Game Preview


Saturday, October 27, 11:00 am CDT
WGN Radio

Game Preview: Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges

After another heartbreaking fourth quarter collapse, Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) will face the rival Iowa Hawkeyes (4-3, 2-1) for homecoming this Saturday as NU looks to right the ship entering the second half of its 2012 Big Ten slate. Although last week's loss was certainly disappointing for Wildcat fans, Iowa will be looking to prevent the wheels from coming off after an embarrassing loss to Penn State at home last week (the final was 38-14, but they were down 31-0 early in the third quarter). Outside of a big home win over Minnesota (mostly thanks to Gopher turnovers) and a double overtime win at MSU (that was a showcase for good defense and/or offensive ineptitude), the Hawkeyes have been wholly unimpressive in 2012 and have regressed a good deal on offense (somewhat thanks to their continued snakebitten RB corps and also QB James Vandenberg's lackluster senior performance). While NU has had its share of issues, it has had a fourth quarter lead in every game and has looked good in flashes if not longer.

With both of these teams losing last week, this game loses much of its Legends Division title appeal (with both squads now needing to win out and get help to make it to Indianapolis), but it will have significance when it comes to bowl selections, with both of these squads vying for a middle tier bowl bid (think Gator, Buffalo Wild Wings, or Texas). Oh, and Fitz's focus on the Iowa rivalry is well known and will certainly bring some flavor to this matchup. With both offenses struggling as of late, expect a somewhat lower scoring affair but with some big plays on both sides of the ball in a typical Big Ten slugfest.

Opening Line: Northwestern by 6.

Who Should Win: Northwestern. The Wildcats may be down but they still have an offense that can put points on the board even when out of sync, and the defense seems suited to face Iowa who features a one-dimensional QB (who isn't that effective this season) and a WR corps that is not as deep as in recent seasons. NU always gives Iowa it's A-game, while the Hawkeyes seem to be in transition after losing both coordinators and breaking in some new players at key positions.

Upset Factor: Anyone who has watched NU's last three contests knows that anything can happen especially if NU has a double digit lead in the fourth quarter. And this rivalry certainly goes both ways with NU pulling off some big upsets over the Hawkeyes in recent years, and the Iowa players almost certainly remember this. NU has had some depth issues in the secondary and that could lead to Vandenberg getting back on track in the passing game, which would mean trouble for the 'Cats.

NU Offense vs. Iowa Defense: Northwestern's offense has sputtered over the past three weeks, although the potential is certainly there to rack up the yards and points. The 'Cats still rank 17th nationally and 3rd in the conference in rushing yards per game (223.6) and have the nation's 18th ranked running back in Venric Mark who is always a threat to take it the distance (Mark leads NU in scoring this season with 12 TDs for 72 points). Kain Colter is also a solid multi-threat runner who has found paydirt 8 times for the Wildcats. And the offensive line is much improved from recent troubles as they are paving the way for 5.0 yards per carry on the ground (with sacks included) and have given up just 2 sacks through 4 weeks of Big Ten play, helping to improve NU to 39th nationally in sacks allowed. Unfortunately, the Wildcat passing attack has faltered (110th nationally in pass yards per game and dead last in the conference) thanks to predictable play calling given the personnel on the field (Trevor Siemian behind center = pass) and lack of execution when throwing the football (Siemian has completed just 47.4% of his throws over the past three games, well below the 65%+ range needed to be successful in NU's spread offense). The vaunted WR corps hasn't helped their cause but have also been seemingly neglected with the focus on the run.

Iowa's defense came into the season light on experience and expectations (due to graduating seniors and bringing in a new defensive coordinator), but have surprised with relatively solid performances in most games this season (the exceptions being home losses to Central Michigan and Penn State, in which they yielded 30+ points, something they have not done in any other game this season). They rank a solid 39th nationally against the run (131.3 yards per game) and allow a respectable 3.6 yards per carry; their main contributors there are LBs Anthony Hitchens and James Morris who combine for 22.6 tackles per game. One the line, the most dangerous player seems to be Joe Gaglione who leads the team in TFLs (8) and sacks (4), although overall they are not generating as much pressure as they would like, ranking 98th nationally in sacks (1.3 per game). And in the secondary, they sport the experienced senior Micah Hyde who is one of the best CBs in the conference, and he leads the team with 9 PBUs.

It will be interesting to see if the Wildcats change up their offensive strategy for this game given what has happened as of late. NU will still look to establish the run with Colter and Mark, and although Iowa is solid up front NU will be able to gain some yards. But if the 'Cats want to come on strong, they will need to get the passing game back in gear, likely by sticking with one QB through practice this week and through most of the game. One huge benefit NU will have is its solid offensive line facing a team that hasn't brought much pressure this season, so this presents a good chance to get Siemian going in the pass game before facing two tough road games after the bye.

NU Defense vs. Iowa Offense: Northwestern's defense has certainly had its issues, and seeing CBs Nick VanHoose (shoulder) and Quinn Evans (lower body/undisclosed) listed as doubtful this week certainly doesn't help matters in an already thin and young secondary. Fortunately, NU will be facing a rather anemic Iowa offense (105th nationally in total offense, and 101st in scoring offense, at 20.9 points per game) that lost two starting offensive linemen to season-ending injuries last week (LT Scherff and RG Donnal). This is clearly a situation for the NU defensive line and pass rush in general to step up and make something happen in the backfield, and NU sports the conference's leading sack man in Tyler Scott (with 6 on the season), while the 'Cats rank 4th in the conference in sacks per game. One certainly hopes that generating pressure will lead to continued mistakes by Iowa QB James Vandenberg, who is completing just 55.8% of passes on the season with an ugly 3:5 TD:INT ratio. Some of that is due to the lack of a go-to WR like Marvin McNutt, as he now has three primary targets: WRs Keenan Davis, Kevonte Marin-Manley, and TE CJ Fiedorowicz. NU's young corner backs (Daniel Jones and CJ Bryant, both sophomores, are likely starters if VanHoose and Evans are out) will likely be tested and, again, the key is what happens up front to disrupt the passing game.

While the passing game has languished, what Iowa really wants to do is run the ball, and things haven't changed even with a new offensive coordinator at the helm. Running backs continue to drop like flies at Iowa, but per usual they have found guys to step up. Former FB Mark Weisman is the most recent standout as he has racked up 640 yards on the season with 8 TDs at a nice 6.1 yards per carry pace. Unfortunately, he suffered a bit of an ankle injury late in the Hawkeyes' win at MSU and has been splitting time with Damon Bullock, who is coming back from an injury of his own. But, despite finding a reliable back, Iowa hasn't exactly been plowing down opponeents, as they rank 88th nationally and 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (135.4). This sets up very well for the 'Cats who have fared well when facing traditional running attacks, and NU still ranks 29th nationally and 4th in the conference in rush yards allowed (121.3 per game, still on pace for a Northwestern record low). The starting LB trio of Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby, and David Nwabuisi are three of NU's top four tacklers (S Ibraheim Campbell is two ahead of Nwabuisi) and have combined for 16 TFLs. Their job is simple: contain the run game, and thankfully they have shown the capability to do just that.

This game sets up well as Iowa's issues play towards NU's strengths: Iowa is susceptible to a pass rush having to break in new OL starters, while NU's line has been getting solid pressure this season. Meanwhile, NU has been able to stop the run against teams that do not have a dual-threat QB, and Iowa has a couple of dinged up RBs and hasn't been running as well as they would like on the season. Expect the 'Cats to contain Iowa, and if the young DBs can step up NU can really lock down an underwhelming offense.

Special Teams: Despite missing a 53 yarder last week (which barely missed to the right) to break his consecutive made FG streak, NU K Jeff Budzien is a very solid kicker for the 'Cats and certainly gives NU an edge. But Iowa's Mike Meyer is also effective, making 14-of-17 kicks on the season, which is vital for a Hawkeye team that has not been able to find the end zone (their red zone TD rate is just 40%, compared to 61% for the 'Cats). When NU is kicking/punting, the 'Cats have been solid on punts (Northwestern is 43rd nationally and 4th in the conference in net punting at 38.2 yards per punt, mostly thanks to a 13th ranked punt return defense) while Iowa hasn't been able to generate much in the punt return game (the aforementioned Hyde is their punt returner). On kickoffs, though, NU must be wary as they allowed one TD return this year but have improved enough to rise to 43rd nationally since then; meanwhile, Iowa has three potential returners (WR Davis, RB Greg Garmon, or Jordan Cotton, who has taken one to the house this season) as they rank 45th in the country on kick returns (22.7 yards per return). On the flipside, the 'Cats have a dangerous return man in Mark, while Iowa's net punting is fairly bad (94th nationally, 11th in the Big Ten) although they have been solid in preventing much in the return game (28th in the country); most of their punting issues have been shorter kicks. On kickoffs, NU has been surprisingly unable to get anything going (117th nationally at 16.1 yards per kick return) while Iowa has an average kick return defense (48th). This is an overall close matchup, especially with two solid place kickers, but the edge has to go to NU with the presence of Mark.

- Northwestern in the rankings: NU still received votes in both poll components of the BCS: 11 points in the Coaches poll (36th), and 17 points in the Harris (35th). In the BCS computers, the 'Cats came in at: Sagarin 38, Anderson & Hester 33, Billingsley 40, Massey 30, Wolfe, 35, good for a BCS computer average of 35. This puts NU at 36th in this week's BCS rankings (down from 29th last week). Note that NU did not receive any AP top 25 votes this week.
- The 'Cats have a manageable remaining schedule, with the rest of its opponents being a combined 6-12 versus BCS competition, 13-14 versus other FBS teams, and 15-14 overall.
- Through four 2012 Big Ten games, NU has allowed just two sacks and is now 39th nationally in sacks allowed per game on the season. Against Nebraska, NU lost for just the second time under Fitzgerald when the 'Cats out-sacked their opponent (the other was earlier this season against PSU); NU is now 13-2 in such games under Fitz.
- NU RB/KR/PR Venric Mark continues to amaze: he is 5th nationally and 1st in the conference in all-purpose yards per game with 183.8, and has led all players in all-purpose yards in 7 of 8 Northwestern games this season (the only one he didn't lead was Indiana, in which he was second to Colter). He is also 18th nationally and 5th in the conference with 114.4 rushing yards per game and has 910 rush yards on the season, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
- K Jeff Budzien missed his first FG of the season and broke a personal streak of 12 made field goals against Nebraska. In fact, both of his last two misses have come against the Huskers (at respectable distances of 53 and 45 yards).
- The Wildcats are 19-8 (0.704) in 11AM CT home game kickoffs under Fitzgerald and have won 9 of their last 11 such contests.
- Under Fitz, Northwestern is 7-1 when favored and appearing on an ESPN network.
- The Wildcats are 3-3 in their own homecoming games under Fitzgerald; since 1995, NU is 10-7 on its homecoming.
- As a favorite, Northwestern with Fitz as head coach is 28-7 (0.800), which includes games versus FCS teams (that have no Vegas line). NU has won the last 7 games in which it was favored.
- As a home favorite, the 'Cats under Fitz are 18-4 (0.818), again including FCS games, with NU winning 15 of its last 16 such games.
- Any avid HTP reader knows Fitz is three wins away from tying the NU all-time mark. But with his next win, Fitzgerald would move into a tie for third amongst Northwestern coaches for winning seasons (4) and .500 or better years (5).
- Against Iowa, NU is 4-2 under Fitzgerald: 4-1 as the underdog, 0-1 as the favorite; 1-1 at home, 3-1 away. In NU's 4 wins, the 'Cats have allowed 17 or fewer points. Iowa scored 28 and 41 in Fitz's 2 losses to the Hawkeyes. NU under Fitz is 2-0 when facing an Iowa team with a senior starting QB; starter James Vandenberg is a senior this season.

Northwestern 17 - Iowa 10

For the first time this season, I'm going to against my preseason prediction and take the 'Cats in this one thanks to NU living up to or exceeding preseason expectations and Iowa sputtering, particularly on offense. Expect a low scoring game thanks to a solid Iowa defense versus a sputtering NU offense and a bad Iowa offense facing off an NU defense that has strength up front. But with some playmakers in Colter and Mark, NU will find a way to put points on the board, while Iowa's production will be limited to when they have enough time to get off a long pass. Otherwise, the NU defense will come through by containing the run and generating pressure on the QB, while the offense will churn out yards on the ground to pull off a homecoming win before heading into the bye.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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