Preview: Northwestern vs. Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges
This Saturday, Northwestern (5-4, 2-3) takes on Iowa (4-5, 2-4) at Ryan Field in
what will be a battle for bowl eligibility. If Iowa loses another game (this
game against NU is arguably their toughest remaining with Minnesota and Western
Michigan to finish the year), they are essentially out of the running for a bowl
game, as a team with 6 losses will most likely be left out of the bowl picture.
Meanwhile, Northwestern is seeking that 6th win as they attempt to close out the
season on a positive note. Despite a rough start for Iowa, they have managed to
upset two Big Ten teams at home this season: a ranked Illinois squad a few weeks
back, and Michigan State last week in overtime. Meanwhile, the 'Cats are
looking to get back on track after last week's tough road loss to Purdue after
leading in the 4th quarter.
These two teams are at opposite ends of the
spectrum on both offense and defense, to summarize all of this quickly,
reference the following statistics and rankings below:
Statistic - Northwestern (Big Ten, national) -
Iowa (Big Ten, national)
Total Offense (yds/game) - 433.8 (2nd, 29th) - 303.8 (11th,
Scoring Offense (pts/game) - 26.7 (9th, 61st) - 17.1 (11th,
Total Defense (yds/game) - 413.1 (10th, 82nd) - 335.2 (5th,
Scoring Defense (pts/game) - 30.6 (10th, 84th) - 18.2 (3rd,
So, basically one can infer that NU's offense is much better, while
Iowa's defense is much better. Therefore, the key battle of the game will be
the Northwestern offense vs. the Iowa defense. The Wildcats continue to have a
real problem putting points on the board even though they generate a ton of
yards. One of the major issues there is turnovers - this season NU has given up
17 turnovers, 14 of those have been in
Wildcat losses (including 4 against Purdue and 5 against Michigan). Meanwhile,
Iowa has only lost 8 turnovers on the year while leading the conference (and are
11th nationally) in turnover margin at +1.00/game - on the other side
Northwestern is 10th in the conference and 94th nationally at -
The key for Northwestern is to be efficient on offense and
don't give the ball away, meanwhile Iowa's primary goal will be to generate
those turnovers and keep NU off the scoreboard. Again, a key is putting the
pressure on CJ Bacher - something Purdue was effective at last week with 5 sacks
plus grabbing 3 INTs. NU must counter this with an effective running game
(which looks to be quite possible with Sutton's full return) and containing the
Iowa pass rush (which NU managed to do against MSU, which still is among the top
of the heap nationally in sacks).
On the other side of the ball,
Northwestern must first contain the Iowa rushing game - which appears to be
their only weapon offensively (in last week's win over MSU they had 230 rushing
yards vs. 53 passing yards). NU has shown that it can effectively manage the
rushing game against non-spread attacks ( e.g. Michigan where NU held Hart to
just over 100 yards on the day), and that is exactly what it must do. Iowa will
no doubt try to physically attack the normally weak NU defense, so containing
that will be key. If the 'Cats can contain the run game, Iowa will be forced to
air it out, and that is something that thus far they have not been able to come
close to doing.
This is a game that Northwestern should be able to win,
especially if it can put points on the board. If the NU offense fails to get in
sync early, it could end up being a low scoring slugout on the ground. It
presents an interesting matchup, though, and this game holds a lot of importance
to both teams in terms of post-season prospects.
Line: Northwestern by 1.
Who Should Win: Northwestern, barely.
Obviously, the key is the Northwestern offense vs. the Iowa defense, but against
everyone but Ohio State, NU has been able to move the football - and now with
Sutton back in business things should get even better with more weapons on the
field. The Iowa offense is one of the few units nationally that Northwestern's
defense should be able to contain. Plus, this one is in Evanston and Iowa has
only won one "road" game this season (the "neutral" site game at Soldier Field
against NIU which was overrun by Iowa fans). If Northwestern can contain the
Hawkeyes on defense, put up a few scores on offense, and hold onto the ball the
'Cats should come away with the win.
Upset Factor: Once again, this is the season of
the upset. NU has not played well against tough defenses (Ohio State in
particular), and has trouble scoring points even against weaker opponents.
Turnovers can make or break games, and Iowa has been picking them up on defense
and holding onto the ball while on offense - while NU has lost a ton of
turnovers, many of which have been costly. If Iowa contains NU's offense by
getting pressure on CJ Bacher and creating turnovers, this game could turn into
a battle of ugly offenses, and all it takes is one play to break it open -
leaving the door open for Iowa to take the win.
What to Look For:
Northwestern Offense/Iowa Defense:
Northwestern's toughest challenge will be up front with the OL: they must first
contain the pass rush and protect CJ Bacher. NU's staple on offense is the
passing game, like it or not, and if CJ has time to throw he will make things
happen. If he sees any pressure, things can go south quickly. The 'Cats must
utilize Sutton more often, who averaged 6.0 yds/rush last week and was very
effective against the Hawkeyes last year. Meanwhile, Iowa will do everything it
can to get pressure up front and either go after Bacher or stop Sutton cold.
Keep your eyes on the trenches for the most important battle of the game. Also,
NU must protect the football - but much of that comes down to if there is any
pressure on CJ Bacher as well.
Northwestern Defense/Iowa Offense: Iowa's
offense has not moved the ball much at all this year - but has taken advantage
of opportunities given to it by the defense (thanks to shutting down opponents
or grabbing turnovers). Their offense's biggest weapon is the run, and they
don't cough up the football much. Therefore, Northwestern must key in on the
running game and force Iowa to pass - something they don't like or want to do
(especially with multiple would-be starting wide receivers out before the season
due to various reasons). If NU can do what it did against Michigan (shut down
the run), they can force Iowa into a very tough spot.
Special Teams: NU's coverage unit has done a
good job of containing opponents - particularly against Purdue last week despite
facing a potentially dangerous return man. This must continue as Iowa ranks 1st
in the conference in punt returns. Villarreal must continue to hit those field
goals when called upon, and now he must pick up the kickoff unit and place the
ball within reach of NU's coverage unit to stop the big return. Demos has been
assigned only punting duties at this point - with most of the punts of the
line-drive rugby style variety, which have actually been very effective due to
their accurate placement.
- Rushing Offense: This game pits the bottom two
teams in the Big Ten in rushing yardage/game against each other, both averaging
less than 130 yds/game on the ground. Of course, they are at the bottom for
different reasons - NU's offense is predicated on the pass, meanwhile Iowa's has
just not been effective at all. NU's rushing offense is 90th nationally while
Iowa's is 95th.
- Sacks: Once again,
NU just hasn't been able to get to the opposing QB, averaging 1 sack/game, good
for 10th in the conference.
Efficiency: Iowa's passing troubles can probably be attributed to the
completion percentage, which stands at just below 52%, meanwhile NU completes
almost 61% of its passes. NU does have almost 120 more passing attempts than
- Receivers: As a consequence
of the poor passing game, Iowa has no receivers in the top 24 in the conference
for receptions/game (NU has 4 in the top 20).
- Attendance: Last time these teams met in
Evanston (the 28-27 last-minute NU comeback thriller), attendance was a meager
35,000 - especially for an Iowa team that usually has a lot of fans in the
Chicago area and an NU team that was playing rather well. This time around, the
prospects don't look too great with Iowa not playing well and NU drawing the
smallest crowds in almost 3 decades.
No new NU injuries to
Out for the
Season: Brewer (WR), Smith (S), Diaz (OL), Hamlett (DB).
Prediction: Northwestern 28 - Iowa 17
jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.