It is hard not to look ahead after the bye week and think about Iowa's chances of winning the West. A win tomorrow and the Hawkeyes are squarely in the driver's seat and very likely have given themselves a little wiggle room. A win tomorrow and 3-2 down the stretch could well be enough to send Iowa to Indianapolis. But even more, a win tomorrow and the remaining 5 games look winnable. This is the game that could really stand in the way of a magical season. And somehow Iowa needs to find a way to win on the road when injuries abound.
Protect the Quarterback
First, hopefully the quarterback is C.J. Beathard from the start and hopefully the offensive line can keep him in there. We were deathly worried about the offensive tackles in pass protection all off-season. Then they turned out to be alright for the most part the first month of the season. But against better defenses and now with both starters injured, pass protection is getting pretty shaky. While Iowa’s only given up 10 sacks this year, Beathard has been hurried and hit a lot lately and it has caused a pretty sizable dip in his numbers.
Northwestern will attack too out of its base 4-3 under defense. They like to shoot the gaps with their linebackers and their defensive ends provide a good pass rush (particularly Deonte Gibson, who has 5 sacks on the year). Iowa doesn’t really like to provide help with tight ends or running backs in pass blocking, other than picking up blitzers. They like it helmet on helmet and make their man win. So the tackles will need to get the job done against those talented defensive ends.
Greg Davis is going to have to find way to protect the QB as well. The quick passing game that was prevalent the first few weeks of the season hasn’t been as big of a part of the game plan lately, but this could be the week to roll that back out. Put Beathard in the gun and let him sling it on slants and screens. That worked well against Pitt.
I think play-action could be really effective tomorrow as well, if Beathard can do it. The waggle might be out, but a quick fake and throw could work well. If the 4th quarter of the Illinois tells us anything, the biggest way to protect C.J. is to let him just turn around and hand it off over and over. This was pretty much Michigan’s strategy last week, and when the Wildcats started biting hard on the run, the play-action game really opened up. With Northwestern’s leading CB, Matthew Harris, out with an injury, that could open up part of the field to attack in the passing game. He leads the team with 3 INTs and 7 pass break ups. For all Iowa’s injuries, that is a big one for Northwestern.
Key on the Outside Runs
Northwestern likes to attack the edge of a defense with a couple of different run plays. Iowa will need to be disciplined against the speed option. QB Clayton Thorston is a decent runner and has 161 yards on the year. He will keep the ball when it's there and he has been particularly good keeping in the red zone, where he has picked up 4 rushing touchdowns.
More importantly Iowa needs to control Justin Jackson. We thought Jordan Canzeri had been carrying the ball a lot lately, well Jackson has more carries than anyone in the country, averaging 25 per game. Jackson is okay in-between the tackles on the zone-read, but really does a good job when Northwestern gets him out in space on the pin-and-pull sweep play.
The defensive ends will need to be disciplined on the option plays and get push on the sweeps. You’d feel more comfortable with Drew Ott playing that role, but Parker Hesse is going to have to step up. The linebackers will need to cover the field well, too.
Take the Points
Kirk Ferentz has been very aggressive the past two seasons now in going for it on 4th down in opponents’ territory. I think most weeks, it is the right thing to do. If you can convert 50% of those and turn them into TDs instead of FGs, you come out ahead in the long run. This week, however, points are likely going to be at a premium for both teams.
Northwestern doesn’t give up a lot of points. They have only given up 4 red zone touchdowns all year and last week’s 24 points given up by the defense (14 of Michigan’s points were from kickoff and interception returns) was the most any team has scored on them all season. They’ve shut out two teams entirely and the other three opponents didn't break 20 points. So if Iowa gets anywhere in Marshall Koehn’s range, kick the field goal.
A handful of field goals could very well be enough to win it tomorrow, too. We could be looking at another game where the first team to get to double digits wins. Northwestern’s offense doesn’t score many touchdowns. They only have 14 all year and are 110th in the nation in scoring offense. They have their typical dink and dunk passing attack that moves the ball down the field some, but isn’t effective as the field shortens, and the Wildcats have had to settle for a lot of field goals. In their 17 red zone trips, they have just 5 touchdowns but have 9 field goals.
With an expected low score, the field position battle will be important. Michigan took the opening kick off to the house last week. If Desmond King has a big day, that would go a long way to helping Iowa prevail. Northwestern’s punter doesn’t have a big leg, but they also don’t give up big returns. Dillon Kidd and Marshall Koehn both average 46 yards per punt and are about 8 yards per kick better than the Wildcat punter.
Northwestern hasn’t returned a lot of punt or kicks this year, but they have housed a kickoff and have a 55 yard punt return, so they do have some big play potential there. Iowa has been improved in coverage this year, though, so I think Northwestern’s returners will be contained.
Penalty yardage could also be a factor. Iowa overall hasn’t been bad in this regard, but they did give up quite a few first downs last week due to penalties. Northwestern is one of the least penalized teams in the country averaging just over 4 per game.
Both of these defense look pretty similar. They employ similar schemes and like to stay in their base 4-3 with a variety of zone coverage looks behind it. And they are both really good. I think both teams will try, but struggle to establish and running game, and we’ll see a lot of punts. Ultimately, Marshall Koehn’s range and accuracy is better than Northwestern’s Jack Mitchell’s, and that’ll let Iowa get a few long FGs.
Final Score: Iowa 16 - Northwestern 13
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