Game Preview


NU at Iowa
Kinnick Stadium
Saturday, Sept. 27.  11:00 am CDT
TV: ESPN "Classic"
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges


Saturday features the start of Big Ten conference play as Northwestern (4-0, 0-0) visits Iowa (3-1, 0-0), who is coming off of their first loss of the year, a close 21-20 loss at Pittsburgh.  NU, on the other hand, is carrying its longest winning streak in over a decade into Kinnick Stadium as it looks for the same result as their last visit there (a 21-7 win in 2006).  Both teams are hungry for a win here to help jump start their Big Ten seasons and help contribute to that all important win total with the conference title up for grabs and bowl positioning already in play.  Last year, both teams were left at home despite 6-6 bowl-eligible records as they were passed up by teams with 7 or more wins; each team having to dwell on disappointing nonconference losses that held them back from that 7 win mark (for NU, it was Duke; for Iowa, it was Western Michigan).

In their meeting in Evanston last year, the two teams played a very physical game (each team had 6 sacks) where NU had the lead in the 4th quarter but them saw it evaporate down the strech, ending up in a 28 to 17 Iowa victory.  Don't think for a second that the NU defense doesn't want a second shot against Iowa, whose QB Christiansen had probably the best game of his collegiate career (although he is now embroiled in a QB battle).  And NU QB Bacher will be looking for redemption after what was probably his worst performance at Northwestern.

But don't expect a shootout if the results from both teams this season are any indication - Iowa's offense seemed to be rolling early but sputtered as it hit BCS-conference competition (scoring only 17 and 20 points against Iowa State and Pitt, respectively).  Meanwhile, NU's offense has struggled to obtain the yard-consuming drives fans have come to expect this decade and saw CJ Bacher really struggle against Ohio.  Iowa's defense was expected to be good - and they definitely are (Iowa ranks first in the Big Ten in scoring defense, yielding only 7.25 ppg); while NU's has sustained quite a bit of improvement and is better than many expected even after the arrival of DC "genius" Hankwitz (NU is third in the Big Ten in scoring D, yielding 11.25 ppg).  What we may see on Saturday in Iowa City is a defensive slugfest, something relatively unfamiliar for NU fans (at least since 2000).

Despite solid records entering the game, both teams are relatively unproven; NU chalks up its best win as either Duke or Ohio, while Iowa has to look to its low-scoring win over Iowa State.  This will be the start of the true test for both teams as the Big Ten is open for the taking as of this weekend.  With both offenses underperforming leading up to this game and many unknowns on both sides (who will start at QB for Iowa; will Sutton be back 100%; will CJ overcome his interception woes), it is a difficult game to predict.  At the very least, this article will break down the key matchups of the game - what happens may very well be a surprise to everyone come Saturday.

Iowa by 8.

Who Should Win: I expect that this game will be should be more evenly matched than the line indicates, although I still believe that Iowa falls into the "should win" category if only due to home-field advantage.  Their defense is very good and has proven that so far, leading the Big Ten in scoring defense.  Their offense has overcome some questions by establishing a decent running game behind Greene and has at least two serviceable, albeit streaky, QBs.  And the key is probably that they are playing at home, where they are very tough any time.  But, as I mentioned, this should be a very evenly contested matchup...

Upset Factor:  Northwestern definitely has a good chance of winning this football game; and those chances will go way up if the offense can get its collective act together.  Fortunately, Sutton will be available for the game - his performance and the number of touches he gets will be vital - the more he gets the ball, the better; as will some other somewhat significant injuries for NU (Mattes and Simmons), but CJ Bacher must have a solid game (by avoiding turnovers, at a minimum) and the offense must move the ball well throughout the game.  The new-look defense will face its first Big Ten competion, as well, but will face a relatively unproven offense that the Hawkeyes bring to the table.  The 'Cats have a good chance of reaching 5-0 but must execute in all aspects of the game to get there.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Iowa Defense: Iowa will field the best defense NU has seen this year, by far.  Up front, they are led by Kroul and King at DT who can get into the backfield and make things happen.  Their linebacker corps will rack up the tackles, and they are led by Edds.  Their secondary also has some athletes, although consensus says that their safety position is the weakest part of their defense.  Given the trouble NU's offense had last week against Ohio, Iowa's physical defense definitely spells trouble for the Wildcats.  The key matchup here will be how NU's OL handles the Hawkeye defensive front.  Iowa plays relatively traditional schemes on D - they don't do anything fancy - but they execute well and makes the competition play physical football.  The still-young NU offensive line must contain the pass rush and give CJ time to throw (something that begun to break down against Ohio after a successful start to the year, allowing only one sack through the first 3 games), but also open up at least some running room for Sutton.  Speaking of Sutton, the main goal of the NU offense should be to get the ball in his hands, whether on handoffs, passes to the flat, or screen plays (which have worked quite well this year after failing at least half the time last season).  If Sutton can get a good number of touches (20, at the very least), and he can do things with the ball (which he almost invariably does if given the ball that many times), then things will begin to open up a bit downfield.  The 'Cats must also get the receivers in sync with CJ in order to get the ball out of his hands quickly on passing plays - NU will not have the luxury of time with the potent Iowa pass rush.  Unfortuantely, I don't think this is a chance for the NU offense to break out of their funk, but if they can make plays when needed and capitalize on any Iowa mistakes (don't expect there to be many), then they may have enough in them to pull off a win.  BUT, this unit must limit their mistakes - which they definitely had an issue with against Ohio.

Northwestern Defense/Iowa Offense: The good thing for NU is that Iowa's offense hasn't exactly overwhelmed teams thus far.  The Hawkeyes' first two games were against bottom-tier teams Maine and FIU (where they had 40+ point outputs).  Against BCS conference foes they have been held to 17 and 20 points.  Their offensive line is much improved from a season ago and are giving up only 2 sacks/game (an improvement).  The best thing that they have going is their running game, led by RB Greene, who is averaging over 126 yards/game.  The biggest question with their offense is at QB, where Christiensen and Stanzi have been playing musical chairs, although Stanzi (who is generally considered to have more talent) has been given the starting nod.  Not that it's any consolation for NU, who was burned by Christiensen in last season's matchup.  Again, Iowa doesn't do anything fancy on offense, but they run the ball right at you (which Greene, a rather large RB, is doing quite well) and then use the play-action to open up things downfield.  First and foremost, NU must contain the running game and prevent Iowa from just handing the ball off every play.  Despite yielding only four net rushing yards to Ohio, this will prove to be a daunting task for the 'Cats as Iowa's OL will be the best NU has faced this season, by far.  When Iowa does go to its passing game, the NU DL must continue to do what it's done so far this year, and that's getting to the QB.  While the 'Cats' secondary is solid, one can't expect them to cover Big Ten caliber receivers for a long period.  Therefore, the key for NU will be the play of its line and supporting linebackers.

Special Teams: This phase of the game may very well make the difference in this matchup as NU and Iowa appear to have solid defenses while not doing anything that impressive on offense.  Fortunately, NU's special teams have been generally solid this year - perfect on FGs and XPs, executing very well on kickoffs and punts, and at least holding onto the ball on returns.  Iowa has basically done the same, and they include a dangerous return man in Brodell (who has taken a punt to the house already).  The Hawkeyes have been a bit shaky on FGs, though, having missed one in each of their last 3 games.  Iowa has also had one kick and one punt blocked so far.  So, the Wildcats will need to use good special teams play to give their offense a boost as traversing the entire length of the field will be a tough task for the NU offense.

- Statistically, NU and Iowa are very similar teams to this point in the year.  They both feature solid defenses and offenses that are still finding their way.  They have both done a good job of limiting mistakes (turnovers), capitalizing on opponent mistakes, and creating points from special teams play.
- Both teams play disciplined football and have ranked near the top nationally in fewest penalties and penalty yardage.  Currently, NU ranks 26th, averaging 5 penalties/game while Iowa ranks 14th at 3.75 penalties/game.  So, don't expect a lot of yellow flags on Saturday.
- The third down conversion defense for both teams is almost identical: NU is at 27.9% while Iowa is at 27.6%; so, expect a lot of punting.
- In a preseason interview, NU's RB Sutton noted that the Iowa pink locker room made Kinnick his favorite Big Ten stadium to visit.  Other NU players have noted similar sentiments.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB McNaul (questionable, leg), LB Jeske (questionable), WR Frymire (questionable), RB Simmons (did not play against Ohio, ankle), OL Mattes (expected to be out, knee), WR Brewer (expected to be out, undisclosed), OL Grant (out for past two games, ankle), RB Sutton (confirmed that he will play, leg).

Iowa: S Wilson (questionable), OL Doering (questionable, hand), TE Sabers (questionable, ankle), LB Tarpinian (questionable, hamstring).

The most significant injury for NU is, of course, Sutton - but it has been confirmed that he will start and play against Iowa.  The issue is that the injury list continues to grow and although it only slightly affects the depth chart (Mabin taking over for Vaughn, Taylor stepping in for Mattes, and some shifting in special teams - for starting positions) the fact that they are piling up is a bit troublesome.  Hopefully these guys can make it back on the field soon as depth at some positions will definitely be needed down the stretch to keep guys fresh, even without injuries.  It does look promising that a few on the list will be able to return soon.  Iowa, meanwhile, doesn't have a lot of significant injuries outside of the loss of so many players in the offseason to off-the-field incidents, although they have seen some less experienced players step up (e.g. RB Greene who is a junior college transfer).

Prediction: Northwestern 10 - Iowa 13

I predict a very physical, hard-fought battle in the trenches: they key matchups of the game are the OL vs. opponent's DL for each team.  While NU's defense is, in my opinion, the "real deal," but Iowa will continually try to run the ball and will find a way to move the football and score at least some points.  The Wildcats' offense, on the other hand, has been struggling - the run blocking hasn't been there, the pocket has been collapsing quicker and quicker, receivers have been dropping balls, and CJ just hasn't been hitting receivers - and all of that will be tough to fix against Iowa's tough defense.  Both teams have been playing solid special teams, so overall I expect that to be a wash.  Given all of this, I anticipate a defensive struggle where Iowa gets a small advantage, if anything due to its home field advantage.

Now, Northwestern can certainly win this football game.  The defense must continue to perform as it has the first four games and its primary goal should be to contain the Iowa rushing game - Gill and Bryant will be charged with that task while Arrington, Kwateng, and Davie must come in to make the tackles.  If NU can do that and force Iowa to throw - the 'Cats have the chance to make things happen with the DEs and in the secondary.  While I expect the defense to play well, the real issue is the offense.  If Northwestern gets its offense moving at least decently, there is a good chance that the 'Cats can win; unfortunately they just haven't shown the ability to do that against their relatively weaker competition thus far - and Iowa's defense presents even more of a challenge.  NU must get the ball to Sutton early and often - he needs at least 20 touches - and McCall needs to keep things simple, the receivers need to run clean routes to get open, and CJ needs to find and hit the open target.  Of vital importance is ball protection - the offense must prevent turnovers, or else this game could get ugly for NU.  Given the experience and talent at the skill positions, I acknowledge that the NU offense could break out at any time, it's just difficult to see it occuring against Iowa.

The fact is that this is a statement game for both teams, and will be a key game to determine contention for bowl games, even though it's still September.  I sincerely hope that the Wildcats prove me wrong, go out there and get the offense going and win this football game.  This will be the first real test of this Northwestern squad and should give a good indication of what we will see down the line in the remainder of conference play.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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