The second off week is in the books, and Iowa prevailed in a squeaker over Bye, 17-13. I kid, I kid. Iowa hosts Northwestern, long a thorn in the Hawkeyes' sides. But who is this "Northwestern," really? Where is it? Does anybody really know? Here's what we can tell you.
Name: Northwestern University
Location: Parts Unknown
Record: 3-4 (2-2)
Last game: 38-17 L vs. Nebraska
Last game vs. Iowa: Iowa 17, Northwestern 10 (OT), 2013
Passing: Trevor Siemian: 151-265, 1,496 yards, 4 TDs, 6 INTs
Rushing: Justin Jackson: 134 rushes, 630 yards, 4 TDs
Receiving: Dan Vitale: 26 catches, 282 yards, 1 TD
Tackles: Chi Chi Ariguzo, 62 tackles
Tackles For Loss: Dean Lowry, 5.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks
Interceptions: Godwin Igwebuike, 3 INT, 2 PBU
Despite all our rage, Iowa is still a win away from bowl eligibility. In a cage. Whatever, Billy Corgan doesn't know anything about football. Also, remember when the Big Ten's best coach was Pat Fitzgerald? Hahahahaha. Remember when it was Kirk Ferentz? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.
Here's a quick little comparison.
QB A: 151-265, 1,496 yards, 4 TDs, 6 INTs, 104.9 QB rating, 3-4 record
QB B: 130-231, 1,323 yards, 3 TDs, 5 INTs, 104.2 QB rating, 4-3 record
You've probably guessed (based on how we just listed those stats in the "Leaders" section) that QB A is Trevor Siemian so far this year. QB B? Well, that's James Vandenberg seven games into his 2012 disasterpiece. So that's how Northwestern's passing game is going this year. And just as Vandenberg had Keenan Davis as an ostensible threat at wideout, so too is WR Kyle Prater languishing in this 'Cats offense. Every week you expect him to exert his dominance. Every week he doesn't.
Hell, against California and its world-class-awful pass defense, Siemian threw only one touchdown and two picks in the season opener. You know how they give you 400 SAT points for spelling your name right? The Cal secondary gives you two TDs if you just show up with your pants on.
Also, we don't know if you heard, but before the season Siemian was clocked at 4.38 in the 40. So naturally, he's been a nothingburger in the rushing game, logging a total of -70 yards on the season and never—not once—rushing for more than 8 yards in a single attempt all year. Siemian's been dealing with ankle issues all year, and Fitzgerald called him "healthier than he's been all year," so we might see more of a running threat from Siemian this week.
Still, even if Siemian really runs a 4.7 or whatever, his legs pose enough of a theoretical threat that Iowa's linebackers are going to have to play a disciplined game. It's worth noting, though, that the team pass defense hasn't been nearly as shambolic as it was against UNI and ISU.
Tailback Justin Jackson is just a freshman, but he has firmly established himself as the only guy capable of toting the rock for Northwestern, and he put up a 128-yard, 2-TD performance against Nebraska last week. Style-wise (strictly style, not talent), he's reminiscent of OJ Simpson. Jackson has that quick little shake that can put a defender off balance, he's patient, he carries the ball like his legs are just taking him wherever and he has a maddeningly good nose for yardage. He's not the next Juice—clearly—and I don't think he can beat Iowa single-handedly, but it'll be evident by the end of the day why Cats fans are excited about him.
That all said, I am not sold on Northwestern's offensive line, and I expect big things from Drew Ott. He's turned into Iowa's best pass rusher since at least Broderick Binns (and if we're being honest, Adrian Clayborn), and he should make several plays on Saturday. Either Carl Davis or Louis Trinca-Pasat should have a big day as well, and opponents usually choose LTP to be the single-blocked guy, so keep your eye on how that's schemed by Northwestern. But as always, running between the tackles should be a tough proposition.
And yet, despite a truly miserable offense (103rd in rushing yards per game, 109th in points per game), Northwestern has beaten Wisconsin and Penn State—and should still contend for a bowl berth, regardless of the outcome of this Saturday's game (thanks, Michigan, Illinois and Purdue). That's thanks to a vicious defense that allows just over 20 points a game, and is led by several players who would start for Iowa, no questions asked.
The ringleader is Chi Chi Ariguzo at WLB, who despite being named after the restaurant that served fried ice cream is one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten, right alongside luminaries like Jake Ryan and Mike Hull. And, uh, Bo Bower. Ariguzo's at his best in space, whether it be in coverage or pursuit. He's a sure tackler when given the opportunity, but it's not especially difficult to block him out of a play, so if Iowa's looking to minimize Ariguzo's influence on the game it'll run right at him. Think A.J. Edds for an Iowa corollary.
There are plenty more playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. Igwebuike may lead the team in interceptions, but Nick Van Hoose has broken up nine passes and picked off two more; he's every bit the shutdown talent Desmond King is. Oh, and Van Hoose is second on the team in tackles (and leads in solo stops). Matt Harris is more than capable at the other corner spot. Safety Ibraheim Campbell should be back after missing the previous three games to a nagging hamstring injury, and he's arguably the most talented defender on the entire team. Certainly Northwestern missed him against Nebraska.
Another player the Wildcats missed against Nebraska two weeks ago (last week was a badly needed bye) was LB Collin Ellis, who suffered his second concussion of the year against Minnesota. He was ruled out of the Iowa game early in the week and we hope we're not in a quality-of-life type of situation with him.
One thing is certain: Northwestern's defense is more talented and productive than Maryland's, who ceded 31 to the Hawkeyes then went ahead and gave up 52 points to Wisconsin last week. If Jake Rudock's performance against the Terps didn't inspire confidence among the Iowa faithful, fans might be in for an greater dose of pain if Rudock doesn't step his play up.
If there's any good news, it's that Northwestern's front four isn't terribly talented or productive, so the Wildcats are merely average in rush defense and need to rely on a great deal of creativity to generate a pass rush. A confident quarterback can exploit the weak points a blitz creates in pass coverage. Iowa has Rudock. So... all right. We're probably in for some drama.
This preview probably sounds overly negative, but for all the pessimism generated by Iowa's deeply conservative quarterback facing an opportunistic and talented defense, Northwestern faces those exact same problems. Moreover, I'll take Iowa on each line battle. So while I'm seeing Iowa not getting more than a pair of touchdowns on the entire day, that's probably enough anyway.
If it hasn't already been made clear, I'm not expecting a great game, and a shootout is probably not in the works. There are no over/under numbers listed as of Monday night, but man, this had better not come in anywhere near 50, right? These are two wretched offenses and solid defenses, and when you've got that in place you default to who's got the advantage on the lines. Fortunately, I'll take Iowa there.