Every game hinges on a few critical "things" -- players, schemes or specific plays that could play a big role in deciding the winner and loser. It's an important concept with a blunt title; "things" are important, however vague they might sound. InsideNU will attempt to identify the three biggest ones in advance of Northwestern's game each week. This week's matchup: Iowa.
Iowa’s Running Game vs. Northwestern’s Defensive Front
Have you ever heard the cliché about beating a dead horse? You have? Well then you must be familiar with Northwestern football. Yet again, Northwestern’s ability to stop the run comes into this week as a major question mark. Here’s a stat to chew on: Northwestern hasn’t won a game in which the defense surrendered at least 100 yards to an opposing player since Michigan State’s La’Veon Bell rushed for 133 yards in a 23-20 Northwestern win last November. In Northwestern’s last three games (all losses) they have given up 100 yards on the ground to four different players and this week, it doesn’t get any easier. Iowa’s Mark Weisman is a running back built in the Carlos Hyde-mold: a big-boned, downhill runner who is hard to bring down on first contact. Northwestern defensive tackle Sean McEvilly is out again this week with a lower-body injury. So, the onus falls on the rest of the front seven to fill in the gaps and contain the running game. For the past three weeks, the impact of McEvilly’s absence has reared its ugly head and Northwestern has yet to respond in a positive way. With Iowa – another classic Big Ten rushing attack – looming this week, football could become simple, though by no means easy. Whichever team wins the battle between Iowa’s running game and Northwestern’s defensive front will win this game.
The Return of Kain Colter
Throughout Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure at Northwestern, he has had Iowa’s number. Northwestern has won four of the last six games against Iowa and three of those wins came in Iowa City. One reason for that could be the clash of playing styles. Although both teams pride themselves on toughness, often manifested in concerted efforts to run the football, they go about portraying that mantra in different ways. While Iowa likes to lineup in jumbo sets with fullbacks ready to pound the ball down a defense’s throat, Northwestern spreads defenses out, looking for gaps that take advantage of a defense’s missed assignments. Northwestern’s east-west style of offense has given Iowa fits in the past and a major reason for that is the mobile ability of the quarterback. With Kain Colter on track to come back this week, Iowa will again be challenged to stop a dual-threat quarterback. Last week, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller rushed for 102 yards on the Hawkeye defense in a 34-24 win in Columbus. With Colter hurt, that aspect of Northwestern’s offense disappeared and is part of what has made them so successful, specifically against Iowa.
If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to recalibrate your year-end expectations for Northwestern. Once thought of as a favorite to get to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship, Northwestern has yet to win a conference game as this season has taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction. On the other hand, Iowa – in some people’s minds – have outperformed expectations in what was supposed to be another rough year for the Hawkeyes after dropping the final six games of 2012. But, like Northwestern, they stand at 4-3. For both teams, the outcome will largely determine where the two teams end up and whether or not – it sounds crazy to write this just weeks after Northwestern was ranked in the nation’s top 20 – they are bowl eligible. Following Iowa, Northwestern plays at Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. Getting to the six-win pedestal won’t be an easy task if Northwestern was to fall in Kinnick Stadium. Iowa also plays Michigan and Nebraska to go along with games against Wisconsin and Purdue. In truth, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say that which ever team loses this game – Iowa or Northwestern – may not finish the season bowl eligible.