NU at Iowa
Saturday, November 7. 11:00 am CST
radio internet coverage.
Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges
The Northwestern Wildcats (5-4, 2-3) will try to play spoiler and secure bowl
eligibility as they travel to take on BCS #4 Iowa (9-0, 5-0) on Saturday. The
Hawkeyes should be taking this game seriously since NU owns an active two game
winning streak at Kinnick Stadium, with the two teams splitting the last 10 in
the series 5-5.
The Wildcats are coming off of a hard-fought game against
highly ranked Penn State in Evanston that saw NU hold a 13-10 halftime edge and
take a tie game into the fourth quarter before surrendering touchdowns on three
consecutive PSU plays from scrimmage. Iowa, meanwhile, escaped with a win over
Indiana, who had the Hawkeyes on the ropes with a 21-7 halftime lead, only to
watch Iowa come roaring back with a 28-point fourth quarter.
Iowa will be
looking to run their 2009 win total into double digits and, coupled with a PSU
win over Ohio State later in the day, all but secure a conference title. The
Hawkeyes control their own destiny, as they face OSU in Columbus next week,
which means Northwestern will can play spoiler in its second consecutive
potential opponent trap game.
Don't expect any of this to overtly affect
Iowa, though, who have come from behind in every game but one in the 2009 season
(the exception was against Arkansas State, who had the ball down by three with a
chance to win at the end of the game). The Hawkeyes feature the nation's 13th
best scoring defense and the nation's third best pass efficiency defense, aided
by nation-leading 18 interceptions (which comes out to, of course, two per
Northwestern will be hoping to have QB Mike Kafka available to
start the game after he came out in the second quarter of the PSU game with a
leg injury. This season, Kafka has accounted for 70 percent of NU's total
offense and 62 percent of the 'Cats' offensive touchdowns.
have had injury problems across the board, having started 20 different players
on defense (just four have started every game of the year), and seeing three
members of the running back by committee go down at various points of the year.
This has directly led to NU's 5-4 record, despite the fact that the Wildcats
have had a second half lead in every game of the 2009 season (and have entered
the fourth quarter trailing just one time).
Although Iowa's offense is
nothing to write home about, they're tied for 74th nationally in scoring
offense, QB Ricky Stanzi has found a way to come up with the big play when it
matters most, like his last-second fourth down touchdown pass at Michigan State
two weeks ago to secure the come-from-behind victory. Even as they see running
back after running back go down with injuries, they continue to find ways to win
If Northwestern can put together a "complete game" by extending
what they did against Penn State early in the game to the entire contest, the
'Cats have a good chance of playing spoiler for Iowa, since the Hawkeyes haven't
exactly been impressive so far this season. The Wildcats can ill afford any
major gaffes, though, and need Kafka in the game to provide some kind of
Opening Line: Iowa by
Who Should Win:
Iowa. They're fourth in
the BCS rankings, are off to the best start in school history, and currently
stand alone atop the Big Ten conference standings. They have a suffocating
defense and find ways to win games despite being down (even by large margins).
And they find ways to overcome their own mistakes, like beating Indiana last
week by 18 despite yielding six turnovers. They seem destined to roll to the
Rose Bowl, with the national championship game still in the picture if a team
above them slips up.
For the second
straight week, NU is hoping that its opponent is looking forward to a bout with
Ohio State as the 'Cats look to catch their opponent in a trap game. NU showed
it could move the ball against a stout defense with Kafka at the helm and could
more than hold its own, at least for three quarters. Iowa's offense isn't
nearly as dangerous as Penn State's, and they make their share of errors, so if
NU can move the ball well at all (meaning Kafka needs to play) and can
capitalize on any Iowa errors, they could run their Iowa City winning streak to
What to Look for:
Northwestern Offense / Iowa
As mentioned earlier, NU's offense is seemingly tied to the
health of QB Mike Kafka, as he's accounted for 70% of the 'Cats offensive output
this year. The offense's struggles after he came out last week were well
documented: Dan Persa couldn't complete any downfield passes and was being
chased by pass rushers early and often. Now NU must turn around and face a
second consecutive formidable defense.
The offensive line looked great
against Indiana and was holding up well versus PSU, thanks to Kafka's feet and
quick passing, but those good feelings were quickly pushed aside in the second
half against PSU, as they ended up yielding six sacks, five QB hurries, and a
third quarter where NU yielded 17 total yards of offense.
backs were once again quiet, with QBs Kafka and Persa easily outgaining the rest
of the backs combined. It's fairly clear that the 2009 Wildcats' rushing attack
comes primarily from the quarterback position thanks to an OL that hasn't been
effective in run blocking and a running back by committee that hasn't gained
The one thing the 'Cats do have going for them is the
nation's 24th ranked passing attack (268.3 yards per game) with the nation's
10th best passer in terms of completions per game, Mike Kafka, who is also 14th
in terms of completion percentage (66.8%). Again, if he can play, Kafka can do
damage with his arms and his legs (4.2 yards per carry with sacks removed, and 6
rushing touchdowns on the year).
Northwestern will be facing the wall
that is the Iowa defense, who lead the nation in interceptions, are fourth in
turnovers gained, are 19th in total defense, and, most importantly are 13th in
scoring defense, yielding just 15.8 points per game.
Aptly named LB Pat
Angerer leads the team in tackles with 89, while also contributing stats in five
other statistical categories. S Tyler Sash is tied for second nationally with
six interceptions on the year, with one highlight coming last week as he grabbed
a ball that bounced off four other players and took it 86 yards for a
Up front, DT Karl Klug has 10.0 TFLs, surpassed only by DE Adrian
Clayborn, who has 11.0 along with a team-leading 6.5 sacks. Clayborn also had
the infamous blocked punt that he returned for a TD against PSU that helped Iowa
take the lead in that important game.
Iowa has more weapons than I can
name here, much like PSU did last week, and to be successful the 'Cats will need
to execute their quick passing attack as efficiently as they did early in the
game last week while getting whatever rushing production they can primarily from
the QB position. The success on this side of the ball seemingly hinges on
Kafka's health unless NU can find a way to utilize Persa more
Northwestern Defense / Iowa Offense:
'Cats D contained the Big Ten's best offense for three quarters last week, until
they were gashed for TDs on three consecutive plays from scrimmage in the fourth
quarter. This despite having to resort to second and third string cornerbacks
throughout the season and facing injuries at the vast majority of the defensive
The Wildcats are in the middle of the pack nationally in most
defensive categories and have done a decent job at stopping the run, yielding
only 122.9 yards per game on the ground (which would set a school record,
eclipsing last year's mark of 126.4 yards per game). The problem is that a
dinged-up secondary has been giving up explosion plays early and often, like the
two 50+ yard plays to Penn State last week and a 70 yard run to Indiana to open
the previous week's game.
Up front, the DL has been doing a good job to
contain the run after a poor start to the year in that category, and they've
been getting modest pressure on opposing QBs (2.3 sacks per game, although most
of those sacks came against weaker competition). Corey Wootton has yet to
really look like his pre-injury self, and if he can turn in a 2008-like
performance, it would be a huge boost for the 'Cats.
Northwestern has had
many statistical contributors on defense, but the key to their success is
getting pressure up front and getting solid coverage from the secondary; when NU
has failed in either or both of these areas, they have been burned by long
plays. The Wildcats have made a concerted effort to stop the run by bringing
additional men into the box, which leaves some or all members of the secondary
responsible for man-to-man coverage.
Unfortunately for NU, that type of
long play is what Iowa has been feeding on all year long. QB Ricky Stanzi is
averaging 13.7 yards per completion (for comparison, Kafka is averaging 10.3
yards per completion) and has 17 passes of 30 yards or more on the year (four of
those coming last week against Indiana, including a 66 and a 92 yarder, with
both of those coming in the fourth quarter of the game).
active leading rusher is true freshman Brandon Wegher (after Adam Robinson went
down a few weeks ago), who is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. At this point,
he's the Hawkeyes' most viable rushing threat; junior Paki O'Meara has just 12
carries on the year and is theoretically the second option, but has clearly been
passed over and will rarely be used, barring injury.
The real threat is
in Iowa's passing game. Both Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt are
averaging over 19 yards per reception (McNutt is averaging 21.7 yards per
catch), while Tony Moeaki provides a viable receiving threat from the TE
position and is tied for the team lead with four receiving TDs (McNutt shares
QB Stanzi is coming off of arguably his worst three quarters
of the season followed by his best quarter of the season. In quarters one
through three against Indiana, he went 10-of-23 for 160 yards and five
interceptions. In the fourth period, he went 3-of-3 for 177 yards and two TDs
with no turnovers.
That's pretty much how Iowa's season has gone on
offense, with Stanzi sporting a 14-to-13 TD-to-INT ratio. They've made plenty
of mistakes (they rank 80th nationally with 17 turnovers lost) but they can hit
the big plays when needed and have explosive-play potential.
The key for
NU is to get to Stanzi early and often with up-front pressure and to cover up as
much of the downfield receivers as possible. Last year, NU racked up five
turnovers on their way to a 22-17 win in Iowa City, and a repeat of that
performance would definitely help the 'Cats' cause.
Northwestern's special teams woes continued against Penn
State, with a dropped punt snap and three muffed kickoffs. Thankfully none of
those plays turned into a big negative for NU (in fact, two of them turned into
positives with P Stefan Demos passing for a first down and Stephen Simmons
returning a kickoff 44 yards after a bounce), but the 'Cats can't continue
making such errors.
The 'Cats rank below 100th in two special teams
categories: net punting (108th) and kickoff returns (106th). With the Wildcats
ranking in the middle of the pack nationally on kick and punt coverage,
basically the only bright spot is Demos' field goal kicking, where he is
13-of-15 with his only two misses being blocks.
Iowa's PK Daniel Murray
is 14-of-19 on FGs and has proven to be clutch (see his game winner over PSU
last year), and they play disciplined special teams despite losing multiple key
returners. The Hawkeyes rank 23rd nationally in net punting which is a
significant reason behind their success: They make teams drive the length of the
field to score.
In terms of coverage, they are 17th nationally in kick
return yardage defense and are 13th in punt return defense. As an extension of
the defense, they don't give up many big plays on special teams.
course, that's not to mention their punt/kick blocking, where they had the
aforementioned punt block along with kick blocks on consecutive plays to secure
their first win of the season over Northern Iowa.
The biggest objective
for Northwestern in special teams should be to avoid momentum-changing
mistakes. Anything else will be gravy, like last year's two recovered fumbles
on special teams against Iowa.
Second Half Scoring: This year Iowa's come up big when
the game is on the line, while NU has faltered. Iowa has outscored opponents
148-54 in the second halves of 2009 games (+10.4 points per game), while NU has
been outscored 79-116 (-4.1 points per game).
Conversions: Everyone's favorite category, third down conversions. NU
ranks ninth nationally converting 49.3% of its chances (75 total, to lead the
nation), while Iowa is yielding just 34.9% of the time, 31st
Turnovers: NU is 3-0 on the year when winning the
turnover battle and is just 2-4 when losing. Iowa is, of course, undefeated at
9-0, and they have won the turnover battle four times, tied three times, and
lost twice. Interestingly, they have lost at least one turnover in all but one
games this season (and had a season high of six last week).
Allowed: Neither team is protecting its QB very well: NU ranks 94th
nationally, yielding 2.7 sacks per game, while Iowa ranks 74th, allowing 2.2 per
Scoring Offense: NU and Iowa are tied for 74th nationally
averaging exactly 25.67 points per game through nine games.
Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle,
out for season), OL Mike Boyle (back, doubtful), DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder,
questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, doubtful), CB Sherrick McManis (leg,
questionable), QB Mike Kafka (leg, questionable).
terms of numbers, NU's injury situation improved by leaps and bounds last week,
with safeties Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips both starting and playing much of
the game, running backs Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons both playing
significant time, and CB Justan Vaughn even playing for the first time in
Unfortunately, NU was without arguably their most important
players on offense (Kafka) and defense (McManis), both of whom have lingering
leg issues. Kafka came out in the second quarter with what looked like a
hamstring pull, and he said on Monday that he plans on playing and that his leg
is feeling "pretty good." McManis is still hampered with some leg issues and
was a game-time scratch. The fact is that the 'Cats need both of these guys on
the field to compete with the Big Ten's top team, and hopefully they will be
available to play.
Iowa: RB Jewel Hampton (knee, out for
season), RB Adam Robinson (ankle, out for season), RB Jeff Brinson (foot, out
for season), WR Colin Sandeman (concussion, questionable), OL Dace Richardson
(leg, out for season), WR Paul Chaney (knee, out for season).
Hawkeyes have sustained massive injuries at both running back and punt returner
(both Chaney and Sandeman returned punts this year), but have seemingly
weathered the storm. Despite going to third and fourth options at these
positions, they have managed to remain productive enough to win.
many key yard-producers out, this provides NU a chance to contain Iowa's attack,
albeit a small one.
Prediction: Northwestern 26 - Iowa
Despite the line for this game and Iowa's undefeated record, I believe
the Wildcats have a good chance to not just be competitive in the game but to
potentially pull the gigantic upset. The Hawkeyes has been living off of good
fortune this season, and it almost seems a given that their luck will end at
some point (although they will still likely win the
Unfortunately, I don't think Northwestern will be the team
to end their run (or, I don't have the guts to call it), but I expect a very
close game that Iowa will win by a slim margin. The Wildcats will need an
all-around effort for a full 60 minutes to stay in this game, and will need
Kafka to play and continue putting up great numbers.
The key for NU will
be to prevent any explosion plays on defense, something that they haven't been
able to contain in their losses this year. And it's more than likely that this
game will go to the winner of the turnover battle, so generating turnovers will
be vital for NU's chances. In fact, NU hasn't generated a turnover since the
second quarter of the MSU game.
Expect this to be one of the most
exciting games of the season and for NU to give Iowa a run for its money, at the
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