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Behind Enemy Lines: Inside NU Discusses Iowa - Northwestern Football

The Wildcats are in first in the West, but haven’t been great this season.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawkeyes have been mired in a bit of a tough stretch as of late, as they’ve lost two consecutive conference games and have just about fallen out of the Big Ten West race completely. With the division’s first place team (and likely winner) Northwestern coming to town, one might expect that the Hawks’ struggles would continue another week.

However, Northwestern hasn’t exactly been a great team this season. They’re just 5-4 overall on the season, and luckily enough for them, have won some really tight games to the conference’s bottom dwellers thus far. While their Big Ten record is an impressive 5-1, they certainly aren’t world beaters.

To learn more about the ‘Cats, we enlisted the help of Inside NU, SB Nation’s comprehensive Northwestern athletics blog. We discussed injuries (and there are plenty of them), expectations, and who to watch for in this matchup. He also gives his prediction, which y’all might like...

Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Max Brekke: The Wildcats started the season 1-3, and despite sitting at 5-4 after 10 weeks of college football, they’re firmly in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West. How have the Wildcats lived up to preseason expectations, and where have they come up short?

Caleb Friedman: Basically, Northwestern has fallen short of expectations in the non-conference, but met expectations in the Big Ten. Losing to Duke and Akron were pretty bad losses (at least in the fashion NU lost to Duke), but Northwestern has more or less been the team most people thought in conference play -- a good, but not great team that plays solid defense and can be decent offensively. I think it’s a generally down year for the Big Ten West, which is why Northwestern has been able to race to the top of the division, and NU has sort of weathered the storm.

Max: Northwestern beat a good Wisconsin team, came close against great Michigan and Notre Dame teams, almost blew it against Rutgers and Nebraska, and did blow it against Akron. Which game this season best personifies who Northwestern really is in 2018?

Caleb: I would say the Nebraska game. Northwestern did not play well, and probably should’ve lost, but found a way to win. The offensive numbers from that game were far better than they’ve been for most of the season, and the defensive numbers probably worse. Over the course of the season, though, NU has done what it’s had to do, and it hasn’t often beaten itself. Against Nebraska, Northwestern was the more disciplined team, and that ended up determining the game.

Max: Iowa has had a terrific pass rush in 2018, while Northwestern has allowed the most sacks of any Big Ten team (24 in nine games). Will this help Iowa shut down the Northwestern offense, or has Isaiah Bowser added enough in the running game to keep Iowa’s defense honest?

Caleb: Northwestern won’t quit on the run game, even if it’s not working, but this could be a long game for Northwestern’s offensive line. There have been some good performances, like Wisconsin and Michigan State, but there have also been some bad performances, like Duke and Akron. The key will be whether the line can protect for long enough to give quarterback Clayton Thorson enough time to hit receivers on intermediate and deep routes. The NU offense hasn’t been explosive all year, so any kind of chunk plays will be important.

Max: What is the most important matchup for Northwestern if they’re going to come into Kinnick Stadium and beat Iowa?

Caleb: I would say Northwestern’s secondary against Iowa’s receivers, just because of how depleted NU is in the secondary. Northwestern is missing two of its top three corners and one of its starting safeties, so there are depth issues. If the secondary can’t hold up, it will be hard to get stops defensively.

Max: Who is a player on offense Iowa fans might not have heard of that you expect might make an impact in this game? How about defense?

Caleb: Offensively, Flynn Nagel is really the go-to guy at receiver. He’s had some monster games, like putting up 220 yards against Nebraska, but has cooled off a bit recently. He’s a precise route-runner who will get yards after the catch, and he’s effective on third downs.

Defensively, Joe Gaziano is the Wildcats’ top pass-rusher. He led the Big Ten in sacks last season, and has had another good season this year. He’s solid in run defense, and he’s strong-yet-quick off the edge. Northwestern’s pass-rush hasn’t been great this season, but Gaziano has acquitted himself well.

Max: Anything significant on the injury front for the Wildcats this week?

Caleb: As I mentioned above, Jared McGee and Trae Williams, starters at safety and corner, are out.

Northwestern will also be without starting kicker Charlie Kuhbander, though backup Drew Luckenbaugh has been solid (and he hit a game-winner in overtime against Nebraska).

Max: Prediction time - who ya got?

Caleb: Iowa 27, Northwestern 21.