by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
When Northwestern has the Ball…
For all the talk about Northwestern choking away a 12-point fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska, the truth is the Wildcats were probably lucky to even be in that position in the first place. When you hold a two-possession lead in the final period, sealing the win shouldn’t be all that difficult. So yes, NU should have won, given the favorable position in which it found itself in the fourth quarter. But that narrative obscures an overall disappointing performance on both sides of the ball. At base, a 28-point outing is not bad. That’s a point total that wins you most games. NU also accumulated half of those points almost directly off of Nebraska’s sloppy special teams play, which means it had some help. The offense was opportunistic, yes, but not great.
Beating Iowa will require improvements across the board. In the interest of not rehashing old arguments about poor quarterback management and the many ways it can disrupt an offense, we won’t go there in this preview segment. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff will handle the QB situation as they see fit, even if one particularly important player has begun to vent his frustration to the media. Establishing the option attack with Venric Mark is paramount against the Hawkeyes, who feature a speedy linebacking corps designed to shut down short passing games. If NU can generate success on the ground early, the Hawkeyes will have to stack the box with extra defenders, which opens up the Wildcats’ deep passing game. Iowa’s defense got exposed in last week’s 38-14 drubbing at Kinnick Stadium. The Wildcats, with Mark and a host of dangerous receivers, have enough firepower to do similar damage.
When Iowa has the ball…
The dual-threat mastery of Taylor Martinez in Nebraska’s win at Ryan Field last week was something to behold. Martinez connected on 27 of 39 passing attempts for 342 yards and three touchdowns and added 65 yards and a score on the ground. Iowa’s James Vandenberg will not put up those kinds of numbers, nor is Iowa’s offense in the same stratosphere as Nebraska’s vaunted attack. Compared to last week, the Wildcats game plan is relatively straightforward. They must clamp down Iowa’s run game, and make sure Mark Weisman – who, when healthy, has been a revelation for the running back-bereft Hawkeyes – stays in check.
If NU can cut down the Hawkeyes rushing attack, Vandenberg will have to win a game through the air, something the senior qb has not done with great effect to date. Over his last three games, Vandenberg hasn’t broken the 200-passing yard threshold; he’s also thrown just one touchdown and two interceptions over that span. NU’s withering secondary could provide the launching pad Vandenberg needs to get back on track, but forcing Iowa to throw their way to a victory, to (in effect) do something it hasn’t been able to do all season, is the best way to shut down this offense. Take Weisman (and freshman Greg Garmon) out of the game – which, admittedly, is no sure thing, even as he continues to battle an ankle injury that should limit his explosiveness and power running ability – and the Hawkeyes are going to have problems sustaining drives and generating points.
After an eight-game stretch of perfection in the field goal department, Jeff Budzien took the field in the fourth-quarter of last week’s loss needing to connect on a 53-yarder. As you now by know, Budzien missed. It was a tough spot for Budzien, and his track record this season suggests he can shake it off and continue his remarkable season. Brandon Williams has been another bright spot in NU’s special teams play. He now ranks fourth in the Big Ten in average punt distance, and has pinned opposing return men inside the 20-yd line 16 times, forced 13 fair catches and booted eight punts over 50 yards. Then there’s Mark, who, let’s just say is pretty good, and leave it at that.
The Hawkeyes’ special teams have been merely OK across the board. There is evidence to suggest Iowa, who ranks fourth among Big Ten teams in kick off coverage, may be better-equipped than most teams to handle Mark in the return game. They’ve also connected on 14 of 17 field goal tries, which also ranks third in the conference.
The threat Mark poses every time he fields a punt/kick is too much to ignore, and I’m inclined to believe Budzien can recover from last week’s miss, while Williams will continue to shine. Which is to say NU, like the other two phases, has the edge.
Northwestern 23, Iowa 20 – All hopes of staying alive in the Legends Division title hunt rest on this game. The Wildcats nearly notched a statement-making win against Nebraska last week but watched a 12-point lead slip away thanks to a litany of unfortunate offensive and defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter. This week, NU will close out its opponent and seal the win, and it will use the running game to get there. Mark will continue to shine, with Kain Colter running the option and Trevor Siemian entering for the occasional deep pass play. NU needs to adopt a run-first philosophy, powered by the Colter-Mark option, and diversified by Siemian’s deep passing game. The Wildcats haven’t figured out their offensive identity quite yet. In this game, they will.