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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Northwestern

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After two dispiriting losses, can the Hawkeyes turn things around against a hapless Northwestern team?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa fans should have every reason to be optimistic about their team’s chances to win in Week 10. The only thing the 2021 Northwestern Wildcats have in common with the NU team that won the Big Ten Wes the season prior is their uniforms. Where last year’s Wildcats had a steady hand at quarterback, the 2021 squad have cycled through three signal callers and found little success with any of them. Meanwhile, the dominant Northwestern defense that suffocated opponents last year has been shockingly inconsistent, surrendering more points per game (27.1) than any team fielded by the program since 2013. Northwestern lost to Nebraska 56-7 in early October, something good (or event semi-decent) teams simply do not do.

Yet few can forgive Hawkeye fans for feeling a sense of dread about this matchup. Not only has the Iowa offense imploded over the past two weeks (the Hawkeyes scored a combined 14 points against Purdue and Wisconsin), but Northwestern has a rich history of defeating Iowa teams it had no business competing with. 4-8 Northwestern upset Iowa at home in Pat Fitzgerald’s first season in 2006, unranked Wildcat teams defeated top 15 Hawkeye squads in both 2009 and 2010, and Iowa has lost four of the past five games in this series. A win over Northwestern would help eliminate some of the angst surrounding this program and get Iowa back on track ahead of next week’s massive game against Minnesota. A loss, meanwhile, could open the floodgates of misery and kill any hope the Hawkeyes have of salvaging a campaign that once seemed so full of promise. Iowa may have found creative ways to lose to Northwestern in the past, but it cannot afford to do so again if they want to save its season.

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

1. Can Iowa exploit the weaknesses in Northwestern’s run defense?

It is almost shocking to see a Northwestern defense coached by Pat Fitzgerald be so wildly bad at stopping the run. Northwestern is easily the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten (they have allowed nearly 70 more yards per game and eight more touchdowns on the ground than the second worst team—Maryland), and their average of 229.88 opponent rush yards per game is the fifth highest in college football. Kansas is the only Power Five team to have surrendered more rushing touchdowns this season than the Wildcats, and Northwestern opponents are gaining nearly twice as many yards per rush (5.46) as Iowa’s are (2.86). Northwestern has allowed 1839 rushing yards through eight games, more yards than Iowa rushed for throughout its entire thirteen game season in 2019 (1789).

Yet as that last statistic reveals, Iowa has had its own struggles running the ball which have manifested over the past several seasons. The Hawkeyes have the second worst running game in the conference this year, trailing only Purdue in rushing yards per game (105), yard per carry (2.88), and total yards (840). Persistent run blocking problems have slowed the Iowa ground attack and resulted in Tyler Goodson and his running mates frequently being swarmed by defenders behind the line of scrimmage as soon as they receive the handoff. Goodson’s 153-yard performance against Kent State marks the only time a Hawkeye running back has eclipsed the century mark this season, which is concerning given that Iowa backs accomplished this feat five times through as many games last season.

Iowa must be able to run the ball effectively for its offense to work, and Northwestern’s run defense may just be the cure for the team’s current woes. If Iowa’s offensive line can create holes up front, Goodson should be able to use his speed and cutback ability to capitalize on the poor run discipline Northwestern’s front seven has displayed all season long. Iowa will likely be without backup running back Ivory Kelly-Martin, but this game could also provide a valuable audition for redshirt freshmen Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams, both of whom could be in line for more carries throughout the rest of the season due to Kelly-Martin’s persistent struggles with ball security.

If Iowa can impose its will on the ground, it should be able to control the pace of the game, jumpstart its floundering offense, and cruise to a comfortable win. If it can’t the Hawkeyes could be in a for a dogfight in Evanston and the panic surrounding Iowa’s ground attack will officially hit DEFCON 1.

2. Can Iowa shut down Evan Hull?

Sophomore running back Evan Hull has been a welcome surprise for Northwestern this year and has emerged as the focal point of an otherwise struggling offense. Hull became the clear starter after the Wildcats lost Cam Porter to a preseason injury and has managed to run for 750 yards and five touchdowns on an impressive 6.5 yards per carry. Hull has shown serious big play ability, breaking off a 75-yard touchdown run against Michigan

and a 90-yard burst against Ohio.

Iowa’s rushing defense will have its hands full with Hull but has thus far proven up to the task of slowing down prolific runners. The Hawkeyes are holding opponents to only 99.38 yards per game on the ground (the 12th fewest in the nation) and only four teams have allowed opponents to rush for fewer yards per carry than Iowa has (2.86). Only Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, and Georgia have allowed fewer rushes of 10+ yards this year than Iowa has (20), and the Hawkeyes are one of only four teams in the nation not to have surrendered a single rush of 30+ yards. If Iowa’s defense can continue its strong performance against the run, they should be able to prevent Hull from breaking a big play and keep the Wildcat offense in check.

3. Can either team establish a consistent rhythm in the passing game?

Iowa and Northwestern have had very different experiences at the quarterback position this season. While the Wildcats have cycled through three signal-callers in 2021, Kirk Ferentz and his staff seem wedded to a single starter, for better or worse. Still, Ferentz’s penchant for stability and Fitzgerald’s game of quarterback roulette have led to both teams producing nearly identical numbers in the passing game.

Birds of a Feather

Team Completion % Yards Yards/Attempt QB Rating
Team Completion % Yards Yards/Attempt QB Rating
Iowa 57 1492 6.3 117.88
Northwestern 57.1 1451 5.9 117.62

Neither passing attack has been particularly dynamic, with the Hawkeyes and Wildcats ranking 10th and 11th respectively in passing yards per game in the conference. Similarly, both teams will square off against formidable secondaries in Saturday’s game; Iowa leads the nation with 16 interceptions on the year and is holding opponents the third lowest passer rating in the nation (101.97), while Northwestern boasts a Top 20 passing defense in opponent yards per game (191), has an excellent safety in Brandon Joseph, and features a pass rush of defensive linemen Adetomiwa Adebawore and Jeremy Meiser that could test Iowa’s front five in pass protection.

Yet there is also reason for optimism that both teams could exploit vulnerabilities in the opponent’s passing defense. Northwestern is giving up few yards through the air, but its defensive backs play with a lot of cushion, allowing opponents to complete a conference-high 66.3% of their passes. If Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras can consistently hit open receivers and take what the defense gives him, the Hawkeyes should be able to move the ball through the air and hopefully create opportunities for skill players to make plays in space. Meanwhile, not only will Northwestern play an Iowa defense that is without two proven cornerbacks in Riley Moss and Terry Roberts, but the introduction of Andrew Marty into the quarterback equation could give Northwestern the kind of high-efficiency dual-threat QB that has typically given the Hawkeyes fits in this series. If either team is able to create consistent production through the air in this game, they could dramatically shift the dynamic of the contest.