With college football just around the corner, we’re taking a look at each of the Iowa Hawkeyes’ opponents for the upcoming season. We’re through ten thus far. Next up in today’s look-ahead: the (just) Northwestern Wildcats.
Don’t look now (really please divert your attention to the next subsection of this article because you don’t want to read this), but Northwestern has won two straight contests against the Hawkeyes and have fared pretty well against Iowa under Kirk Ferentz, winning nine of 17 games. Generally speaking, if it’s a close game between the two division rivals, Northwestern has had an edge: the Wildcats have won seven of those nine games by one score, while seven of Iowa’s eight victories against them have been by 10 or more. Despite wanting to treat Northwestern as a pushover, the ‘Cats have shown up to play against Ferentz and Co. more often than not.
The all-time series is a lot friendlier, as Iowa leads it 55-26-3, including a winning streak that started in 1974 and ran through 1994.
Northwestern had a great 2017 campaign, finishing the regular season with a 9-3 record and punctuating it with a 24-23 victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. They finished the season #17 in the Coaches and AP polls, and their 10-win season was the fifth season in program history with double digit wins (and the third under Pat Fitzgerald).
There are a lot of question marks on this side of the ball for the Wildcats heading into 2018, first of which is at quarterback. Clayton Thorson, who’s been at the helm for Northwestern in their last two contests against the Hawkeyes, went down with an ACL tear in the Music City Bowl last year. While he’s expected back towards the beginning of the season, no one really knows how comfortable he’ll be this year. By the time Northwestern visits Kinnick Stadium, he should be fine, but there are a lot of uncertainties following major injuries, and he might not fully recover in 2018.
Perhaps the most intriguing departure from last year’s team is Northwestern’s all-time rushing leader, Justin Jackson. Jackson accumulated over 5,000 rushing yards over his four-year career, and while his departure will be a blow to the Wildcat backfield, it certainly isn’t the end of the world. Jeremy Larkin ran the ball 84 times for 503 yards and five touchdowns as Jackson’s backup in 2017, and he’s poised to step in admirably this upcoming season. There is plenty of depth behind him at the position, but there aren’t a whole ton of known quantities, so if Larkin is unable to run 25+ times per game as Jackson did, that depth could prove to be useless.
The position group that will need to see the most improvement this season for Northwestern is the offensive line, which was absolutely dreadful last season and brings back four of the five starters from that team. Justin Jackson was actually a record-breaking rusher in spite of the big uglies and the Wildcats were especially bad in pass protection in 2017. The Wildcats’ adjusted sack rate was 77th in the country, and based on S+P (a little primer if you’re not familiar), they were 113th in the country in passing downs and 82nd in rushing. Just all-around not good, as Thorson was constantly buying himself time to throw with his legs. Against an Iowa pass rush that figures to be formidable in 2018, this will likely be the offense’s most important unit when they come to Iowa City.
The biggest strength for the Wildcats this upcoming season figures to be their front seven, as they return three starting linemen and two linebackers.
If anything, the three returning starters on the defensive line can rush the dang quarterback. Joe Gaziano and Sam Miller return at defensive end, and last year combined for 14.5 sacks, while Jordan Thompson totaled four tackles from the interior. They help form a defense that was no slouch against the run in 2017, too, as they allowed just 107 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry. Alex Miller will fill the fourth spot on the line, and as a backup, he recorded 22 tackles and two sacks. Iowa’s offensive line will be well tested by the time this game rolls around, but these guys will provide yet another test for the Hawks late in the season.
There’s also a ton of returning production from the two returning linebackers, Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher. In 2017, Fisher finished the year with 113 tackles, including nine for loss, and forced four fumbles to go along with an interception, while Hall totaled 79 tackles, five sacks, and two picks. The third spot is still an unknown, but it’s safe to say that as long as he’s average, he’ll look good next to these two guys.
Arguably the worst position for Northwestern this season will be the defensive backs, who struggled mightily last year. Despite all the pressure the front seven generated on opposing quarterbacks, Northwestern was still dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game with 250. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that they won 10 games and opposing teams were attempting to play catch-up by putting the ball in the air, as they were ninth (still not good, in case you were curious) in the conference in yards per catch and completion percentage. From that team, the Wildcats will be replacing both starting safeties and one of their cornerbacks, and there’s little experience at either position. This is great news for the Hawks, as this could be a game where Ferentz & Ferentz let Nate Stanley air the ball out against what could be one of the weakest units the Hawks will face all year.
No doubt about it, Northwestern should be good again in 2018, which is really the kiss of death when it comes to the Wildcats. When expectations for them are high, they always seem to fall short, but this year could be one where they’re able to buck that trend, provided Clayton Thorson is healthy and effective. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team with as good a front seven as the Wildcats will have next year win 10 games; I also wouldn’t be surprised if the offensive line proves incompetent, rendering Thorson and the running game useless, and the Wildcats win six. I’m more inclined to believe they’ll fall somewhere in the middle at eight wins in 2018, and of course, that they’ll bring their A-game to Iowa City when they visit in November regardless of their record. Pat Fitzgerald always seems to have his team playing their most hard-nosed football when they go up against the Hawks, so why would this year be any different? Expect another low-scoring affair, a la last season’s eyesore at Ryan Field.