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The Butcher’s Word: Northwestern

The Wildcats have a new head coach, the Hawkeyes have the same offensive coordinator. What should we expect from Wrigley?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Howard at Northwestern
This is not the same Wildcats team the Hawkeyes faced a season ago.
Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Iowa Hawkeyes have had two weeks to sit and stew on the disappointing loss to Minnesota that was ultimately the final straw for the tenure of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Now Iowa looks to move forward, albeit with Brian still at the helm of the offense through the remainder of the season, with their sites still set on winning the Big Ten West.

This week’s matchup brings an old foe with a new face at the helm as the Northwestern Wildcats are led by interim head coach and defensive coordinator David Braun. Not only is this Braun’s first season in the head coaching role, it’s his first season in Evanston after spending the last four seasons as defensive coordinator at North Dakota State (preceded by a stint at Northern Iowa!).

In the words of the wise and sage-like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?

So rather than sticking our head up anyone’s rear end, we’re asking our friends over at Inside NU for their words on Braun and the Northwestern Wildcats as we prepare for this weekend’s matchup. We were joined by David Gold, co-editor-in-chief of Inside NU, to talk all things NU this week. Here’s a look at our conversation.

BHGP: A lot has changed both in Iowa City and Evanston since the last meeting between these two programs. The Wildcats said goodbye to long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald with DC David Braun stepping in as interim head coach. How has his approach, philosophy and style of play matched or differed from Fitz and how have Wildcat fans felt about his job through 8 games?

INU: David Braun has been a revelation for the Wildcats this season. It felt that Northwestern had fallen stale under Fitzgerald, and the program was headed in the wrong direction. Now, Braun has completely reinvigorated the group. He has already matched NU’s win totals from the last two years combined, and it is obvious that this team is playing with a new edge. While the stats may not reflect it, this team has continued to improve every week. From where they started this season to now, it is night and day for the Wildcats, and David Braun is the primary reason.

As for the fans, every single Northwestern supporter I’ve spoken to loves Coach Braun. They find his accountability and honesty refreshing, and everyone says he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever talk to. In my interactions with him, he has been nothing but genuine and respectful. To sum it up, it is really easy to root for his success.

BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, it seems to have been a bumpy road so far for NU with the Wildcats averaging 21 points per game on just over 300 yards per outing, but it looks like just about every time the offense has a good showing there’s been a drop off the following week. What’s been the driver of the inconsistency and where has Northwestern been able to really find success on offense?

INU: On the offensive side of the ball, the main problem has been the big boys up front. Northwestern has four new starters across the offensive line this season, and the group has struggled this season. The ‘Cats have given up 35 sacks this season, which is the fifth most allowed in all of the FBS. When protected, both Brendan Sullivan and Ben Bryant have been efficient at delivering the football, but their attempts within a clean pocket have been few and far between.

On a more positive note, Northwestern’s pass catchers have taken a massive step forward in their first season under new receivers coach Armon Binns. NU brought in A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson this offseason, and the duo have been steady targets all season. Johnson excels in tight coverage, demonstrating his strong hands, but is able to shake off defenders and pick up yards after the catch. Henning is this team’s swiss army knife, being used in the pass game, run game, and even as a returner. He is lightning in a bottle, ready to strike at any moment. Last, but not least, Bryce Kirtz is having a career year, and his route running has put defenders on skates multiple times this season.

BHGP: On the other side of the ball, Northwestern is giving up 26 points per game and just over 350 yards per game. Notably, the Wildcats are conceding more than 160 yards per game on the ground. How have opponents been able to find success in the running game against Braun’s defense and how do you expect Northwestern to approach the miserable Iowa aerial attack?

INU: Much like the offense, Northwestern’s defensive struggles begin with the boys in the trenches. New D-Line Coach Christian Smith has outperformed expectations, but this group just lacks the talent to compete with the conference’s best rushing attacks. Darius Taylor had nearly 200 yards rushing in three quarters against the Wildcats, and mobile quarterbacks like Heinrich Haarberg have given the ‘Cats fits this season. It still baffles me why Maryland threw the ball 47 times against the Wildcats, especially when the Terps’ top backs averaged over seven yards a carry. If Iowa wants to win this game, the ball should rarely go in the air.

The secondary is the strength of NU’s defense. Northwestern has a three-headed monster at Safety with Devin Turner, Coco Azema and Jaheem Joseph. All three can make plays on the ball but will also play downhill and lay the boom in the run game. While the secondary has played well, the Hawkeyes should take advantage of the mismatch of a skill position player against Northwestern’s slow linebackers. If I’m David Braun, I’m loading the box with seven and playing cover 0 behind it, daring Brian Ferentz and Deacon Hill to beat me through the air.

BHGP: OK, we are Iowa so I have to ask about punting and special teams more broadly. What can you tell us about punter Hunter Renner? And kicker Jack Olsen has been perfect on the year both on extra points and kicks inside 50 yards. What’s his range and if the game comes down to a FG, how do Wildcat fans feel about their chances?

INU: Hunter Renner is extremely inconsistent. He can hit a beauty, but his odds of shanking one are much higher. I don’t expect the Wildcats to give Cooper DeJean many chances to return a punt, but with Renner, you never know where the ball is going to end up.

Jack Olsen is a completely different story. You could make the case that he is the MVP of this team because he has been absolutely knockdown. His only miss of the year was a 54-yarder, which was dead straight, falling about a yard short. You never know how the wind may affect the game, but if NU needs one from inside 50, my trust in Olsen is sky high.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have Iowa favored by 5 with an over/under set at 31 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?

INU: I’ve never been so sure in my life that an under hits more than I am about it happening on Saturday. Both of these squads have horrid offenses, so points and field position will be at a premium. I think this game ends 10-6 Iowa, but I would not be surprised if the ‘Cats eke one out in the friendly confines.

So there you have it, it’s not time to stop betting the under yet! Thanks again to David Gold of Inside NU for taking the time to answer our questions. You can follow David on Twitter @davidgoldINU. It’s also worth taking a trip over to Inside NU to check out their coverage of this week’s matchup.

The Hawkeyes and Wildcats are set to kick off at 2:30pm CT on Saturday. As noted, this one is being played in Wrigley Field. The game will not be broadcast over the air, but is available for streaming on NBC’s Peacock platform. This should be the last time you need that subscription for football this season. However, if you’re a hoops fan, they probably have their hooks in you for Iowa basketball in 2023-2024.