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Iowa Football: Five Questions on Northwestern

We’ve got lots of questions and who better to answer them than the folks with Northwestern educations.

Maryland v Northwestern
Can Iowa’s defense slow down the potent Northwestern running game?
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After weeks and months of anticipation, Iowa fell flat on its face in a frustrating week one loss at Purdue. Now the Hawkeyes are back in an empty Kinnick Stadium for their home opener against the Northwestern Wildcats.

Earlier this week we took a look at expectations for the Wildcats in 2020 from the folks over at Inside NU. Now we’re circling back with Lia Assimakopoulos of Inside NU to get the scoop on Iowa’s matchup with Northwestern.

Here are five questions on the Wildcats in week two.

BHGP: Northwestern had an absolutely absurd day running the ball in week one with 325 rushing yards and touchdowns from 4 different ball carries. How were the Wildcats so successful and how can Iowa slow down the potent Northwestern run game?

Inside NU: Northwestern certainly had a rebuilding year in the run game in 2019, and the unit’s success against Maryland proved it was all worth it. Isaiah Bowser, who had a standout year in 2018, missed the majority of last season with an injury, so having him back to start this season was instrumental for the Wildcats. He had 23 carries for 70 yards but showed his value in the redone where he was good for two total touchdowns on the day. Additionally, he stepped up in the receiving game and caught four balls for 21 yards and a touchdown, something we hadn’t seen from him in the past.

However, what made the run game so successful on Saturday was not just Bowser’s presence, but the depth in the running back room. Drake Anderson, who led the Wildcat rushing game in 2019, pranced to a quiet 100+ yards on the ground, including a 37-yard touchdown. Redshirt freshman Evan Hull added a rushing touchdown as well and some yards when the game was out of reach. And, quarterback Peyton Ramsey accounted for seven carries, 47 yards and a rushing touchdown of his own.

A lot of the credit is also due to Northwestern’s offensive line — a unit which was somewhat of concern coming into the season after a couple notable opt outs including NFL Draft-bound Rashawn Slater. The unit stepped up big and allowed for these young running backs to shine in Week 1.

Coming into the game, we expected to see more action from the running backs because of Mike Bajakian’s tendency to emphasize the run. However, in the past, he worked with weapons like AJ Dillon at Boston College, so it was promising to see him produce such success with the Wildcat running backs. Ultimately, it was a run-by-committee approach, and it worked against Maryland’s weak defense. The question remains if Northwestern’s young backs can produce against Iowa’s consistently strong front seven. If Iowa can win in the trenches, they should have much better luck in slowing down the run game than Maryland did.

BHGP: Quarterback Peyton Ramsey had a solid outing in week one completing nearly 77% of his passes while totaling 212 yards and a touchdown. What does he add to the Northwestern offense and should we expect to see him dink and dunk the Iowa secondary to death as so many Wildcat QBs before him have done?

Inside NU: Having Peyton Ramsey under center is a game changer. Northwestern’s struggles in 2019 are largely attributed to the lack of consistency and production from the quarterback room, so having a solid signal caller changes the offensive scheme altogether. Ramsey showed composure and versatility in the matchup against the Terrapins, as he was able to target seven different receivers and produce on the ground, himself. He brought a dormant receiving game back to life and found strong connections with new graduate transfer tight end John Raine as well as veteran wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.

Many Northwestern fans have wondered this week whether Ramsey and the new Northwestern offense are really that good or whether Maryland’s defense is just that bad. Personally, I think it’s a combination of both. I expect to see Northwestern take significant strides against opponents who beat down on the team last year because of Ramsey and the new offense scheme. But Maryland is without a doubt NU’s easiest opponent of the year, so it will be more telling to see Ramsey face a more skilled defense in Iowa this weekend. Obviously, Iowa struggled against David Bell last weekend, so Ramsey will look to capitalize on those weak points in the secondary again, however, I do not expect the same dominance he showed against Maryland.

BHGP: While the gaudy offensive numbers have gotten a lot of attention, the Northwestern defense held Maryland to just three points and forced four turnovers. What kind of scheme are the Wildcats running and how should Brian Ferentz look to attack it?

Inside NU: Northwestern’s defense has been consistently strong year in and year out, so the offense has gotten much more attention because of the leaps and bounds it made in Week 1. In 2019, the defense kept Northwestern in many games when the offense couldn’t stay on the field, and coming into this season, it was ranked sixth in the nation in S&P+, so there’s a lot of promise for what they can accomplish this year.

The Wildcats knew their linebackers would be strong as always with star LB Paddy Fisher and veterans Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin returning. However, there was more concern for the lineman and the secondary, in particular. The line lost program all-time sack leader Joe Gaziano to the NFL and starting DE Samdup Miller, who opted out shortly before the season. To make matters worse, two more defensive linemen, Jason Gold and Trevor Kent, are both inactive, so the line is thinner than usual. The secondary was without starting safety Travis Whillock, who also opted out, and star cornerback Greg Newsome II, who is out with an injury. While the secondary played exceptionally well against Maryland, it is a young unit that could show some inconsistencies against some of Iowa’s star receivers.

Ultimately, while the defense is strong overall, Iowa’s offense will be a test, and the depleted defensive line and young secondary are the two areas Northwestern must be wary of.

BHGP: After getting torched to the tune of three touchdowns by David Bell in week one, Iowa fans are notably nervous about the defensive secondary (and the linebackers and perhaps the QB and definitely the offensive coordinator, but I digress). What’s the one matchup that makes Northwestern fans nervous heading into this pivotal Big Ten West showdown?

Inside NU: Like Iowa, a matchup that Northwestern fans are nervous about but eager to see is how Northwestern’s young secondary will match up against Ihmir Smith-Marsette. While Smith-Marsette was very quiet against Purdue, he is due for a big game, especially after his incredible strong 2019 campaign. As mentioned before, Northwestern’s secondary is young and inexperienced, and while they matched up well against Maryland and Taulia Tagovailoa, they will have a bigger challenge on their hands against the duo of Spencer Petras and Smith-Marsette.

Additionally, Greg Newsome would be the covering Smith-Marsette, however, he missed the first game of the year with an injury and will likely not see the field again this Saturday. His absence will leave a less experienced defensive back covering Iowa’s star weapon.

BHGP: Alright, prediction time. Vegas has this one as Iowa -2.5 to -3 while the local sports book had an early line of Iowa -14. You’d be hard pressed to find even the most optimistic Hawkeye fan willing to take Iowa by two scores in this one, but what are you expecting? Is Northwestern set to take the keys to the West or is the window open for Iowa to right the ship?

Inside NU: I could really see this matchup going either way, but with Northwestern’s momentum and Iowa’s tough start, I am going to take the Wildcats on this one. But I think it’ll be a close one. I’ll say Northwestern 24, Iowa 20.

So there you have it, the folks at Inside NU have the Hawkeyes starting 0-2 and the Wildcats in position to make a run at the Big Ten West with a 2-0 start. Let’s hope the Northwestern education stereotypes don’t translate to predicting Iowa football games.

Thanks again to Lia at Inside NU. Be sure to check out all the Iowa game week content over there for further perspective from the Wildcats.