WHO: Northwestern Wildcats (6-4, 6-1 Big Ten)
WHEN: Saturday, November 10
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, IA)
KICKOFF: 2:30 PM Central
ONLINE: Fox Sports Go
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Iowa -10.5
WEATHER: low 30s, partly cloudy
Iowa's a big favorite against Northwestern? What could possibly go wrong?!
Iowa owns a 50-26-3 edge in the all-time series with Northwestern, thanks in large part to the 21-game winning streak they put together against the Wildcats between 1974 and 1994. Hayden's Iowa teams regularly demolished Northwestern -- this was the "Hope we didn't hurt your boys too bad" era. That all changed in 1995 when Gary Barnett's incredible turnaround at Northwestern reached its apex in the year when they won the Big Ten and made it to the Rose Bowl. Scott Dochterman wrote an excellent piece ($) on the Iowa-Northwestern series in the early/mid 90s and how it's blossomed into a full-blown rivalry (even if it's one that Iowa fans are loathe to admit) ever since. Since 1995, Northwestern owns a 12-9 edge in the series. Outside of winning four of five against the 'Cats from 2011 to 2015, this series hasn't gone very well for Iowa under Ferentz, either -- he's 8-9 against them, with a slew of painful losses (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016, 2017...). Good times!
NORTHWESTERN SEASON RECAP
Has a team ever won its division and played in a conference championship game despite losing all of its non-conference games? Because that's the position Northwestern finds themselves in this year. Barring a complete meltdown in their final three Big Ten games (against Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois), they're headed to Indianapolis as the Big Ten West's representative. But they have no wins on their resume aside from their six wins in league play, going 0-3 in non-league games. There's no shame in losing to Notre Dame this year, of course, but getting drilled at home by Duke? Losing at home to Akron (currently 4-4)? Those are a little bit harder to swallow.
But those games have no impact on the Race to Indianapolis and in league games Northwestern has mixed good fortune with solid play to come out on top in six of seven games thus far. Their season began with a narrow win over Purdue in West Lafayette and reached its peak with a two-score blowout over Wisconsin (a win that, coupled with Iowa's pratfalls over the last two weeks, essentially clinched the West for the Wildcats) and it's featured some dizzying ups and downs in league play in-between. Northwestern played Michigan closer than anyone in the Big Ten has managed this year, barely losing 20-17, and they impressively beat Michigan State by 10 in East Lansing. They also needed a fairly improbable comeback to escape then-winless Nebraska and they only beat Rutgers by three points. In general, they've been just as good as they've needed to be to get wins in league play... but, hey, wins are wins and they're the ones sitting atop the West standings while we lament what could have been.
Northwestern's success this year has not come as a result of any particular great showing on the offensive side of things. They rank 99th in the nation in scoring offense (24.7 ppg), 109th in total offense (357.7 ypg), and 126th in yards per play (4.55 ypp). They can't run the ball -- 93 ypg (127th nationally) and 2.6 ypc (128th nationally) -- but they're not great at passing the ball, either -- 264.7 ypg (40th nationally), 59.5% completion (67th), 115.17 QB rating (112th nationally), 11 TD/11 INT. They're not even a particularly efficient offense in the red zone -- they've scored on 25 of 31 trips, 81% of their trips, which is 98th nationally. 61% of their trips (19/31) have resulted in touchdowns. Northwestern just seems to get just enough offense at just the right times this year.
Their best player on offense is QB Clayton Thorson (finally a senior), who's averaging 245.9 ypg on 60.2% completion and 6.4 yards per attempt with 11 TDs and 10 interceptions. His numbers look pretty much identical to both his own numbers over the last three seasons, but also to any Northwestern starting QB over the last decade or so. Northwestern's running game cratered after Jeremy Larkin was sadly forced to retire due to injury concerns earlier this season; consider that even now he's still Northwestern's leading rusher on the season (346 yards, 5 TD) despite playing in just five games. Though if freshman Isaiah Bowser can get 27 yards against Iowa, he'll move past Larkin atop the season rushing charts. Bowser's averaging just 3.9 yards per carry this year. Thorson's top target in the passing game has been Flynn Nagel, a senior with 63 receptions for 744 yards and two touchdowns. Bennett Skowronek (34 receptions, 417 yards, 1 TD) and Cameron Green (39 receptions, 350 yards, 3 TD) have been capable second and third options, though, and overall this unit is good enough to present a challenge to an Iowa secondary that should still be licking its wounds after getting burned to a crisp by David Blough and Purdue's passing attack last week.
Northwestern has been better on defense this year... but they haven't been great there, either. They're giving up 24 ppg on average this year (49th nationally), 377.6 ypg (51st), and 5.5 ypp (59th). They're 42nd in rushing defense (143.2 ypg) and 65th in yards per carry (4.1 ypc).They're 72nd in passing yards per game (234.3 ypg) and 54th in opponent QB rating (128.5). They don't force a lot of turnovers: their 12 total takeaways -- six interceptions and six fumble recoveries -- ranks 78th nationally. They're 115th in sacks (12). They are pretty good at stopping opponents on third downs -- teams are converting just 33.8% of their third downs (29th nationally) against the Wildcats. They've also been good on fourth down, allowing opponents to convert on just 33.3% (5/15) chances so far this year (11th best nationally). Their overall red zone numbers are poor -- opponents have scored on 23/26 opportunities (88%, 101st nationally) -- but the 26 total red zone opportunities they've conceded ranks 31st nationally and they've allowed touchdowns on just 50% of those 26 trips (18th nationally). So they are good at keeping opponents out of the red zone -- and keeping teams out of the end zone when they do get inside the 20.
Sophomore linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher are their leading tacklers, with 86 and 69 (nice), respectively. Joe Gaziano leads the team in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (8.5). JR Pace leads the team with three interceptions, although Montre Hartage leads the team with 14 passes defended (he ranks 7th nationally in that stat). So Stanley should probably try to avoid throwing the ball in his direction.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
I'm curious to see if Northwestern tries to bludgeon away with their generally ineffective running game in this contest. They've run the ball at least 40 times in each of the least three games, despite results that could only be described as "middling" if you were feeling pretty charitable.
Iowa's defense has taken its lumps over the last two weeks, but the run defense has stayed strong: Penn State gained 118 yards on 35 carries (3.37 ypc) and Purdue picked up 101 yards on 31 carries (3.26 ypc). For the season, Iowa still ranks 5th in the nation in rush yardage (86.2 ypg) and 7th in the nation in yards per carry (2.86). is Northwestern going to batter their heads against that wall all day? Or will they try to exploit Iowa's vulnerability through the air, as Purdue did to devastating effect? If Northwestern wants to try and ground and pound their way through Iowa, I'll feel pretty good about the Hawkeyes' chances. If Thorson airs it out to Nagel & Co., I'm going to be a lot more nervous.
WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
The primary goal for the season -- a Big Ten championship -- is off the table after back-to-back gutpunch losses. But I want to see how this Iowa team responds and how well they're able to pick themselves up and attempt to finish strong. This could still be a 9-win regular season and a 10-win season with a bowl game. That would be a solid outcome, if it might only twist the needle a little more on the "what ifs" for this year. But getting 9-10 wins, avenging a pair of painful losses (both this year in terms of the last two weeks and in terms of this particular series), and finishing strong would still be preferable to another forgettable 7-5/8-4 campaign. The path to something better than that starts with a win over Northwestern on Saturday.
This game terrifies me, as it should anyone who's been an Iowa fan for the last 10-15 years at least. Few teams have pulled the rug out from underneath Iowa in that span more often than Northwestern. They can't really do that this year -- Iowa did that themselves with their losses the last two weeks -- and, sadly, Iowa can't even really play spoiler all that effectively because Northwestern can lose against Iowa and still make the Big Ten title game if they beat Minnesota and Illinois. On paper, everything favors Iowa in this game. They have a significant edge in virtually every stat. ESPN's FPI gives Iowa a 77.9% chance of winning this game. Vegas has Iowa as a 10.5 point favorite. And yet... these are the situations Northwestern thrives upon. They love to win as an underdog. They especially love to win as an underdog against Iowa. Iowa has been favored by at least 9.5 points against Northwestern four times in the last 10 years... they lost outright in every single game*. So a 10.5 point line screams DANGER DANGER DANGER to me. And yet... I can't completely quit this team, either. I'll probably regret this, but... IOWA 28, NORTHWESTERN 20
* H/T to @mgunther17 for that info.