This week’s Iowa game was not supposed to be a particularly interesting one. Hawkeye fans have had this matchup against the lowly, post-Pat Fitzgerald Northwestern Wildcats placed squarely in the win column for months now, and only the game’s venue (Wrigley Field) seemed worthy of even fleeting national attention. Even with Iowa’s long and storied history of inexplicably losing games to mediocre Northwestern teams, there was very little reason to expect the team’s trip to Chicago to be anything other than a slow, low scoring, but easily won affair.
Oh, how wrong we all were.
This weekend’s Iowa/Northwestern game has gone from a guaranteed snoozefest to a matchup replete with intrigue and uncertainty. Iowa’s stunning announcement that embattled offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz would be let go at the end of the season send shockwaves through the fanbase and supplied an added element of chaos to the outgoing OC’s head coach/father Kirk Ferentz at a time when the program is already navigating murky waters. Iowa’s infuriating loss to Minnesota already raised questions about where the team’s head would be coming into a game after two weeks off to stew over some questionable late-game officiating. Where the players and coaches’ focus will be after Brian Ferentz’s ousting is anyone’s guess. Iowa’s opponent is also far less of a pushover than most analysts expected them to be coming into the season, and it’s not unreasonable to believe the Wildcats could pull the upset this week if the Hawkeyes are distracted or ill-prepared for this game. While a loss tomorrow would likely ruin Iowa’s chances at a Big Ten West title, a win over the Wildcats, particularly if it comes in convincing fashion, would be a testament to the team’s focus and ability to win in spite of significant turmoil, which would bode very well for the remainder of the season.
Here are three key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. What on earth does Iowa look like on offense?
The Hawkeye offense, which is currently averaging fewer yards per game than any team in college football, was always going to be the biggest wildcard entering this game. Coming off a bye week, Iowa’s offense is in desperate need of improvement. Iowa has shown no signs of moving on from quarterback Deacon Hill despite him leading all qualified FBS quarterbacks in turnover-worthy plays according to Pro Football Focus, the Hawkeye running game has been extremely inconsistent, and the line play remains uneven despite improvements over last season. Wholesale schematic changes were never in the cards for this offensive staff, but it was reasonable to ask whether the Hawkeyes could make improvements on the margins to help improve their efficiency or reconsider their approach in light of the injuries to several key players on that side of the ball.
With Brian Ferentz on the way out, all bets are off. Will Iowa’s struggling offense lose its last remaining shred of confidence and play an even more listless brand of football than Hawkeye fans have seen over the past few years? Will the team come out with something to prove and rally in support of their outgoing coach or in opposition to the outside voices who have aggressively criticized the unit? And how will the offensive coordinator’s play calling be impacted by his pending termination? Will Brian react the way many people would to losing their jobs and phone it in over his final weeks with the university? Will he go back into the lab and generate some genuinely creative play designs in an effort to rehabilitate his national reputation in anticipation of seeking future coaching jobs? Or will he start to coach like he has nothing to lose, being more aggressive in his play calls, insistent on going for it on 4th down, and willing to make personnel changes he might otherwise have balked at?
The Hawkeyes were a bad offense before losing most of their best players to injuries, they were an even worse offense once the backup quarterback was forced into action before he was ready, and there is no number of midseason firings that can make them a good offense before season’s end. However, given the strength of Iowa’s defense and special teams, even a few steps above being the literal worst offense in college football may be enough for Iowa to win the West. If Iowa’s offense does not show improvement in this game, Hawkeye fans may have to abandon their last sliver of hope that things will get better before the season’s end.
2. Can either team establish the run?
As mentioned earlier in this article, Iowa’s running game has been consistently erratic this season. Running back Leshon Williams followed up his career-high 174-yard performance against Wisconsin with an absolute dud (11 carries for 13 yards), and Kaleb Johnson has looked sluggish in every game this season aside from his breakout showing against Purdue. Meanwhile, Northwestern fans would kill to have Iowa’s level of production in the running game. The Wildcats have been dreadful on the ground this season, averaging a Big Ten worst 99.75 yards on only 2.88 yards per carry. Running back Cam Porter has struggled to find his rhythm this year and is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry.
Given Iowa’s shocking inability to complete passes, getting the Hawkeye ground game going may be the team’s only chance to score points outside of those generated by the defense and special teams. Fortunately, the Northwestern defense has been very soft against opposing rushing attacks; only Indiana is allowing opponents to rush for more yards per carry (4.35) and per game (164.25) in the Big Ten this season. Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller make a nice linebacking duo for the Wildcats, but poor tackling and a lack of physicality upfront has plagued their team all season and could give Iowa chance to find some production in the ground game even if Northwestern does commit 8-9 men in the box. Meanwhile, while Iowa’s run defense (which has allowed 16X fewer rushing touchdowns than Northwestern this season) should be able to hold the Wildcats rushing game in check, the injection of a more mobile quarterback in Brendan Sullivan into the Northwestern lineup could add an interesting wrinkle. If neither team is able to establish the run with any consistency, it could be a rough watch for fans hoping to see offensive fireworks in this game.
3. Can Iowa contain the Northwestern passing game?
Brendan Sullivan has brought new life to the Northwestern offense. Since taking over as the starting quarterback against Howard, the Wildcats are 2-1 with an impressive win over Maryland in which Sullivan nearly 70% of his passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns. Between Sullivan’s scrambling ability, his willingness to look downfield, and a formidable receiving duo in Bryce Kirtz and Cam Johnson, the Northwestern passing game has looked downright respectable of late.
However, for Northwestern to threaten Iowa through the air, they will need to find a way to give their quarterback time to throw the ball in the first place. Northwestern’s pass protection has been laughably bad this year. The Wildcats have allowed a whopping 35 sacks this season, more than twice the number Iowa has (17) and more than the Hawkeyes give up most seasons under Kirk Ferentz. While Iowa has not been very aggressive in dialing up the blitz this season (the Hawkeyes rank second to last in the Big Ten with only 13 sacks on the year), the ability to generate an effective pass rush with only four players could give Iowa a significant edge in it quest to shut down the Northwestern passing attack. However, if Iowa struggles to get home with its pass rush, Sullivan and the Wildcat offense could make this game even more interesting than the compelling outside narratives already have.