IOWA CITY, Iowa — There is always a feistiness to Iowa and Northwestern. That will certainly be the case this year with both teams needing this game for different reasons.
The Wildcats hold a 10-9 edge in the last 19 meetings, but the Hawkeyes have won the last three in the series, including the last two years by a combined 71 points.
When Iowa has the ball
The big question for the Hawkeyes is who will quarterback C.J. Beathard throw the ball to? There is more uncertainty with the receiving game than any other part of the offense after wide receiver Matt VandeBerg broke his right foot on Monday.
Tight end George Kittle should see a more prominent role in the passing game. Several wide receivers, led by Riley McCarron, Jerminic Smith and Jay Scheel, will get an opportunity to make plays. The Hawkeyes need them to be more consistent and make plays like this Smith touchdown reception in the season opener against Miami (Ohio).
On paper, Northwestern is an ideal opponent for Iowa this week. The Wildcats are last in the Big Ten in total defense (435.0 yards per game), last in passing defense (257.5 yards per game) and 11th in rushing defense (177.5 yards per game). Starting cornerback Keith Watkins is out for the season with a knee injury. The rest of the secondary isn’t doing much better health-wise.
Iowa should be able to slowly wade into the waters of life after VandeBerg. Iowa will likely look to lean on a run game that found its footing last week at Rutgers with 193 yards.
As for the Wildcats defense, Northwestern said linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. suffered a ‘lower extremity injury’ during last week’s loss to Nebraska — the latest in a season-long battle with injuries. He’s the Wildcats best defender when healthy, and Fitzgerald thinks he might be the best Northwestern linebacker ever.
Walker was a first-team all-conference player last year while ranking fifth nationally with 20.5 tackles for loss. He’s off to a slow start by his standards in 2016, recording 23 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. The question is will he be healthy enough to make plays like this on Saturday?
When Northwestern has the ball
The Wildcats will be the first zone-read team the Hawkeyes face this season, but are yet to get it going. Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in scoring (16.3 points per game — a touchdown-per-game worse than any other team in the conference) and 13th in total offense (347.5 total yards per game). A lack of success in the run game is the primary reason why. Northwestern returns second-team all-conference running back Justin Jackson and four starters on the offensive line, but is 119th nationally averaging 3.1 yards per rush.
The run game should be a strength for the Wildcats, but the offensive line isn’t playing to its potential. Northwestern, however, is finding more success running inside than outside. That’s not good news for an Iowa rush defense that’s been exposed up the middle in consecutive games. If this is to be the game Jackson starts producing like the 1,418-yard back he was last year, it very well may be with interior runs.
Iowa is tied for second in the Big Ten with 13 sacks; Northwestern has surrendered a league-worst 15 sacks. This is the definition of a favorable matchup for the Iowa defense. As is to be expected, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson isn’t responding well to the pressure. He’s completed only 53.2 percent of his passes and thrown 4 interceptions.
Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi may be the most consistent special-teams player in the Big Ten. He’s only allowed one kickoff to be returned and only 5 of his 20 punts were returned in the first four games.
Iowa kicker Keith Duncan last attempted a field goal in the season opener and the Hawkeyes passed up on a second-quarter field-goal attempt to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Rutgers 10 in a scoreless game last week. It raises questions on when and where — or if — the Hawkeyes will attempt a field goal.
Northwestern isn’t in a better position with its field goals. Kicker Jack Mitchell is 1 of 4 this season and has missed all three of his field goals under 40 yards.
It’s a matchup with the deans of Big Ten coaches. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is in his 18th season. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is in his 11th season. Fitzgerald will go down as one of the best Northwestern coaches in history, but this is far from his best team.
Iowa’s path to victory starts with its rushing game and taking advantage of a Northwestern offensive line that isn’t playing well in September.
Northwestern’s path to victory starts with its interior running game and hoping the defense continues to give up yards, but not touchdowns. The Wildcats are yet to allow more than 24 points in a game this season.
Northwestern is yet to show the ability to score in bunches. A few touchdowns may be all Iowa needs to distance itself on Saturday.
Bobby La Gesse’s prediction: Iowa 28, Northwestern 17
Scott Dochterman’s prediction: Iowa 27, Northwestern 17