Coming off a 26-20 home win over Purdue, the Iowa Hawkeyes are poised to earn bowl eligibility for the seventh straight year if they can pick up one more victory against the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday. Iowa (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) had suffered two tough losses in the previous weeks at Michigan (10-3) and at home to Penn State (17-12), so the close win over the Boilermakers was certainly better than another loss.
The defense has been the strength of this year's edition of Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes, as the team continues to search for consistency on the offensive side of the ball. Iowa's scoring against Purdue was primarily due to the efforts of placekicker Keith Duncan, who connected on four field goals of 30, 44, 42 and 38 yards in the victory. Ferentz stated postgame, "Really happy with the level of effort and perseverance... Obviously we're still working on finding a better rhythm offensively."
Speaking of offensive struggles, Northwestern (1-5, 0-4) is at square one, trying to figure out what, if anything, can possibly work. Northwestern was blasted 52-3 at home by Ohio State last Friday night, in a game where the Wildcats were completely outmatched by the Buckeyes in every possible fashion. Northwestern did manage 157 rushing yards, but the passing game was absolutely brutal. Quarterback Aidan Smith completed just six of 20 attempts for 42 yards and an interception. Andrew Marty also came in for the last series and threw another pick on the Wildcats' final play.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "We're continually beating ourselves... We have guys that are pressing, trying to do too much. They care so much. They're a great group of guys and that's why my heart breaks for them." A year after winning the Big Ten West division, the Wildcats are faced with putting together a 5-1 finish just to get back to a bowl game.
Iowa at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa -10.5
When Iowa Has the Ball
Iowa's difficulties in the red zone have been well-documented and were key factors in the Hawkeyes' losses at Michigan and to Penn State. Senior quarterback Nate Stanley has been consistently inconsistent this season, with a 62.3 percent completion rate with nine touchdowns against five interceptions. Against Purdue, Stanley was very good, finishing 23-for-33 with two touchdowns and an interception. Stanley will have to be at his best against a solid Northwestern defense that is only giving up 180.2 yards per game through the air. Iowa may be further handicapped with the possible loss of receiver Brandon Smith, who suffered a lower right leg injury against Purdue.
Iowa's ground game has had trouble getting going in conference play. After totaling 72 rushing yards in the losses to Michigan and Penn State, the Hawkeyes grinded out 102 and two touchdowns on 33 carries (3.1 ypc) in the win over Purdue. Junior Mekhi Sargent is leading the way with 397 yards and is averaging nearly five yards (4.8) per attempt but he's not had more than 14 carries in a game. Northwestern's defense has held up relatively well against the run, giving up 165.5 yards per game (11th in Big Ten) and is built around linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher. Those two have combined for 90 tackles thus far.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
The Wildcats rank 127th in the nation in total offense, averaging 277.2 yards per game. Only Akron and Rutgers score less than their 12.5 points per game, as they've averaged 3.79 yards per play. With no discernible passing attack, the Wildcats are forced to rely upon a ground game that showed some brief moments of life against Ohio State. It hasn't mattered who's been at quarterback this season (Hunter Johnson, TJ Green, Aidan Smith have all had their turn), the Wildcats have not been able to throw the ball.
This puts even more pressure on a running game that's been middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten in terms of production (153.2 ypg). Injuries to Isaiah Bowser, last year's leading rusher, have given Drake Anderson an opportunity to shine. The redshirt freshman has done most of the heavy lifting and is currently ninth in the conference with 67.5 rushing yards per game. Unfortunately, for Anderson and Bowser, Iowa has been fairly stingy against the run, holding teams to 91.1 yards per game. That ranks the Hawkeyes third in the Big Ten and eighth nationally.
Until Northwestern is able to pass the ball with some level of success, the deck is stacked against the Wildcats to get back to their traditionally winning ways under Pat Fitzgerald. The Northwestern defense is strong and will keep the Wildcats in the game against Iowa, but eventually, the lack of offense will lead to a fatigued Northwestern defense that the Hawkeyes will be able to take advantage of. That should result in a bowl-clinching victory for the visitors.