Game Preview


Kinnick Stadium
Saturday, October 15, 2011.  6:00 pm CDT
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (2-3, 0-2) will look to right the ship against a second consecutive Legends Divsion opponent, at the hated Iowa Hawkeyes (3-2, 0-1) in the second of three straight Big Ten night games for the 'Cats. NU is, of course, coming off of two straight blown double-digit second half leads and will be looking to rack up their fourth consecutive win in Iowa City, where Northwestern hasn't lost since 2002 (NU has gone 5-1 overall against the Hawkeyes since that game). Iowa, meanwhile, is looking to turn things around themselves coming off of a 13-3 loss at Penn State, a series that they've otherwise dominated as of late (going 8-1 since 2000 until last week's loss). The fans in Kinnick Stadium will certainly be amped up for this matchup on Saturday night and both teams will be looking to tally their first Big Ten win of the season.

This series needs no introduction to fans of either of these teams: Iowa dominated during the Northwestern Dark Ages, winning 21 straight, until 1995, since when the 'Cats have gone 9-5, including a stellar 4-1 record under Coach Fitzgerald (NU has won the last three in a row, as well). Although it would be tough to get out of Fitz in front of any media, the fact is that he circles this game in his mind and certainly enjoys beating the Hawkeyes. Iowa, on the other hand, has certainly been frustrated by the 'Cats, including the infamous spoiling of their then-perfect season when ranked No. 4 in the BCS when NU came to Kinnick last in 2009. The Hawkeyes will be looking to end NU's recent hold on this series much like their stranglehold over Penn State was ended a week ago in Happy Valley.

On the playing field, this matchup looks on paper to be significantly different than meetings in recent past, which have been relatively low scoring (in the last six meetings, the average score has been 21.0 to 17.7 in favor of the Wildcats). This year, both teams have struggled on defense (NU ranks 104th in total defense, while Iowa ranks 66th), while both teams have been solid on offense at times (NU QB an Persa is his usually efficient self, completing over 72% of passes, while Iowa's QB James Vandenberg is averaging over 250 yards per game through the air). It will certainly be interesting to see what transpires on Saturday considering the history of this matchup, the potential for an offensive shootout, and the fact that both teams desperately need a win here.

Opening Line

Iowa by 7.

Who Should Win

Toss-up. On first glance, Iowa may look like the stronger team and, being at home, one would think they would have the edge here. But, Northwestern's record against Iowa (especially with Fitz at the helm) speaks for itself and the fact is that NU has played pretty well, particularly on offense (with Persa at QB). Meanwhile, Iowa's weakness this season is certainly their defense, which ranks in the 60s in rushing yards, pass efficiency, and total yards. On the other hand, the NU defense has been gashed quite often and the Iowa offense is nothing to sneeze at: they strive to maintain balance and their passing game has taken a step forward this year. In a departure from the recent low scoring affairs between these two teams, this may very well turn out to be a shootout.

Upset Factor

Even if one team pulls ahead in this one, anything can happen, as Northwestern has unfortunately found out for the last two weeks as they watched double-digit leads evaporate in the second half. This is also evident when looking at this series: last year NU won thanks to 14 unanswered fourth quarter points, in 2008 the 'Cats used a second half comeback to win in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes' last victory (in 2007) came thanks to a fourth quarter comeback, and then there was the magical NU comeback that got its recent win streak kicked off in 2005 that featured a recovered onside kick. It will likely be wise to stay with this game even if it looks to be over.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Iowa Defense

Against Michigan, Northwestern decided to depart from its previous run-heavy scheme and air it out with the arm of Persa, throwing the ball on over 70% of offensive downs. Persa didn't disappoint, completing 72.7% of his passes for over 300 yards. What hurt NU the most, though, was mistakes by its receiving corps, which is quite unusual given the levels of talent and experience on that unit; expect to see a more solid performance this week from the likes of Drake Dunsmore, Jeremy Ebert, and company. Iowa ranks 80th in pass defense (giving up 235.4 yards per game through the air), and although they have some playmakers in the secondary (featuring senior CB Shaun Prater), they have certainly given up some plays (most notably to two of the most offensively apt teams they have played: Iowa State and Pittsburgh).

Of particular note is the play in the trenches: Iowa hasn't generated a whole lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks (ranking 84th nationally in sacks with 1.6 per game), and allowing Persa a wealth of time to find an open receiver would certainly bode well for the Wildcat offense. Unfortunately, the NU OL continues to underwhelm, even after the offseason shakeup that included redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile taking over at center and senior Ben Burkett shifting to right guard: NU ranks 100th nationally in sacks allowed yielding 2.8 per game.

One significant factor in that number may very well be Persa's aversion to run after coming back from his injury (he's been sacked 8 times in the two games that he's played). He and the coaches have made it clear that they want to protect him by running significantly less and that means he stays behind the line of scrimmage and tries to make something happen with his arm even with defenders bearing down and room to run. Hopefully Persa and the rest of the offense can adjust to this new style of play (as opposed to what he did last year which included plenty of tucking and running) and reduce those negative yardage plays.

Senior DT Mike Daniels may be the biggest weapon on defense for Iowa (he leads the team with 2.5 sacks and 4.5 TFLs) and the 'Cats' OL must contain the pass rush, as one significant factor in the aforementioned 2007 loss was pressure on the quarterback. A great way to keep the Hawkeye defense honest is to mix in some runs; after focusing on the ground game with Kain Colter at the helm, NU has done fairly well on the ground even in the past couple of games (against Michigan NU averaged and impressive 6.3 yards per carry; on the season NU is averaging 4.8 yards per carry after removing sacks). Colter, Treyvon Green, Adonis Smith, Venric Mark, and even Jacob Schmidt provide a variety of running threats that include various skill sets and running styles, and if Northwestern can get the offense humming in methodical fashion, they can certainly do some damage.

As mentioned earlier, Northwestern has averaged 21.0 points per game in the last six meetings with the Hawkeyes, but equaling that average likely won't result in a win this time around thanks to a Wildcat defense that looks like the worst since Mike Hankwitz was hired as NU DC. The opportunity to put up points will be there, though, with Iowa's defense also performing at a lower level than it has in the recent past. Thankfully this task will fall into the capable hands of Dan Persa, and 'Cats fans will be rooting intently for him to continue Northwestern's recent dominance in this series.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Iowa Offense

These numbers are almost too ugly to analyze from a Northwestern perspective, but we'll give it a go anyway. The Northwestern defense is in the bottom tier nationally in almost every category (87th in rushing defense, 97th in pass defense even with Army's 6 yard performance included, 104th in total defense, and 73rd in scoring defense). The only way that the 'Cats have been able to slow down opponents this year is to take the ball away (which they've done 10 times), and that was easily demonstrated against Michigan last week (first half: 3 takeaways and 14 points allowed; second half: 0 takeaways and 28 points allowed).

What's interesting about the NU defense is that they haven't performed that poorly against the run. After removing sacks (which would help reduce the number) and 2 extremely long runs (the first play from scrimmage at BC and a garbage time run by EIU against third-stringers), Northwestern is yielding a solid 3.9 yards per carry on the ground. And the NU run defense ranks 33rd nationally in Football Outsiders' S&P+ rankings. This is certainly an improvement over the final three games of 2010 when the 'Cats let teams run wild on the ground. In terms of personnel, it all starts up front, and DT Niko Mafuli has developed into a solid hole-plugger up front while DEs Tyler Scott and Vince Browne have been good at funneling to the LB corps who have taken care of business in the tackle department.

Unfortunately, the NU pass defense has been very much lacking and has allowed teams to do what they want when they want to (except for Army, who chose to just rack up yards and eat up time on the ground). Northwestern ranks 105th nationally in pass efficiency defense (11th in the conference), as teams have chosen to exploit the lack of a pass rush coupled with a couple of inexperienced defensive backs. Redshirt freshman S Ibraheim Campbell showed some progress last week with two interceptions, but also took some lumps including allowing a long bomb jump ball completion. First year starter CB Jeravin Matthews hasn't picked up the position that well after converting from offense and continued to give up big plays and was replaced late against Michigan by junior Demetrius Dugar. Fitz has tried to step up the competition at both positions with Dugar at CB and a couple of other guys (Davion Fleming and Jared Carpenter, a former starter) at safety. It will be interesting to see if this competition and some more experience can help in this area, as it will certainly be needed against an Iowa team that loves to air it out.

By concentrating on the defensive backs, though, one misses one very important aspect that has been missing from this year's defense: a pass rush. NU is averaging 2 sacks per game, which is respectable, but those have come in bunches and the pressure has disappeared at times (notably during Illinois' comeback and during the entire Michigan game, during which time the 'Cats never sacked a QB). In order to help out the secondary, NU must generate pressure up front, and much of that duty should fall on senior DE Vince Browne. Many fans have been calling for Hankwitz to dial up constant aggressive blitzes; this would surely be counter-productive as it would leave an opportunity for opponents to run with success more often (negating a positive for the NU D) and would also leave the DBs on even more of an "island." Note that NU does, in fact, blitz a fair amount of the time, including with redshirt freshman LB Collin Ellis, who can hopefully begin to show off after becoming acclimated to collegiate play.

So, Northwestern is obviously vulnerable to the pass, and Iowa will certainly be looking to exploit with QB James Vandenberg, who had a horrible game in relief of injured Ricky Stanzi against NU back in 2009, but now with much more experienced he looks like a plain different guy. He'll have a bevy of weapons to utilize, the most dangerous being senior Marvin McNutt who is on the way to setting all kinds of Iowa records and he's scored TDs against NU in each of the last two meetings. Other weapons at WR include Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley, both of whom have over 200 yards receiving so far this season. Iowa ranks third in the Big Ten in passing offense (almost 260 yards per game) and have certainly put up points against any opponent not named Penn State, who has a defense in another class (they have scored almost 38 points per game in their other 4 games).

And all that goes without mentioning RB Marcus Coker, who is their workhorse back and averages over 90 yards per game. The Hawkeye offense continues to do what it has for a long while: base everything on the run with solid blocking up front, and use that to set up the pass. They'll continue to do that against Northwestern, and the key for the 'Cats to be successful will be the same as their recipe for success in the past against Iowa: contain the run and find a way to force turnovers in the passing game. The big question here is if they can force enough turnovers to make up for the yardage it looks like they will almost certainly yield; and the key to that will be regenerating the pass rush up front. If the 'Cats can muster some defense (especially for more than two quarters), NU will definitely boost their chances of a win here.

What to Look for: Special Teams

These teams love to play close games (as demonstrated by the aforementioned 3.3 average point differential in their last six meetings), and in close games special teams can be a difference-maker. For NU, kicker Jeff Budzien got back on the right track by hitting his only FG try against Michigan (he's 2-for-4 on the year and has hit all 19 extra points), but the story on his consistency is yet to be written. Iowa, meanwhile, has a solid kicker in their corner in Mike Meyer, who has an 82.1% FG success rate and 96% XP success rate (he is 9-for-11 this year on FGs with a long of 50 yards). An edge has to go to the Hawkeyes for a more established kicker.

On punts, NU's Brandon Williams took a step forward last week with a solid performance as he tries to put struggles against Army and Illinois in the rear view mirror (where some shanks put the NU defense in worse position than one would hope); he is now averaging 38.9 yards per punt and can certainly improve on that number with more performances like Michigan (46.7 yards per punt). What certainly helps NU's cause on punts, though, is their ability to prevent and stop punt returns; they have only allowed 2 returns on the year (for a total of 3 yards), and the 1.5 yards/return average puts them at an impressive 8th nationally. Iowa, meanwhile, hasn't done too much on punt returns, ranking 75th nationally; DB Micah Hyde has punt return duties and he has returned one punt for 30 yards this year, so NU will have to keep up its stout coverage.

On the other side, Iowa's defense has benefited from good field position swings thanks to the nation's 7th ranked net punting; punter Eric Guthrie is averaging a nice 43.7 yards per punt, and they've allowed just 5 returns on the year (for a 5.2 yard average). The 'Cats will be looking to electric return man Venric Mark, who has helped NU to a 6th rank nationally in punt returns, to get something going there; this week Venric stated that he loves the spotlight on punt returns, and he'll likely have some prime opportunities under the lights on Saturday to make something happen.

Finally, on kickoffs, NU is once again stellar on coverage (8th nationally at 17.1 yards/return) while Iowa is middle-of-the-pack 50th on kick returns with safety Jordan Bernstine leading the way with 10 returns this year. On the flip side, Iowa presents an opportunity for Mark to make something happen as they rank 91st in kick return defense (and have just one touchback on the season); Mark averages 23.4 yards per return and has a long of 63 this year (and has taken a kick to the house).

Overall, the NU special teams are rather solid this year, particularly the coverage teams, and if they can keep up a solid effort like they put up against Michigan (that included a blocked FG), they can certainly help tilt things in their favor.

Miscellaneous Notes

Third Down Conversions

Not mentioned in the sections above is NU's abysmal showing on third downs on defense (allowing a 54.8% conversion rate, 117th nationally, which virtually erases any success against the run they have had) and bad showing on offense (40.6% or 71st nationally). Iowa, meanwhile, is converting 43.9% of theirs on offense while the D is almost as bad as NU, allowing 44.9% (96th nationally). Like some of the numbers above, this, too, indicates the potential for a shootout (more evidence: the over/under was set at 53.5; the last six meetings have averaged a total of 38.7).

The Recent Past

NU's last losing record was in 2007, when the 'Cats were also at 2-3 after five games (in the same pattern of winning their first two and then losing three straight), but then went on a three game winning streak initiated by a Big Ten road upset win. The Wildcats will be looking to avoid their first four game losing streak since 2006, Fitz's first season (during which they coincidentally beat Iowa).

On the Road at Night

The last Northwestern Big Ten road night game was against Minnesota in September, 2004.

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg).

One positive after the Michigan game is that Northwestern is finally getting healthy, and that will certainly help NU as it tries to regain respectability down the stretch.


OL Nolan MacMillan (questionable, hernia), QB AJ Derby (out, suspended), DB BJ Lowery (out, arm), LB Dakota Getz (out for season, knee), RB Mika'il McCall (out for season, ankle), LB Shane DiBona (out for season, Achilles).

Iowa hasn't experienced a huge number of injuries to their starters thus far; currently, the most significant issue is MacMillan, who has not yet seen the playing field this season. The remainder of their injuries are to reserves, which causes issues in terms of depth and on special teams, but is not as significant as a starter going down. Worthy of note is that backup QB AJ Derby is currently suspended, leaving a very inexperienced John Wienke as Iowa's only backup option to starter James Vandenberg. Also of note, Iowa lost yet another RB to a season-ending injury with McCall going down early in the year, but in usual fashion whoever is left has taken over and done just fine (Marcus Coker, their starter, is averaging over 90 yards per game).


Northwestern 34, Iowa 31

Fitz has a knack for beating Iowa, and I see this trend continuing thanks to some heroics from Dan Persa and an opportunistic defense that allows tons of yards but finds ways to get turnovers. Look for special teams to play a role in this one as Venric Mark energizes NU at just the right time for the 'Cats to pull off a road upset win here to get back to .500 before a key homecoming date with Penn State next week. Although Iowa will move the ball well and will score in a relatively high scoring contest, they will once again fall prey to the Wildcats who somehow have their number.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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