects to stick with Moss and Brents in the starting lineup, defensive coordinator Phil Parker will need to devise a plan to help the young corner backs stymie the Wildcat passing attack to prevent a repeat of last week.
2. Can Iowa run the ball effectively?
The Iowa run game has failed to live up to pre-season expectations for the second year in a row. The Hawkeyes are averaging only 3.88 yards per carry and have yet to boast a 100 yard rusher in a single game. Ivory Kelly-Martin, who the coaching staff seems committed to as the starting running back, has been beset by injuries and has failed to match the performance of his fellow backs Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young.
Meanwhile, Northwestern’s run defense appears to be hitting its stride. The Wildcats limited Notre Dame’s explosive running back Dexter Williams to 2.9 yards per carry and were the only team this season to hold Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor under 100 yards. Stalwart defensive tackle Jordan Thompson is one of the most underrated defensive players in the conference and has done an excellent job dominating the attention of interior offensive linemen and opening space for linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher to swarm to the running back.
The Wildcats have been somewhat susceptible to long runs this season, but the Hawkeyes are hardly a team built to capitalize on that weakness. The Hawkeyes have mustered only five runs of 20+ yards, which ranks 123rd among 130 FBS teams. While the Hawkeye coaches have been committed to the committee approach at running back, this week would be an ideal time for one of those backs to finally submit a breakout performance.
3. Can Iowa’s pass rush re-establish dominance?
One of the most surprising elements of Purdue’s offensive explosion against the Hawkeyes was the inability of the defensive line to make a significant impact on the game. While the Iowa line has been dominant for most of the season, the Boilermakers limited the Hawkeyes to only one sack and gave David Blough a fairly clean pocket for most of the game. Purdue heavily utilized pre-snap motions and fake jet sweeps which prevented Iowa’s pass rushers from selling out and rushing the quarterback, and it would not be surprising to see Northwestern employ similar tactics this Saturday.
Still, Iowa should be able to find more success rushing the passer this week than last. Northwestern has allowed 24 sacks this season, and Clayton Thorson’s diminished mobility will prevent him from escaping pressure or beating Iowa with his legs as effectively as he has in seasons past. Northwestern’s struggles running the football should allow the Hawkeyes to sell out against that pass far more frequently, and an effective pass rush may be the best way to protect Iowa’s young corners from suffering another poor day in coverage against Northwestern’s talented receivers.
Iowa is unlikely to make it to Indianapolis this year, but they still have a lot to play for, and nearly any Iowa fan would have been excited by the prospect of a ten win season in August. How Iowa responds to adversity at home against Northwestern will say a lot about what the Hawkeyes can accomplish during the remainder of this season.