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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Northwestern

Can Iowa snap its surprising losing streak against the Wildcats, or does Pat Fitzgerald have yet another trick up his sleeve?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

“The University of Iowa has lost three straight football games to the Northwestern Wildcats.” If something about this statement just feels wrong to you, then you probably have at least some sense of Big Ten football history. Northwestern’s historic win percentage of 44.6% is the second worst of any team in the Big Ten, and the Hawkeyes once won 21 consecutive games against the Wildcats from 1974-1994.

While Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald certainly deserves credit for taking his program to heights seldom seen in recent years, he will have a lot of difficulty extending his winning streak over the Hawkeyes to four games this Saturday. The defending Big Ten West champions have fallen on hard times in 2019, with their only win coming in a home victory over a 2-5 UNLV team in a game that was closer than the 30-14 final score indicated. Fresh off a 52-3 beatdown in Evanston at the hands of Ohio State, the Wildcats will be desperate to salvage their season any way they can, and a win over the 20th ranked Hawkeyes will be essential if they have any hopes of clawing their way back to bowl eligibility.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:

1. Can Iowa’s offensive line hold up against a dangerous Northwestern front seven?

Don’t let Northwestern’s mediocre defensive statistics against the run (165.5 rushing yards allowed per game) fool you; the Wildcats’ defensive front seven remains as dangerous as it’s been in recent years. Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher bring talent and experience to the Northwestern linebacking corps, while Joe Gaziano remains one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the Big Ten. For an Iowa offensive line that has struggled at times to protect its quarterback and to consistently open up holes in the running game, containing the Wildcats up front will be something of a tall order.

Northwestern’s poor numbers against the run have as much to do with the offenses they’ve faced (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State) as they do any deficiencies in the Wildcats’ plays. While their defenders struggle to keep up with runners as fast as OSU’s J.K. Dobbins or match the physicality of Wisconsin’s mammoth offensive line, it’s unclear whether Iowa has the running back talent or offensive line cohesion to capitalize on these vulnerabilities. The Hawkeyes managed to impose their will on the ground during their final drive against Purdue, but otherwise struggled to run the ball for the third consecutive game. Unless Iowa can find a way to run the ball consistently against the Wildcats, something they have struggled to do in recent meetings, Northwestern’s defense may be able to keep the game close for the duration of the contest, giving the home underdog a fighting chance to pull off the upset.

2. Can Iowa shut down the Northwestern ground game?

There’s no nice way to put it; Northwestern’s passing game is an absolute train wreck. It’s little surprise that the departure of Clayton Thorson, a four-year starter at quarterback, would cause some growing pains for the Wildcats, but the arrival from Clemson of former five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson was expected to prevent Northwestern’s aerial attack from taking too many steps backward. In a program known for turning lightly-recruited quarterback prospects into dangerous dual-threat weapons, it stood to reason that Pat Fitzgerald and his staff might eventually be able to mold Johnson into one of the most productive quarterbacks in program history.

Johnson’s career is far from over, but it’s certainly been an inauspicious start to his tenure in the purple and white. Johnson and Aiden Smith (the quarterback who eventually replaced him in the starting lineup) have combined for only two passing touchdowns on the season and have “helped” the Wildcats achieve a team-wide passer rating of 73.83, easily the lowest in college football (for comparison, the second lowest rating is 98.45 from Old Dominion, a 1-6 Conference USA team whose only win this season was a three-point home victory over Norfolk State, an FCS school). While Purdue’s David Bell exposed some weaknesses in Iowa’s secondary last week, it’s safe to say that Northwestern will not be able to attack those same pressure points with any degree of success.

Any hope Northwestern has of moving the ball will come on the ground. Isaiah Bowser, the sophomore running back whose breakout performance came in a 198 total yardage outing against the Hawkeyes last season, finally appears to be healthy after nagging injuries drug down his production in recent weeks. Bowser is joined in the backfield by Drake Anderson, the son of Northwestern’s former All-American running back Damian Anderson who has been the sole bright spot on the Wildcats’ offense this season while running for 405 yards and three touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry. With Iowa’s middle linebacker Kristian Welch expected to miss his second straight game due to injury, the Hawkeyes will have to rely on strong performances from freshmen linebackers such as Dillon Doyle and Jack Campbell, as well as excellent play from interior linemen Cedric Lattimore, Brady Reiff, and Daviyon Nixon, to shut the running game down.

3. Can the Hawkeye offense replace field goals with touchdowns?

Kirk Ferentz must feel bad about relegating Keith Duncan to the bench over the last two seasons, because he sure is giving him a lot of work to make up for his time away from the starting lineup. No FBS team has made or attempted as many field goals as the Hawkeyes have this season (Iowa is 17-19 on the year) which is both a credit to Duncan’s excellent play this season as well as a serious indictment of Iowa’s red zone offense.

On one hand, Iowa’s red zone offense has been perfect so far this season. Thanks in large part to Duncan, the Hawkeyes have come away with points on all 24 of their trips to the red zone in 2019. However, Iowa’s red zone touchdown percentage is a mere 62.5% as has seemingly gotten worse in recent weeks. While Iowa’s offense was able to get into the red zone enough against teams like Rutgers and Middle Tennessee State to settle for three field goal attempts a piece while still getting more opportunities to find the end zone, the conference’s better defenses are unlikely to give Iowa so many shots at putting seven points on the board. If the Hawkeye offense hopes to keep pace, it will need to capitalize on the opportunities it is given and convert red zone trips into touchdowns.

If Northwestern’s offense continues to struggle, Iowa should be blessed with a short field much more often than they have in recent weeks. It will be interesting to see whether the Hawkeyes can convert these opportunities into touchdowns or whether Iowa is content to allow Keith Duncan to continue being its offensive MVP.