Northwestern has long been a thorn in the Hawkeyes’ side...at least since coaching staffs turned over and Kirk Ferentz figuratively lined up against Pat Fitzgerald. We continue with our opponent previews by taking a look at the latest iteration of the Wildcats.
Who: Northwestern Wildcats (Evanston, IL; Big Ten Conference)
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (109-90 at Northwestern)
What: The most recent (as of this writing) sold out home game announced by the Hawkeyes
When: October 29th, 2022
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA
Why: Because they occupy the same divisional alignment. An aside is that Gary Barta has granted them access to the same club as Minnesota, Nebraska, & Wisconsin as rivalries he will strive to protect.
Iowa AD Gary Barta said it's likely the Big Ten keeps status quo (East-West) until USC and UCLA join in 2024.— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) July 8, 2022
On rivalries: "I'm going to fight for as many as I can get." Mentions four in that category: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern.
This seems like a case where you ask for one extra thing heading into a negotiation hoping you get the things you actually want but someone calling Barta’s pseudo-bluff and assigning a protected rivalry to Iowa-Northwestern instead of Iowa-Wisconsin.
6-3: Pat Fitzgerald has a winning record - by a not slim margin! - in road games at Iowa during his tenure as Northwestern’s head man. It includes each of the last three Kinnick Stadium matchups, with the Wildcats winning by a combined 12 points. Those sure were fun! Additional gambling advice months in advance, the nine matchups in Iowa have resulted in the under hitting six times. It’s even more staggering when you include Ryan Field games: the under is 13-4! (For what it’s worth, the streaks at Kinnick have gone 3 to Northwestern, 3 to Iowa, 3 to Northwestern)
125: Northwestern’s paltry 16.6 points a game ranked 125th out of 130 teams last season. It’s jarring to look at recent [West] division winners and see that three of the last four averaged less than 25 points/game. This conveniently leaves out the Wisconsin teams which averaged over 28 PPG. Big Ten West: offense optional!
5: Northwestern has held Iowa to 20 points or less in each of the last 5 outings. In Kirk vs. Patfitz matchups, Iowa has scored 30+ points in just 4 of the 17 contests. Pigs, mud, etc.
45.4%: Anchored by the losses of Chris Bergin (draft) and Brandon Joseph (transfer), the Wildcats return just 45.4% of their team’s total tackles & 35.3% of their defensive big plays, according to Phil Steele. It ranks them in the bottom 20 of both categories. There always seems to be a Wildcat LB in the mold of Fitzgerald, and Bryce Gallagher looks to be that guy, but will they be able to build a championship-level defense around him under second-year defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil?
Evan Hull (#26, RB, Jr, 5’11”, 210 lbs): Just another casual 1000-yard runner the Hawkeyes will take on this season. The Hawkeyes did well to cover him on the ground this time last year but struggled when the game was sorta out of hand before he put the team on his back through the passing game and leaving a ton of Hawks in the dust:
He’s not a burner, nor really a bruiser, but can make guys miss enough to accumulate the 5.6 yards/carry he’s averaged through three seasons. His 89 receiving yards against Iowa last year mark a career high. They’ll probably need another career performance to beat the Hawks, which is something I’m sure Fitzgerald will know in the last week of October.
Bryce Gallagher (#32, LB, Jr, 6’2”, 240 lbs): Brother of recent WIldcat star, Blake, the younger Gallagher was the #2 tackler on last year’s team at 90 while adding five for a loss. He’s the lone returner of the linebacking corps and will need to be dude if the Wildcats are going to make hay in the division, as the only time the Wildcats allowed more points/game than last season’s 29.0 was in 2007 (31.0).
Adetomiwa Adebawore (#99, DL, Jr, 6’2”, 280 lbs): Never trust #99 on Northwestern.
Adebawore led the team in sacks last year with 4.5 alongside 8.5 TFLs and 36 tackles overall. If Iowa’s line remains unsettled through 8 games, as it kind of was last season, a guy like Adebawore can single-handedly affect the outcome of the game.
Northwestern will line him up all over, primarily switching him between the two end spots, and is solid in run defense holding his gaps while having an impact on the passing game (he added an interception and three passes defended).
Best case: The Kinnick curse flips back in Iowa’s favor as the Hawkeyes start another three game home winning streak in throwback fashion. The offense breaks the five-year less-than-30-points curse they’re currently under and run roughshod on the spotty Wildcat defense. By ending October on a high note, the Hawks put themselves in position for a return trip to Indianapolis with four wins against the other contenders in the West along with catching a break or two.
Worst case: Pat Fitzgerald once again rope-a-dopes (ropes-a-dope?) Kirk Ferentz into a gnarly football game where the first team to 21 wins, if that. I waste too much of my time in Las Vegas for the When We Were Young Festival eying my phone to keep tabs on the game. An Iowa loss by 1pm local time gets me good and surly for the rest of the day.
My goal: watch as little of this one [live] as possible!
Can Fitzgerald rekindle his magic? This is more of a season-long question than a single-game question because undoubtedly, yes, Fitzgerald can muster up enough residual hate from “I hope we didn’t hurt your boys too bad” to get up for the Iowa game every season. Iowa put a hurt on them in 2014, 2015 (a 10-win Northwestern team!), and 2019 but every game since Fitzgerald’s hiring has come with a sidecar of existential dread about the potential of losing to Northwestern as much or more than the actual loss. Patfitz (and Kirk) will undoubtedly make the game as unwatchable as possible, much to the chagrin of the layman, but far more to the disdain of the average Iowa fan who knows that the only way the Wildcats can win is to out-Ferentz the Ferentzes.
But the wider lens is the more interesting one Northwestern yo-yos about as much as a fanbase can handle. It helps to be the lone private university, led by a beloved former player who has put together plenty of seasons in his tenure to believe that the upcoming season will be the bounce back but! it is the Wildcats’ second season without longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Nobody is expecting a world-beater on either side of the ball but this season feels particularly pessimistic for the purple & black as far as preseason prognostications. They don’t return much to write home about offensively and lost their best defender to the portal and are going to play Fitzball which is like Ferentzball but without the high floor. Will they channel even year magic and make that sneaky run at a Big Ten West Title? Or will this be the season we see Illinois or worse, Nebraska, pass the Wildcats as we barrel towards a coast-to-coast Big Ten?
I mean, the only game they were in after their mid-October win against Rutgers was the 17-12 loss to Iowa. Things are bleak but honestly, the pessimistic Iowa fan in me thinks this is exactly where FItzgerald thrives.