GAME PRIMER: IOWA VS NORTHWESTERN

By RossWB on October 25, 2019 at 2:08 pm
NU is UN-good
© Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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WHO: Northwestern Wildcats (1-5, 0-4 Big Ten)
WHEN: Saturday, October 26, 2019
WHERE: Ryan Field (Evanston, IL)
KICKOFF: 11:00 AM Central
TV: ESPN2
ONLINE: WatchESPN
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Iowa -9.5
WEATHER: high around 50, cloudy, around 50% chance of rain 

SERIES HISTORY

Iowa has more wins against Northwestern (50) than any other Big Ten team and a better winning percentage (.655) than they do against any other Big Ten team other than conference newbies Rutgers (1.000) and Maryland (.667). Nearly half of Iowa's wins came during a dominant stretch of 21 straight wins from 1974 thru 1994. Northwestern ended their decades of misery in their magical 1995 campaign and they actually have a 13-9 lead in the series since 1994. That includes a 10-8 mark against Kirk Ferentz. After winning four of five against Northwestern from 2011 through 2015, Ferentz had regained a better than .500 mark against the Wildcats after the struggles of the mid-to-late Aughts (Northwestern won 5 of 6 from 2005 through 2010). That's over now, though, as Northwestern has won the last three in a row against the Hawkeyes, the most recent in brutally low-scoring fashion (17-10 -- in OT! -- two years ago and 14-10 last season). 

NORTHWESTERN SEASON RECAP

In a word? Bad! Northwestern started off the season with a 17-7 loss at Stanford and things haven't improved much from there. The only win so far came against a UNLV team that is now 2-5 and Northwestern only led that game 16-14 at halftime. They're riding a current four-game losing streak, which involves home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State sandwiched around road losses at Wisconsin and Nebraska. The losses at Wisconsin and Nebraska were close -- until Illinois' upset last weekend, Northwestern had troubled Wisconsin more than anyone else this season and Northwestern lost to Nebraska 13-10 on a last second field goal -- but they got bludgeoned by Michigan State (31-10) and Ohio State (52-3). That said, whether they're good or bad in other games, Northwestern has often bedeviled Iowa over the last 20 years. 

NORTHWESTERN OFFENSE

it stinks

By pretty much any metric imaginable, Northwestern's offense is not just bad, but horrifically bad. Northwestern averages 12.5 ppg, 128th in the country (out of 130 teams). They've scored a grand total of eight touchdowns in six games this year. They're averaging 277.2 yards per game, 127th in the country. But on a yards per play basis, they're even worse, averaging 3.79 yards per play, dead last in the country. They rank 119th in offensive efficiency per ESPN and 121st per FEI

They've been especially bad passing the ball; they're averaging 124.0 yards per game, 126th in the country. Three of the four teams below them are Army, Navy, and Georgia Southern -- who run the triple option. Northwestern's overall passer rating of 73.83 ranks dead last in the country, as does their total of 4.1 passing yards per attempt (almost a full yard worse than the next lowest team, UTSA at 4.9 ypa). Their two passing touchdowns is also tied for the lowest amount in the nation. Their overall completion percentage of 47% ranks 127th. 

Northwestern has been somewhat less inept at running the ball. They rank 83rd in the nation with 153.2 yards per game (which is actually four yards better than Iowa's rushing average -- sigh). But their average of 3.59 yards per carry is 104th in the nation and their six rushing touchdowns puts them tied for 115th nationally. 

The Wildcats have lately turned to Aidan Smith at QB over much-hyped Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, but neither QB has been effective this year. Their numbers:

  • Smith: 37/83, 44.6%, 315 yards, 3.8 ypa, 1 TD, 5 INT, 68.39 QB rating
  • Johnson: 43/89, 48.3%, 367 yards, 4.1 ypa, 1 TD, 4 INT, 77.68 QB rating

Even if both quarterbacks in play on Saturday as some sort of two-headed monster, there's been little indication of them being able to competent, let alone threatening, in the passing game. The absolute best passing game Northwestern has had this year came against UNLV, then they finished 12/25 for 165 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. 

To the extent that any of Northwestern's receivers have been "effective," it's been Riley Lees (22 receptions, 158 yards, 0 TD), Bennett Skowronek (12 receptions, 141 yards, 0 TD), and JJ Jefferson (10 receptions, 132 yards, 2 TD). Skowronek is best knowing for catching that pass against Iowa last year, but he's apparently injured and not likely to play in this game. That leaves Lees (6'0", 201) and Jefferson (5'10", 170) as the primary weapons (such as they are) in the passing game. Iowa's pass defense had plenty of problems handling Purdue's attack last week, but the Northwestern passing game could be just what they doctor ordered for a bounce-back effort. 

Northwestern's top running back is freshman Drake Anderson (5'11", 190), who has 405 yards and three touchdowns on 87 carries (4.66 ypc). Isaiah Bowser, noted Hawkeye-killer a year ago, is second on the team with 45 carries for 168 yards, but it sounds like he's likely to be limited by injury as well. If Iowa can bottle up Anderson, the Northwestern offense may have very few options for doing much of anything. 

NORTHWESTERN DEFENSE

Northwestern's defense is the main (only) reason they've been in any game this season and though it's not as firm as it's been in years past, it's still pretty solid. They rank 14th in defensive efficiency per FEI and 29th per ESPN. They're down to 54th in scoring defense (25.2 ppg), but over 1/3 of the points they've conceded came against Ohio State last week. Prior to that game they were averaging 19.8 ppg, which would have ranked around 25th nationally. They're 36th in total defense with 345.7 yards per game, but again -- almost 1/4 of the yards they've given up this year came against Ohio State. They held Wisconsin's offense to just 10 points (the Badgers scored 24 points total, but two of their three touchdowns came via an interception return for touchdown and a fumble return for touchdown) and 243 yards on 60 plays (4.05 ypp). Outside of Ohio State, who looks particularly juggernaut-y this season, Northwestern's defense has been awfully stingy to opponents. 

Their pass defense has been the most notable unit; they're holding teams to 180.2 yards per game, 16th best nationally. On the other hand, teams have a 134.04 QB rating against Northwestern (71st nationally) and they're completing 63.9% of their passes (102nd nationally). But Northwestern hasn't been giving up big plays -- they've given up just 64 plays of 10+ yards, 9th best nationally, and just 21 of those have gone for 20+ yards, 15th best nationally. They've also given up 9 touchdowns and forced just two interceptions, which speaks to another issue with their defense: they don't force a lot of turnovers. They've recovered just eight turnovers this year (two interceptions and six fumble recoveries), 93rd nationally. They've been effective at limiting opponent trips to the red zone, though -- just 19 opposition drives have gotten inside the Northwestern 20-yard line, which is 26th best nationally.

As MNWildcat noted yesterday, what Northwestern is really good at is stymieing teams when they get onto the Northwestern half of the field, holding them to either field goals or forcing punts from no-man's-land territory. That's an ominous note, given that it seems to align with Iowa's own weakness on offense. We've seen plenty of drives from Iowa this year that managed to get into the other side of the 50, only to peter out and lead to a Keith Duncan field goal or a punt. Northwestern's defense this year invites offenses to do just that. Gulp. 

There are plenty of familiar faces on the Northwestern defense, led by Padd yFisher and Blake Gallagher, linebackers who rank 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles, with 46 and 44, respectively. Travis Whillock, a defensive back, leads the team with 47 stops. Fisher also has three pass breakups (and one interception) and two forced fumbles, while Gallagher has a pair of QB hurries. Senior defensive linemen Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller are leading the way i nthe pass rush, with 4.5 and 2.5, respectively. Gaziano also has 7.5 total tackles for loss, while Miller has 4.5 TFL. Gaziano leads the team with three forced fumbles as well. Finally, while he doesn't yet have an interception, defensive back Greg Newsome II has been a nuisance in pass defense with a team-high 9 pass breakups so far. 

MATCH-UP TO WATCH

The key battle this week looks like Iowa's offensive line versus Northwestern's defensive front seven. Can Iowa 1) run the ball with any sort of consistency and 2) give Nate Stanley a clean pocket to work from? During their current three-game losing streak to Northwestern, Iowa hasn't been able to run the ball well at all. They ran for 64 yards on 22 carries (2.91 ypc) last year, 89 yards on 33 carries (2.70 ypc) in 2017, and 79 yards on 41 carries (1.93 ypc) in 2016. The last time Iowa beat Northwestern (2015), they ran the ball 51 times for 294 yards (5.76 ypc) and five touchdowns. I don't think they need to run for 300 yards on Northwestern, but they need to have moderate success. Over the last five years, Iowa is 41-4 when they run for at least 100 yards and just 1-14 when they run for less than 100 yards. Cracking the 100-yard barrier won't guarantee a win, but it will make it much more likely. 

Iowa also needs to keep Stanley protected from Gaziano & Co. Stanley has been very good this year when he's not under pressure. He's also been very very bad this year when he's pressured. Keeping Stanley clean will be imperative for the offense to have success in the passing game. 

WHAT WE WANT TO SEE

We got a win last week, but it came with plenty of flaws and concerns. A win over Northwestern is a must -- losing to a 1-5 Northwestern team, even on the road, would be dreadful -- but it would help us feel better about Iowa heading into the bye (and the final four games of the regular season) if they could shake off this offensive funk and look a bit more competent. Doing that against a defense as sound overall as Northwestern's would offer even more reassurance. 

PREDICTION

But who are we kidding -- it's Iowa and Northwestern, the weather looks gloomy and with a decent chance of rain and wind. This is going to be an ugly, sloppy, low-scoring slog. If Iowa can protect the ball and find a way to finish at least a few drives with touchdowns, though, they should be in good shape to pick up another win. Northwestern's offense has been so hapless this year that it's hard to imagine them being able to consistently drive the ball 60 or 70 yards to score.
IOWA 19, NORTHWESTERN 6

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