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Iowa vs. Northwestern Football Preview

Whether Padilla or Petras starts at quarterback for the Hawkeyes, the Iowa offense cannot afford another dreadful performance this week.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa football needs a win in the worst way. Between last week’s 54-10 debacle at Ohio State, the crescendo of college football observers sounding off on Ferentz family nepotism, and the head coach’s bizarre feud with a Cleveland-based sportswriter, the midseason buzz surrounding the Hawkeyes is as bad as it has been in nearly a decade. The best way for Iowa to silence the critics is to do two things that have confounded them all year long—score points and win games.

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, their opponent this week may have the cure for what ails them. Northwestern has been absolutely dreadful this season. The Wildcats are 1-6 on the year, and it’s hard to give them much credit for their one win given that it happened in Week Zero against Nebraska on another continent. If Iowa cannot find a way to beat a team that is winless in North America this season, the Hawkeyes’ issues may be even more pronounced than originally thought.

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

1. Can Iowa find an answer at quarterback?

It took two months of constant criticism, three first have turnovers, and four progressively devastating losses, but Iowa might FINALLY have a quarterback controversy on its hands! The Hawkeyes pulled starter Spencer Petras at halftime during a particularly ghastly performance against Ohio State in favor of junior Alex Padilla, though the latter’s own play was only marginally better than the former’s. The Hawkeye coaching staff has been coy about which quarterback will get the start this week, and both players have reportedly been splitting first-team reps during practice this week. The coaches have been steadfast in their support for Petras throughout his career, but the temptation to give Padilla a shot must be mounting, particularly given how sharp the backup looked against Northwestern after replacing an injured an ineffective Petras last year.

Whichever quarterback starts for Iowa will face a pass defense that has been far from formidable this season. With Northwestern’s former All-American safety Brandon Joseph suiting up for the Fighting Irish, the Wildcats have allowed opposing quarterbacks to post an average passer rating of 142.53 (the third worst among Big Ten teams) and are surrendering 220.9 passing yards per game. While defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore has emerged as an intimidating pass rusher, Northwestern has struggled to get to the quarterback for much of the season, a welcome relief for an Iowa offensive line that has been poor in pass protection and faced the conference’s three best pass rushing teams already this season.

Regardless of who starts under center for the Hawkeyes, the team simply must see a higher level of play from the quarterback position if it hopes to beat Northwestern, to say nothing of the other programs on its schedule. Iowa’s QBs have posted the worst passer rating of any Power Five team this year (95.90). Only the 1-6 Massachusetts Minutemen have thrown fewer touchdowns this year than Iowa’s measly two, and the Hawks have thrown 3x fewer touchdowns than Navy and Air Force, two service academies who run the triple option. If Padilla takes over the job, he must show signs that the offense can improve with him running the show, possibly by using his mobility to extend plays and avoid the rush. If Petras starts, however, the senior signal-caller must display a short memory to move past last week’s performance, as well as improved decision-making to avoid making the same mistakes that doomed the team against the Buckeyes.

2. Can Iowa find an answer for Evan Hull?

With 2:30 remaining in last year’s game between Iowa and Northwestern, the Hawkeyes appeared to have the contest in hand. Then, on 1st and 15, Wildcat running back Evan Hull caught a pass on a checkdown throw from his quarterback, dodged a tackle from star Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell, juked out current New York Giant safety Dane Belton, and outran the rest of the Hawkeye secondary to score a touchdown that brought his team back into contention.

As it turns out, this performance from Hull was an excellent preview of things to come, as the running back has been an almost singular driving force behind whatever offense the Wildcats have managed to muster this season. Hull’s 985 yards from scrimmage make up more than a third of Northwestern’s 2,724 yards of total offense on the season, and Hull is Northwestern’s leading rusher (547 yards) and second-leading receiver (436 yards). Throughout his four years in Evanston, Hull has twice eclipsed 200 rushing yards in a single game and tallied an impressive 213 receiving yards against Duke earlier this year. Hull has made hay this season running behind Northwestern’s massive left tackle Peter Skoronski, who has established himself as one of the nation’s best linemen and has been an absolute road grader of the course of his career.

Can Iowa neutralize the Wildcats’ most dangerous weapon? The Hawkeyes are allowing the 14th-fewest rushing yards per game this season but have shown vulnerability to elite backs like Michigan’s Blake Corum and Illinois’ Chase Brown. Skoronski is good enough to neutralize whatever defender he blocks on any given play, but the Hawkeyes should have enough depth and talent up front to bottle him up the way they did last season (41 yards on 3.7 yards per carry). Although Iowa’s linebackers will need to be sure tacklers in space to avoid letting Hull damage them as a receiver, expect defensive coordinator Phil Parker to make stopping the shifty Wildcat running back the defense’s top priority.

3. Can Iowa impose its will through the running game?

Iowa’s ground attack has been a colossal disappointment this season. The Hawkeyes have had only one player eclipse the century mark in 2022 (Kaleb Johnson against Nevada), and the team is dead last among Big Ten teams in rushing yards (570), yard per carry (2.56), and rushing touchdowns (five). Iowa’s running backs deserve their share of the blame, but the main source of the team’s terrible running game is its offensive line, which is allowing defenses to stuff ballcarriers at or behind the line of scrimmage on a whopping 21.6% of attempts.

The Northwestern run defense might be just what the Hawkeyes need to jumpstart their ground game. The Wildcats have one of the worst rushing defenses in the country and are giving up 187.57 yards per contest on the ground this season. Last year, Iowa was able to lean on Tyler Goodson (141 yards and a touchdown) and its rushing attack to take the pressure off Padilla after injury forced him into the game, allowing Iowa to control the clock and physically wear down the Wildcats over the course of the evening. Given the uncertainty surrounding Iowa’s passing game, a repeat of this performance would go a long way towards helping the Hawkeye offense bounce back after a series of poor performances. Watch out for Northwestern linebacker Bryce Gallagher, however; his 70 tackles put him behind only Jack Campbell in the conference, and the junior has proven every bit as capable as his former All-Big Ten brother Blake at running down opposing ballcarriers.