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Iowa Football: Behind Enemy Lines With The Northwestern Wildcats

The Hawkeyes have lost three straight against Northwestern. Is this the year Kirk Ferentz beats the Wildcats?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Northwestern at Iowa
Can the Hawkeye offense get anything going against a Northwestern team that has won three straight against Iowa?
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This football season, as in years past, we’ll be going behind enemy lines each week to ask some of the tough questions, the really hard-hitting ones. Sometimes, we may even go over the line.

We’d also like to know what you’re interested in learning about each opponent. So hit us on social media with some questions you’d like us to ask each upcoming opponent. Slide in the DMs, @ us or use the hashtag #overthelinebhgp and we’ll ask our weekly guests your questions.

The Hawkeyes got back into the win column last week after back-to-back disappointing performances. The offense still didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but they were at least able to find the endzone more than once.

As Iowa turns to this week, they face off with Pat Fitzgerald and a Northwestern team that hasn’t lost to the Hawkeyes since 2015. After a two decade span from 1974-1994 where Iowa owned the Wildcats, Northwestern has been a major thorn in Iowa’s side under Kirk Ferentz. To help Hawkeye fans get a sense for what to expect out of this year’s version of the team and how Iowa can approach the 1-5 Wildcats, we turn to Noah Coffman of Inside NU.

BHGP: Northwestern won the Big Ten West a season ago. Fast forward to today and the Wildcats are 1-5 after a difficult schedule to start the year. What’s different about this year’s version of Pat Fitzgerald’s squad?

INU: Well, the key difference is obviously at the quarterback position. Four-year starter Clayton Thorson’s departure was always going to create some growing pains, but Northwestern’s offense has been much worse than could have been reasonably expected thanks solely to his loss along with that of a couple of key skill players (slot receiver Flynn Nagel and super back Cam Green), but I will get deeper into that in my response to the other questions.

Otherwise, the main reason for the downfall is just a lack of close-game luck. Over the course of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, he has really been the only coach in the country who can lay claim to being “good” in close games: he entered this season with 46-28 record in contests that ended in a score during his 13-year head coaching career.

Though it seemed like Fitzgerald had perhaps beaten regression and the odds (even analytically-minded folks like Bill Connelly surmised as much), the bad luck has seemingly come back to bite him, specifically against Nebraska and Stanford, both matchups in which the Wildcats needed to make only one or two big plays down the stretch to beat teams seemingly at their level and weren’t able to do so.

BHGP: Much was made this offseason about the addition of former 5-star QB Hunter Johnson. That hasn’t worked out the way we all expected with Aiden Smith now leading the way. What should Iowa fans know about Smith and is there a possibility Northwestern utilizes both QBs Saturday?

INU: Anything is possible, really. Fitzgerald famously loves to keep anything he can as close to the vest as possible, even though Northwestern’s offensive cap has proven to be almost impossibly low this year regardless of who is under center. Johnson and Smith have each thrown more than 80 passes now, and both are under a 50% completion rate, with the two also combining for two touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Also, the Wildcats have completed exactly one pass that traveled more than 19 yards in the air all season long (a 50 yard touchdown in their lone win over UNLV from Johnson to JJ Jefferson), and their starting QB hasn’t completed a pass that traveled more than 11 yards in the air over 73 combined pass attempts in the last three games they have played. Not great!

For Smith in particular, he is utterly unable to throw the ball down the field, even struggling on long out routes to the far side at times. The redshirt junior overthrows most of his receivers on the few deep shots he does take, though he has shown accuracy in spurts on short and intermediate throws (often, when the ball is on target, the receivers drop it anyways). Look, there’s a reason this team is averaging 4.1 yards per attempt, worse than any team since 2003 except for 2008 Army’s triple option offense.

The biggest plus to his game are his skills on the ground, running the read option game quite successfully and using his impressive speed to scramble effectively at times. Johnson has also shown ability to create on the ground, though his decision-making is notably worse than Smith’s. However, the former five star also has clear arm talent and the ability to drop it in a bucket anywhere on the field. His upside is clearly higher than that of his counterpart, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will see the field.

BHGP: The Wildcats have run the ball on nearly 60% of offensive snaps this year with freshman Drake Anderson leading the way at 405 yards on 87 carries (4.7 ypc). What kind of a runner is he and how will the Northwestern offense try to attack Iowa on the ground?

INU: Anderson is small, quick, and very shifty. The son of former Wildcat legend Damien Anderson has the ability to make plenty of tacklers miss, allowing him to consistently rip off medium-sized gains. Despite his diminutive size, the redshirt freshman also has the ability to take a hit. He provides a solid one-two punch with big back Isaiah Bowser, the sophomore who torched Iowa last year. Bowser has had some problems with injury early this season, but he should be back close to full health and ready to go on Saturday.

Scheme-wise, the Wildcats rarely get tricky, although they have showcased the potential to use nominal wide receiver Kyric McGowan in a variety of run game passes during recent weeks. Outside of that, it’s a typical zone-running scheme, and an offensive line that is replacing three starters from last year has really improved within as the season has progressed. Of course, the Iowa front will be a very difficult challenge for them.

BHGP: On the other side of the ball, the Northwestern defense has been solid this season despite some skewed statistics thanks to Ohio State a week ago. What should Hawkeye fans expect out of the Wildcat defense and how can Iowa attack them?

INU: Northwestern’s defense is an impressive group, but their goals are always very clear. The Wildcats are usually willing to drop deep, in Cover 4 or even pure man set-ups, to prevent anything over the top in the passing game, while keeping a good number of players in the box for help with the running game.

That opens up a couple of avenues for exploitation: constant digs and comeback routes run by superior athletes, which Ohio State used to perfection, or the attempted creation of mismatches over the middle, whether in the RPO game or just by setting tight ends up with single coverage. The bottom line is that this Northwestern group will sell out to stop the run and prevent the big play, and Nate Stanley and co. need to be able to consistently produce solid gains without turning the ball over or allowing for negative plays in order to beat them.

BHGP: The Iowa offense has notably struggled converting strong drives into touchdowns being one of only three schools (which happens to include Northwestern) two kick more field goals than extra points. A major piece of those struggles have been handling pressure. How has the Northwestern defense approached getting pressure on the QB this season?

INU: The Wildcats and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz aren’t afraid to bring the occasional blitz, but they are also certainly willing to rely on their front four to create pressure on their own, especially against a struggling offensive line. Redshirt senior Joe Gaziano is the key to the pass rush, with the ability to make something happen off the edge at any time or even from the interior with a complete package of edge rushers in the game.

If the Hawkeyes key on him, that will open up opportunities for Earnest Brown IV, given that the redshirt sophomore and pass rushing specialist is healthy after suffering a game-ending injury last week, and Eku Leota, a relatively untested defensive end who nonetheless has displayed some impressive raw pass-rushing ability this season. If the ‘Cats feel they need to blitz, extra pressure can come from any direction.

BHGP: Is there a matchup you feel confident about heading into Saturday?

INU: Brian Ferentz vs. Mike Hankwitz. The much-maligned Iowa offensive coordinator has seen his offense stall out across the past couple of weeks, and the longtime Northwestern DC had him eating out of his hand last season in Iowa City. The Wildcats and their impressive group of playmakers on the defensive end, including stud safety tandem Travis Whillock and JR Pace, heralded middle linebacker Paddy Fisher, and underrated cover corner Greg Newsome II, have a very good chance at keeping the Hawkeyes’ offense at bay once again.

BHGP: Which one has you most worried?

INU: Mick McCall vs. Phil Parker. This Iowa defense knows Northwestern well enough to understand that clamping down on the short passing game while keeping numbers in the box to defend against the run will effectively neuter them, and McCall’s limited passing concepts and run-run-pass-punt tendencies don’t hold an answer to that problem within them.

The Wildcats will struggle to move the ball whatsoever, barring a significant change to their offensive philosophy, some really impressive scripted plays, or a catastrophic day from the defensive front of Iowa against the run in particular, and that isn’t exactly ideal.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. The Hawkeyes opened as 11 point favorites this weekend. Does Northwestern pull off the upset at home? Do they cover? What do you have going down on Saturday?

INU: You may have guessed this from my last two answers, but I think this one will be a classic Iowa-Northwestern game, which is to say: score in the teens, some inexplicable miscues on both sides, and the game swinging on an inexplicable occurrence.

Call me a homer for this pick if you want, but the Wildcats always seem to take the Hawkeyes down whenever you least expect them to. Special teams shenanigans and some of that Ryan Field magic give NU the 16-15 win in a ghastly defensive struggle.

So there you have it, hammer the over, these teams are about to explode offensively. Or something like that.

A big thank you to Noah and Inside NU. You can follow Noah @coffman_noah and Inside NU @insidenu. I’d also encourage you to go take a peak at the Iowa coverage they have at Inside NU this week. They’ve got a really good film breakdown of the Iowa defense, as well as a look at three matchups to watch on Saturday. Good stuff.