Hawkeye fans are understandably irritated by their team’s maddening loss to Purdue in the season opener after waiting almost ten months for the season to begin. Iowa has precious few opportunities to put up wins in 2020 as a result of the shortened schedule, and it feels as though every loss this year could hit fans with even more weight than defeats usually do. Yet as cathartic as it might be to take to Twitter and declare Spencer Petras a bust and Iowa’s Big Ten West ambitions dead on arrival, it’s important to remember that the Hawkeyes still have seven games remaining and plenty of time to right the ship.
Iowa’s upcoming game against Northwestern is an important lesson in not overreacting to how the two teams looked in their debut. Iowa likely isn’t as bad a team as last week’s score suggests, just as Northwestern likely isn’t as good as its forty-point beatdown over Maryland, the program’s largest margin of victory over a conference opponent in fifty years, suggests. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats are two teams fighting to escape from the Big Ten West’s middle pack and emerge as a contender for a division title, and this game should reveal a lot about where each program fits within the division hierarchy in 2020.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can the Hawkeyes get out of their own way?
Purdue deserves credit for securing a victory last weekend, but Iowa certainly did its part to make things easy for the Boilermakers. The Hawkeyes committed ten penalties for 100 yards against Purdue, the program’s most penalties since the Indiana game in 2018 and more than twice their average penalties and three times their average penalty yardage from the 2019 season. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, one of Iowa’s most explosive offensive weapons, produced more yards in penalties (20) than he did total offense (18). Each of Iowa’s starting offensive linemen was assessed a penalty over the course of the game with the exception of Cole Banwart, who had the even more dubious distinction of accidentally forcing one of Iowa’s three fumbles (two of which were lost) when he collided with Tyler Goodson.
There’s never a good time for a team to commit penalties and turnovers, but Iowa’s seemed to come at the least opportune moments possible. Whenever the Hawkeyes had a drive going in the second half, a holding or false start penalty would offset a nice gain or put the offense behind the chains. Both of Iowa’s lost fumbles came at the end of otherwise successful run plays, one of which occurred in the red zone while the other happened during what could have been the Hawkeye’s game-clinching drive. It’s easy to chalk up some of these mistakes to the disrupted offseason, but that alone can’t explain why Iowa committed more than three times more penalties than Purdue, a team that was missing its head coach and offensive play-caller for that game.
Iowa simply cannot afford to make these unforced errors if it hopes to improve its record to 1-1. Northwestern may not have the overall team talent that the Boilermakers did, but they are an exceptionally well-coached program that historically excels at minimizing mistakes and letting their opponents beat themselves. Iowa’s coaches are certain to have emphasized ball security and eliminating penalties during this week’s practices, and how the Hawkeye players respond to these calls for greater discipline could speak volumes about the team’s capacity to grow and improve throughout the season.
2. Can Iowa’s defensive front elevate its play?
While Iowa’s front seven is normally a strength of the defense, the linebackers and defensive line play left much to be desired in the opener. The Hawkeyes consistently failed to get pressure on the Purdue quarterback, giving him ample time to find open receivers on the rare occasions in which David Bell was unable to shake his coverage. The defense also struggled heavily against the run in the second half and surrendered 129 rushing yards to Zander Horvath, the second-string running back on an offense that ranked fifth worst in rushing yards per game last season.
Northwestern is a team built to exploit both of these issues. Northwestern’s transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey is an experienced signal-caller capable of making plays with both his arm and his legs, and will subject Iowa’s defense to a death by a thousand cuts if they are content to let him methodically move the Wildcat offense down the field. Northwestern also ran for 325 yards last week and has two solid running backs in Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser, the latter of whom has a similar straight-ahead running style to Horvath and who helped sink Iowa’s Big Ten title chances in 2018.
The Wildcats rushing and passing attacks will both be aided by a solid offensive line that returns four starters from last season and which did not surrender a single sack against Maryland last week.
To disrupt the Wildcat offense, Iowa must improve its play in both the middle and on the edges of its defensive front seven. Daviyon Nixon had some great moments against Purdue, but Iowa simply needs more from seniors like Jack Heflin and Nick Niemann if they want to avoid surrendering massive running lanes for the second straight week. Similarly, defensive coordinator Phil Parker must be more aggressive with the pass rush against Northwestern than he was against Purdue. While the threat of being burnt deep by the Boilermaker wideouts necessitated a conservative game plan by Parker, the Hawkeyes can blitz far more often against the Wildcats without being petrified of leaving their defensive backs in single coverage. Ramsey’s past three seasons at Indiana prove that he can be rattled by an effective pass rush, and the Hawkeyes must find a way to pressure him without creating easy opportunities for the veteran quarterback to scramble and make plays with his legs.
3. Can Iowa run the ball effectively against a strong Northwestern linebacking corps?
Iowa’s running backs may have struggled with ball security against Purdue, but the running game actually performed quite well when they managed to hold on to the rock. The Hawkeye tailbacks gouged the Boilermakers for 5.7 yards per carry, and the coaches showed some interesting wrinkles in the running game with handoffs to Ihmir Smith-Marsette and direct snaps to Tyler Goodson out of the shotgun. Can Iowa replicate this success throughout the year, or does last week’s ground-and-pound clinic say more about Purdue’s poor rush defense than it does about Iowa’s running attack?
Northwestern could provide a clear answer to this question, as the strength of the Wildcat defense lies in its linebacking trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, and Chris Bergin. These veteran standouts won’t be frozen in place every time Smith-Marsette goes in motion and have proven that they can disrupt opposing rushing offenses behind the line of scrimmage. The Hawkeyes were only able to muster 3.1 yards per rush when these two teams met last season—that likely won’t cut it this time around. If Iowa’s running game has broken free from the past few seasons of mediocrity, it will need to come up big against a talented linebacking corps for the Hawkeyes to get their first win of 2020.