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Iowa Football: Five Questions on the Northwestern Wildcats

The Hawkeyes need a get right game. Can they actually get one against Northwestern?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern
Can the Hawkeyes avenge a loss to Pat Fizgerald and the Wildcats from a season ago?
Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes are in a slump, dropping their last two games to fall from atop the Big Ten West to the middle of the pack. The struggles have been offensive in both senses of the word. Hawkeye fans are offended at just how bad the offense has been.

A matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats should be just what the doctor ordered. But this is Iowa, after all, and Kirk Ferentz hasn’t exactly done well against Pat Fitzgerald and the Cats.

To get a better sense of what to expect in this week’s critical matchup, we caught up with Ben Chasen, co-editor in chief at SB Nation’s Northwestern site Inside NU. Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: A season ago, the Wildcats ripped the hearts out of Iowa fans (again) with a come from behind win early in the year. Northwestern went on to win the West (again) and make a trip to Indianapolis. This year has gone much different with NU starting the year 3-5 and just 1-4 in the conference. What’s been the main difference from a year ago and who are some of the new faces we should know about?

INU: As you might’ve guessed, it seems that the primary reason for the sharp shift in Northwestern’s performance this year has been a number of departures that occurred after the 2020 season. I could go on and on with a list of key pieces that left, but just to give a few focus on:

  • Greg Newsome II was a shutdown corner who the Cleveland Browns selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. He’s since been replaced by Cam Mitchell, who was been solid at times but has failed to reach the elite level of play of his predecessor.
  • Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher were two multi-year starters at linebacker and, together, had been the heart and soul of NU’s defense. The fall off at LB has probably been more significant than at any other position, with Peter McIntyre, in particular, struggling during much of his time on field. One impact player who has emerged here, though, happens to be Blake’s brother, Bryce Gallagher, whose play has been more consistent and less mistake-laden than that of McIntyre.
  • QB Peyton Ramsey was only at NU for a year, but it was, as you noted, quite a successful one. He’s gone now, though, and a number of candidates – all of whom have been unsuccessful to this point – have tried to fill his shoes. Hunter Johnson was the original starter, but he was benched after turning the ball over four times in one half at Duke and isn’t expected to rejoin the fold. As of now, we still don’t know who will suit up at QB for the ‘Cats on Saturday, but it will very likely be either Ryan Hilinski – who started NU’s last five games before being benched in last week’s loss to Minnesota – or Andrew Marty – who was Hilinski’s replacement after being benched and who was unavailable for a number of weeks after leading the ‘Cats back into the game at Duke before getting hurt.
  • Perhaps most significantly, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who had coached for 51 years and had been DC at NU for the near-entirety of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, hung up his whistle after Northwestern’s Citrus Bowl win on New Year’s Day. He was replaced by former pro coach Jim O’Neil, whose defensive schemes have been routinely scorched in ways that Hankwitz’s rarely were.

There are more gaps to talk about than those, but unfortunately, we don’t have all day. If you’re an Iowa fan, the key thing to remember going into this game is that the Northwestern team you will see on the field this year is drastically different personnel-wise than the one that came back at Kinnick last year, and that has led to a lot of different results on the field. Perhaps most notably for Iowa, the team is yet to display the same level of fight that last year’s did. The Wildcats came back from 17-down on your home turf last year, but they’re yet to win a single game in which they’ve trailed at any point this season.

BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, the Wildcats appear relatively balanced averaging just over 180 yards per game through the air and nearly 160 per game on the ground. That said, Northwestern is averaging just 19 points per game on the year. How do you expect Pat Fitzgerald to go about attacking the Iowa defense on Saturday?

INU: When Iowa’s defense has thrived in 2021, generating turnovers has been, in particular, a massive reason for its success. Pat Fitzgerald and OC Mike Bajakian know this, and they also know that the ‘Cats have struggled to hold onto the ball this year, so I imagine the offensive play-calling will be rather conservative in an attempt to limit interceptions. As such, I’d expect the Wildcats to focus on the ground-game first (especially if the more mobile Marty gets the start under center) and leave a lot of the deep shot passes that they’ve tried against other foes out of the game plan for the most part.

BHGP: On the other side of the ball, Iowa has been virtually inept on offense the last two weeks and barely competent the first six weeks before that. But the Wildcats are giving up more than 420 yards per game and an absurd 230 yards per game on the ground while allowing 27 points per game. Do you expect Iowa to actually be able to move the ball in this one and how have teams had success attacking Northwestern this year, particularly in the run game?

INU: Northwestern’s defense has been consistently good against mediocre offenses this season (namely Indiana State, Ohio and Rutgers) and reliably horrible against anyone who could be classified as better than that. Unfortunately for Hawkeyes fans, it seems as though Iowa falls more in the former category than the latter. I’d expect NU to prevent Iowa from running up the score, particularly if the ‘Cats are tackling well and, as such, limiting the efficiency of Tyler Goodson. The Northwestern defense has been bad, but I don’t think it’s at the “getting torched by Spencer Petras” level of bad. At the very least, I hope it’s not.

BHGP: This is Iowa and punting is about as close to actually winning as we can get these days, so lets talk special teams for a minute. Who are the names to know on the Northwestern side of the ball and if things get weird (that would never happen in this series, right?) how do the Wildcats stack up in the punting and kicking game?

INU: At punter, Derek Adams has been one of the team’s most reliable players all season long, though, to be fair, he’s had more of an opportunity to show his ability than many punters in the B1G. He’s no Tory Taylor, but he gets the job done. Returning kicks, Northwestern’s original starter, WR Bryce Kirtz, has been knocked out for the year with a non-contact injury. His replacements have been serviceable, but nothing to write home about.

Then there’s kicker, a position that has, for the better part of the last five years, been occupied by Charlie Kuhbander. Now in his final season in Evanston, Kuhbander has been atrocious thus far this year. He’s currently 4-for-9 on total kicks, including a shameful 1-for-5 on attempts further than 30 yards-long. If Iowa can keep Northwestern out of the end zone on any given drive, they’ll have a fair chance of keeping NU off the board, regardless of where on the field the ‘Cats reach.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. The DraftKings Sportsbook opened with this one at Iowa -12 with an over/under at 40.5 total points. Hawkeye fans know better than to take Iowa by double digits in virtually any game (and I don’t want to spoil our Friday betting piece but as a teaser, this is absolutely not the series to do it in), but how do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?

INU: I would agree that taking any team in any game between Northwestern and Iowa by more than 10 points seems like a mistake. I’d expect this one to be a low-scoring, hard-fought battle between two tenured coaches who know each other well. I truly wouldn’t be shocked if the total number of passing yards from both teams combined winds up being under 200 yards, as I expect both Iowa and NU to try and pound the rock to pay dirt. Ultimately, though its offense is as bad as (if not worse than) Northwestern’s, Iowa’s defense has shown an ability to play at a level that no NU unit has displayed year. As such, I think the Hawkeyes emerge with a slim victory. Iowa 16, Northwestern 14.

Hooray for more rock fights where Iowa forgets to bring their rock!

Thanks again to Ben at Inside NU. Be sure to check out the Iowa content over there this week. You can also follow Ben on the Twitters @BenChasenINU and the main Inside NU account @insidenu.