Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, November 11, 11:00 am CST
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Game Preview: Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges

A week after the Northwestern Wildcats (6-3, 2-3) suffered an implosion at Penn State they come back home to face the BCS No. 13 Iowa Hawkeyes (7-2, 4-1), who barely survived a trip to Indiana after Hoosier WR Damarlo Belcher dropped what should have been a go-ahead touchdown with just seconds remaining in the game.  Despite that, though, Iowa's only two losses have come to BCS No. 7 Wisconsin and BCS No. 17 Arizona (on the road), and the Hawkeyes should be heavily favored coming into Evanston.  But, as everyone knows, the Wildcats have had Iowa's number over the last half decade (4-1 in their last 5 meetings) and the 'Cats will need to continue that trend in order to move back up the bowl ladder.

Outside of last week's scare when visiting Indiana, Iowa has taken care of business when they have won games, allowing just 9.1 points per game in their 7 victories while sporting a scoring offense averaging 32.3 points per game through all 9 games.  Even when their offense hasn't been at its best the Hawkeyes have been able to win thanks to their very stout defense: their two lowest point totals (18 last week against Indiana and 24 earlier in the year against Penn State) have both come in victories.

Speaking of Iowa's defense, it is quite good, ranking 6th nationally in scoring, 8th nationally in yards allowed, 5th in rushing yards allowed, and 14th in passing efficiency defense.  Although they don't make a lot of flashy plays (they are tied for 86th in sacks and rank 100th in TFLs), they get the job done and force other types of errors, like turnovers (they have 18 on the year).  And with an offense that doesn't make many mistakes, they rank 3rd nationally in turnover ratio (+1.3 per game) which usually puts the team in a very good spot.

Their offense is led by QB Ricky Stanzi who is currently 3rd nationally in passing efficiency, 7 spots in front of NU's Dan Persa.  Stanzi makes very few mistakes (only 3 INTs on the season) and gets big payoffs when he does pass (Iowa averages 13.9 yards per completion).  A lot of that is thanks to a stereotypically strong running game that averages 4.4 yards per carry and churns out just shy of 160 yards per game.  The line plays well and they have talented receivers, as well, which allows them to run a balanced attack and keep multiple options open at all times.

Northwestern's offense has been doing alright for itself, posting back-to-back 100+ yard rushers for the first time since November 3 & 10, 2007 (against Iowa and Indiana) and rolling along thanks to the aforementioned Persa, who ranks 12th nationally in total offense, averaging 303.6 yards per game.  The problem, like in previous years, has been converting those yards into points: although NU ranks 42nd nationally in total offense (409.8 yards per game), the 'Cats rank a lowly 72nd in scoring offense (just 26.0 points per game).  Facing a defense like Iowa will make getting points on the board that much more difficult.

And the NU defense, after holding its own through much of the season, completely imploded starting with about 1 minute left in the first half against Penn State, allowing 5 consecutive touchdown drives and missing 27 tackles (as counted by Coach Fitz) on their way to allowing 528 yards of total offense.  Even so, the 'Cats remain a respectable 42nd in scoring defense, allowing 21.9 points per game, and have shown enough flashes to be able to keep the 'Cats in a game if they can put together a solid performance in consecutive halves.

On paper, this game certainly looks like game-set-match in Iowa's favor.  But, as well all know, the game isn't played on paper, and in the prior 4 meetings between these teams, NU has gone 3-1 with a scoring differential of +15 despite Iowa coming in as a favorite in 3 of those games with a cumulative point spread of 43.5 in their favor.  It's fairly clear that the Wildcats have somehow had the Hawkeyes' number in recent years; just last year NU rolled into Iowa City with a 5-4 record, reeling after a loss to PSU in which they gave up 24 unanswered second half points, while Iowa was in the top 10 sporting an undefeated record.  I think you can remember what happened.

One can throw out the records for this matchup in what should be a slugfest on Saturday between two rivals that will continue to meet into the foreseeable future (in the NAME TBA division of the Big Ten).  This should be an entertaining matchup and we'll see if the 'Cats can pull off yet another signature victory in their final home game in Ryan Field during the 2010 season.

Opening Line

Iowa by 10.

Who Should Win

The Hawkeyes.  Their offense is similar to Penn State, who just literally ran over the 'Cats, except that they have a better quarterback and some very speedy receivers.  They also have a formidable defense that plays sound football and has allowed just 9.1 points per game in their 7 wins this season.  And they are also likely quite upset that Northwestern has managed to upset them two consecutive years in Iowa City, including spoiling their undefeated season last year, so they will be hungry for revenge.  And if one considers the way that Northwestern played for the final 31 minutes at Penn State, this should be easy pickings for Iowa.

Upset Factor

As mentioned numerous times above, the 'Cats just have Iowa's number as of late.  Northwestern has definitely shown the ability to dominate at times (see: 17-0 start against MSU and 21-0 start against Penn State), and if they can put together a full 60 minute effort (something they haven't done yet in Big Ten play this season) they could beat almost anyone.  NU knows that it's crunch time and that this is a big rivalry game, no matter if it is publicly acknowledged or not.  Fitz has a knack for getting his teams to respond and he also knows how to pull off that random upset, and after Iowa's struggles last week they seem vulnerable enough for that upset to come this week.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Iowa Defense

The 'Cats, despite their trouble putting points on the board in the second half this season (NU has averaged 15.3 points in the first half of games this season and 10.6 in the second half of games and has been outscored 74-38 in the fourth quarter), they still have some offensive fire power and can do some damage when things are clicking.  Obviously, Dan Persa is the key to the offense and is guy who has proven that he can do damage with his arm (73.4% completion rate, still tops nationally) and legs (averaging 52.1 yards per game with sacks included along with 8 rushing TDs to lead the 'Cats).

Northwestern also boasts some young and speedy receivers (Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones, Venric Mark, and Demetrius Fields to name a few) but the leader is definitely Jeremy Ebert, who leads the Big Ten with 789 receiving yards on the year.  Ebert also averages 16.4 yards per catch, with a good portion of that due to his own effort: he loves to generate yards after the catch and is a threat that can be utilized in many different ways (he also leads NU in receiving TDs with 7 and has completed his only pass attempt of the year for 28 yards).

Finally, the rushing game, which, as mentioned earlier, had a single runner surpass 100 yards in a game in consecutive weeks for the first time in three years.  But, Wildcat running backs still haven't generated all that much of that themselves; NU RBs have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry on the season and have accounted for 7 TDs on the ground (combined still 1 less than Persa alone).  The cause of many of those issues must be shared by the offensive line, who have also been lacking in pass protection, giving up an average of 3.4 sacks per game, ranking NU 114th nationally.

On the other side, Iowa is very formidable on defense.  They sport the very impressive aforementioned scoring and yards allowed numbers and have big names across the board that can make an opponent pay.  Adrian Clayborn is the big name up front at defensive end; although he has just 2.5 sacks on the year he leads the team with 4 QB hurries and has 40 tackles on the season, rather impressive for a lineman.  Karl Klug is also a force at the defensive tackle position, and a backup lineman, Mike Daniels, actually leads the Hawkeyes with 4 sacks on the season.

And they aren't just tough up front, the linebacking corps is solid and deep; although they've experienced some dings there (most recently to Jeff Tarpinian), they haven't missed a beat.  Jeremiha Hunter leads the team in tackles with 59 on the year and he is a force on the outside.  Finally, the secondary, where Tyler Sash makes plays (including the INT and lateral that went for a TD against MSU) and Brett Greenwood leads the team with 4 interceptions on the year.

There are few holes in the defense and they love to capitalize on mistakes.  Due to their very solid defensive front and the 'Cats existing issues running the football, there is little chance of success through the ground game (Iowa has allowed just one 100+ yard runner this season, and his name is Denard Robinson), it's clear that it will be up to Persa's passing to keep the Wildcat offense moving.  The key is avoiding mistakes (something Dan does very well) and capitalizing on any mistakes that Iowa may make (unfortunately, something NU hasn't done in recent weeks).  Getting that big momentum-shifting play will be vital for the 'Cats to have any shot at a win in this one because Iowa likely won't let Northwestern chip away for scores on drive after drive.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Iowa Offense

The Hawkeyes' offense may not be flashy, but they sure do get the job done.  Eight receivers have at least one TD on the year and 10 are averaging at least 10 yards per reception.  On the ground, the running backs are averaging an impressive 4.9 yards per carry.  Their top RB, Adam Robinson, will be back on the field after missing the last game with a concussion, even though backup Marcus Coker topped 100 yards on the day.  And, as mentioned earlier, QB Stanzi is efficient and plays relatively mistake-free.

Although the Northwestern defense has played well in previous games this year (including most of the first half last week), they have imploded at other times (like allowing two 50+ yard runs by Purdue and the aforementioned 5 consecutive TD drives to Penn State).  They will need to put together their first 60 minute performance against a Big Ten team this week because they can't expect as many turnovers to come as they have yielded in their previous meetings (the Wildcats have a +8 turnover margin against Iowa in their 3 most recent victories over the Hawkeyes, but Iowa currently ranks 2nd nationally having only turned over the ball 6 times all year).

It will be interesting to see if the 'Cats take a different approach to this game after seeing their stop-the-run approach fail miserably twice against the 'Cats' two best opponents so far (Penn State and Michigan State).  Against MSU, NU did indeed stop the ground game but were burned through the air, while PSU did whatever they wanted against the NU D no matter what type of play they used.  The secondary is still relatively young, and Justan Vaughn's injury at Penn State forced even younger players into action for much of the game, so it one will have to see what defensive scheme Mike Hankwitz uses to try and get the defense back on track this week.

Finally, Northwestern must generate some kind of pressure up front in order to help out the aforementioned secondary; NU ranks 86th in sacks and hasn't been able to get a sustained pass rush to threaten opposing QBs this season.  As one may remember, it was Corey Wootton's strip-sack of Stanzi last year that helped propel the Wildcats to an undefeated November.  It will likely take such a play this year to do spur a similar turnaround, and Vince Browne is the most likely candidate as he leads NU with 6 sacks on the season.

It is key that the defense keeps Iowa off the scoreboard as much as possible in order for the 'Cats to have much of a shot at this one; in NU's three wins over Iowa in the past four years, the Wildcats have given up just 11.3 points per game.  No matter how they do it, the 'Cats will need a similar effort in order to pull off another upset win here since it's not likely that the Hawkeyes' D will cave in.

What to Look for: Special Teams

If the game is close, special teams will very likely go a long way in determining the winner.  Northwestern's special teams, particularly the kicking game, have had well documented issues this year; Stefan Demos missed a 27 yard FG try last week at Penn State after hitting his last 4 FGs in a row, for example.  The 'Cats have also had 2 FGs and an XP blocked this season.

But, Iowa, somewhat surprisingly, has had issues as well.  Their usually sure-footed kicker, Mike Meyer, missed a 22 yard chip shot last week at Indiana (although he did make his 4 other tries), they have allowed a 100 yard kickoff return for TD (by Arizona), and they have allowed 3 blocks on the year (2 blocked XPs and a blocked punt).  The return for TD and all 3 block occurred in the two games they have lost so far this season (at Arizona and vs. Wisconsin).  It's clear that their special teams are also prone to mistakes and if one can take advantage, the opportunity for victory is there.

Generally, both teams punt and cover punts very well.  Iowa ranks 53rd nationally in net punting while the 'Cats rank 45th.  Most of that is due to their coverage teams as Iowa ranks 6th nationally allowing just 4.0 yards per punt return, while NU isn't far behind, ranking 10th at 4.4 yards allowed per return.  Iowa does rank a respectable 34th in punt returns (at over 10 yards per return), and NU has a threat back there with Venric Mark, but don't expect the opportunity for many returns against these sound coverage units.

Kickoff coverage looks similar for Northwestern, who ranks 16th nationally allowing under 20 yards per kick return.  Iowa, meanwhile, is hurt statistically by that aforementioned return for TD and rank 83rd, allowing an average of 22.4 yards per return.  Like on punts, Iowa is a respectable 28th on kickoff returns (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos leads the team with 13 returns and an impressive 27.5 yard average), but against NU's sound coverage unit I don't anticipate much happening.  The 'Cats' kickoff unit hasn't fared very well (no thanks to an indecisive move at the goal line last game that ended with a very limited return), and it's also unlikely that NU will get a lot of yards here since Iowa's low statistical ranking is more due to one bad play than a trend.

Finally, that kicking game.  It would be difficult to predict much of anything here:  the 'Cats have faced rather reliable kickers over their past three games yet those opposing kickers have gone just 1-of-4 over that span.  Meanwhile, the much-derided Demos has gone 4-of-5.  If it's close, the kicking game could make a real impact, and it's likely that a missed or blocked kick would play into that scenario somehow (both teams have missed FGs and XPs, have had kicks blocked, and have blocked kicks themselves).

Miscellaneous Notes

Bowl Positioning

Northwestern badly needs a win sometime during their final 3 games in order to move up a rung or two on the bowl ladder, because at 6 wins they will likely be the last Big Ten team selected.  A win over Illinois on Nov. 20 would be optimal given that NU and Illinois have similar records (6-3 and 5-4, respectively) and will be competing for a bowl bid; it also presents the easiest path to that 7th win given that Iowa and Wisconsin (NU's two other opponents) are ranked within the top 15 of the BCS this week.

For NU to stay out of Detroit, it will be important for two of the top four Big Ten teams to win out: MSU, Iowa, OSU, and Wisconsin (all have 1 loss except for Iowa, which has 2).  Note that OSU visits Iowa next week, so only three can technically win out.  The winner will almost definitely go to the Rose Bowl (barring a large number of huge upsets in order to send a Big Ten team to the national championship, which is very unlikely at this point), and one other should be in position to get a BCS at-large bid, especially since OSU and Wisconsin are very appealing at-large selections due to their fan base.  Getting an at-large BCS team (like the conference has almost routinely done over the history of the BCS) will move everyone up one rung on the ladder.

In the second tier of Big Ten teams, along with NU, Penn State, Illinois, and Michigan will be the teams to watch.  PSU has essentially moved itself over the other three after its win over the 'Cats last week and with one very winable game versus Indiana left.  Illinois has what should be a bowl eligibility clinching game against Minnesota this week before a crucial showdown with NU at Wrigley next week.  And Michigan has to visit Purdue this week in what will determine if the Boilermakers even have a shot at a bowl this season.

Finally, speaking of Purdue, they and Indiana both sit at 4-5 and are on the cusp of bowl elimination if things continue to go south for both teams.  They also face each other at the end of the season, so if either pull off an upset before then, one could very well reach the all important 6th win.  If they do, NU getting to 7 wins becomes all that much more important, otherwise it will be up to the mysterious bowl committees to determine NU's fate: likely either Dallas or Detroit.


This game has already sold out and will be the first non-Ohio State/Michigan sellout since 2001 (when the game against Penn State sold out) and will help propel Northwestern to the largest year-over-year jump in attendance in school history.  It will also be a jump of about 14,000 in attendance from the average of the past three Northwestern home games against Iowa (33,727).


Last week, Northwestern lost for the first time since December 29, 2008 (the Alamo Bowl vs. Missouri) in a game during which the 'Cats won the turnover battle (NU had one takeaway to none for PSU).  Over that span, NU went 10-0 when winning the turnover battle.  Iowa, interestingly, has won the only game in which they lost the turnover battle this season (against FCS member Eastern Illinois, a Northwestern 2011 opponent) while both of their losses have come in games where they won the turnover battle; their record comes out to 4-2 when sporting a positive turnover margin, 2-0 when equal to the opponent, and 1-0 when it's negative.

Another point that is still worth noting: after notching 53 points off turnovers in the first four weeks of the season (coincidentally or not, all against non-conference foes), Northwestern has not generated ANY points off of a turnover in their 5 Big Ten contests so far this season.  28 of Northwestern's 39 points in the past two meetings between these squads have come off of turnovers.

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), RB Scott Concannon (hip, out), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, out), OL Doug Bartels (shoulder, doubtful), RB Jacob Schmidt (ankle, doubtful), CB Justan Vaughn (concussion, questionable).

The 'Cats' most significant loss during the Penn State game was Vaughn, and NU's performance in the secondary definitely suffered after he came out.  He is currently listed as questionable, we will likely have to wait until Saturday to see if he is ready to go.  Otherwise, Northwestern still has not lost a starter for a significant period of time and remained healthy physically after the PSU debacle meaning that they still have the personnel in place to pull off that random upset down the closing stretch.


RB Adam Robinson (concussion, probable), LB Tyler Nielsen (neck, out), LB Bruce Davis (knee, out for season), RB Jason White (knee, out for season), RB Jewel Hampton (knee, out for season), RB Brandon Wegher (off team).

Once again, Iowa lost multiple running backs to season-ending injuries early on.  But they haven't really missed a beat, with Robinson picking up most of the carries as he's already accumulated over 800 yards and 10 TDs on the year.  Even when he was unable to go last week, Marcus Coker stepped in and ran for an impressive 129 yards at Indiana.  They have also had plenty of defensive depth to weather a couple of injuries at linebacker.  Expect them to have plenty of healthy players to throw at the 'Cats come Saturday.


Northwestern 17, Iowa 35

Unfortunately, I'll stick with my preseason prediction here and predict a big victory for the Hawkeyes here: there is a mountain of motivation for Iowa to come out and win and this season's body of evidence points very much in their favor.  BUT, Northwestern definitely has the ability to pull off a third consecutive win over a heavily favored Iowa team here: as has been noted many times, this year's Wildcat squad actually looks to be better than last year's while this year's Iowa team rolls into Evanston with two losses while last year NU had to travel to face an undefeated squad.  In college football you just never know, and in previous season Fitz has shown the ability to get their team to focus their emotion into a 60-minute performance for a big late season upset, so it very well could come here.

But I'll stick with the chalk and stats here and pick Iowa, much the same way I have done the past two seasons (and we all know what happened in those games).  In any case this definitely sets up to be a very interesting and likely entertaining rivalry battle, and hopefully the 'Cats will put in a great performance for their final game at Ryan Field in 2010.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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