IOWA CITY, Iowa — In a game that will shave off one team as a potential Big Ten West Division contender, Iowa and Northwestern meet at 11 a.m. CT Saturday at Ryan Field. ESPN2 will televise the game.
The Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) are coming off a bye. The Wildcats (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) topped Maryland 37-21 last week. Running backs Akrum Wadley (Iowa) and Justin Jackson (Northwestern) are two of the Big Ten’s most explosive players. Both previously have had big days against the opposing defense.
Below are three keys plus predictions for the 79th meeting between the foes:
Run for fun
Like when an engine mysteriously jostles after the key is pulled from the ignition, Iowa’s running game has made its own mysterious sounds this year. Sure, the Hawkeyes plowed through Illinois for 191 yards on the ground, but the Illini rank last in Big Ten run defense. Against Penn State (82 yards) and Michigan State (19), Iowa’s running game was stagnant or nonexistent.
The Hawkeyes average 3.67 yards per carry, the worst since 2012. Making it more surprising, the team has an NFL-caliber running back in Wadley and a veteran offensive line. But injuries have robbed the line of continuity and chemistry this season, which has crippled the running attack. It’s an area where Iowa needs to be successful in order to win. Since the start of the 2015 season, Iowa is 24-1 when it rushes for at least 100 yards. The Hawkeyes are 0-9 when they don’t.
“Really, it’s a program point of emphasis,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s something we try to do a good job of and pride ourselves on. We’re not where we want to be for a lot of reasons right now, and it’s like a lot of the things that I’ve touched on — ball security, better tackling. All those things are just the result of doing a little bit better job in practice, being a little bit more consistent and, ultimately, it gets down to technique and concentration.”
Northwestern’s defense ranks among the Big Ten’s top half and allows 126.7 yards per game. The Wildcats allowed 109 rushing yards to Wisconsin, 95 to Penn State and 85 to Maryland.
Hit the long ball
Perhaps the one universal talking point among Iowa fans is quarterback Nate Stanley’s struggles overthrowing receivers downfield. Sure, Stanley has thrown 15 touchdown passes (previous QB and current San Francisco 49ers starter C.J. Beathard threw only 17 in each of the last two seasons) and only 2 interceptions, but his overthrows have become the talk of the fan base.
Our Bobby La Gesse researched every Stanley throw this year, and 15 long balls were overthrown. Two didn’t count because of penalties. Stanley hasn’t received the credit he deserves for some of the longer routes with which he has connected. But he misfired on a few, too.
As a young quarterback, Stanley sometimes struggles to measure the speeds and routes of several receivers, so his downfield passing won’t be perfect. But that’s only part of why he’s misfired.
“Also being able to read the defense,” Stanley said. “If you read it wrong and you come back to it late, maybe you think have to throw it a little bit farther and end up overthrowing a ball. Just again going to practice and just repping them in practice is what we’ve tried to do and continue to work on.”
A few times the receivers could have helped out Stanley by running faster, better routes, too.
“It’s on both ends,” receiver Matt VandeBerg said. “He’s got to throw it, but people up front need to protect and it’s our job to go out there and catch it. Every deep ball, there’s more than just two people who touch it. There’s 11 guys being able to work together.”
If Stanley can hit a few deep passes against Northwestern, not only will it impact the aerial attack, but it could give the running game some needed room.
Start strong, don’t let up
Iowa’s opponents have outscored the Hawkeyes 34-21 in the first quarter of games this year. Defensive letdowns at Michigan State led to a 14-0 deficit and ultimately a 17-10 loss.
Last year, Northwestern returned a punt inside Iowa’s 10-yard line and took an early lead. The Hawkeyes rallied but let up in the second half and were outscored 21-10 in a 38-31 defeat.
“We just didn’t play good football,” Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann said. “Just letting up big plays, fundamentally. Me, personally, that wasn’t one of my better games as well. I think a lot of guys feel like that. Just looking back at that tape, it hurt. So we’re definitely trying to change that this year.”
The game is crucial to Iowa’s Big Ten West Division hopes. With two league losses, any defeat would end that race. Then it’s just about bowl positioning.
“From now on, every game to us is like a must win,” Iowa’s Wadley said. “Every game is a must win. It’s like we’ve got our backs against the wall, even though we’ve got a decent record. That’s not what we’re settling for. I feel like every game is very important. This is a very important game. We need this game.”
SCOTT DOCHTERMAN — Iowa 24-23
BOBBY LA GESSE — Iowa 27-24