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Why Northwestern will/won't win: Iowa

Setting aside the lopsided, guarantee games many FBS teams often play in the non-conference part of their schedules, every college football game typically allows the possibility that either team could win. Sometimes the odds are heavily stacked in one team’s favor, while other games are more evenly matched. But as this awesomely unpredictable sport has proven time and again, no team’s chances of winning should ever be completely dismissed. There is always a way.

That logic informs a new weekly feature here at InsideNU. It’s called “why Northwestern will/won’t win.” Excuse the bland, clunky title. At least it gets right to the point, which is to explain why the Wildcats – wait for it – will or won’t win their upcoming game. Some arguments won’t be as convincing as others, but that’s impossible to avoid, anyway: not all games have tiny point spreads, after all. There is, but for a few exceptional cases, a favorite and an underdog. Explaining the latter’s (whether that be Northwestern or not) path to hypothetical victory will require some creativity. Some cases will be easier to address. 

This week's matchup: Iowa

Why Northwestern will win

Snapping losing streaks is hard. Let’s discuss why: negative momentum snowballs, attitudes sour, pressure increases, fan support wanes. Typically, there’s no magic elixir for teams experiencing a rough losing stretch, much as they might like to discover one. Northwestern might have something close.

Against Iowa last season, quarterback Kain Colter gashed the Hawkeyes for 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries. (He also added a throwing touchdown and 80 yards passing). Colter’s individual rushing effort accounted for a sizable chunk of Northwestern’s 349 total rushing yards (on 7.1 ypc), the most Iowa had allowed since yielding 433 to Indiana in 2000. Colter was superb in identifying Iowa’s defensive schemes, and almost always made the right read on option plays. The end result was not a surprise: Northwestern dominated the Hawkeyes, 28-17 (the scoreline is a bit deceiving; the Wildcats were leading Iowa 28-3 with under a minute left in the third quarter).

Expecting Colter to break off another 166-yard rushing performance Saturday is unreasonable, because a) Colter, who is still recovering from an ankle injury, may not be fully healed; b) senior running back Venric Mark, whose backfield presence is a big reason why Colter was so successful running the ball in option situations against Iowa (and who rushed for 162 yards on 16 carries that day), is out with leg injury and c) the offensive line isn’t playing as well as last year’s line did for most of the season.

Nor can Trevor Siemian, Colter’s less-mobile alternate, run the option as effectively as Colter can – though it should be noted that earlier this week coach Pat Fitzgerald mentioned that Siemian “can run those things.” Visual evidence requires one to qualify that statement: Siemian can “run those things,” just not in the same dynamic way Colter can.

Replicating last year’s gameplan against Iowa would be ideal, but Northwestern isn’t the same team as it was last year. In fact, Northwestern doesn’t even resemble the team it was earlier this season. Three new offensive linemen (since last season) and an injury to a star running back can force coaches to make a few tweaks. That was the plan heading into this week, anyway, after consecutive losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota in which the Wildcats failed to maintain the offensive consistency they had for much of last season and the early part of 2013.

“We have to get back to the drawing board,” redshirt freshman running back Stephen Buckley said at Monday’s press conference.

However coach Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mick McCall plan to change up Northwestern’s offense, the Wildcats need to move the ball more effectively and score more points than they have the past two weeks (Duh). Northwestern has a good defense; it doesn’t have a great one. This team isn’t built to win low-scoring, grind-em-out games. The Wildcats need to be scoring up in the high-20’s, low-30’s. Most of the reasons they haven't done so lately boil down to something simple, according to Fitzgerald: execution. The spread offense is not difficult to understand.

“The spread offense, it's not rocket science," Fitzgerald said this week. "Get first downs, keep possession of the ball. When you do not do that, it's ugly. We have to get it fixed. Unfortunately we're playing against a great defense (Iowa), so we're not going to get any breaks.”

Turnovers – Northwestern is -5 in that category over the last two games – are another major issue that needs to be addressed. Fitzgerald called the two interceptions and strip-sack quarterback Trevor Siemian accounted for Saturday “inexcusable,” and said the defense needs to “find a way to get some more turnovers.”

Fixing the offense and creating more turnovers are two macro-objectives Northwestern needs to achieve to win this game. Neither will be easy – especially not the first, when you consider Iowa’s defense, despite yielding 34 points to Ohio State last week, ranks among the top-four teams in the Big Ten in yards per play (4.79), top two in passing yards per attempt (5.9) and top six in rushing yards per carry (3.59). How good is Iowa at limiting turnovers? The Hawkeyes’ turnover margin through seven games this season is -1, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten.

If the Wildcats’ offense can get back on track, and the defense can force a couple of turnovers (without the offense forfeiting possessions), it’s not unreasonable to think Northwestern can upset Iowa at home. The Wildcats were once considered one of the best teams in the Big Ten, the frontrunner in the Legends Division. Could they really have fallen as far as sixth (behind Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota) in the division pecking order? Winning Saturday will prove otherwise.

Why Northwestern won’t win 

The most impressive win Iowa has so far this season is Minnesota, which it beat 23-7 at TCF Bank Stadium. The transitive property is a risky and often inaccurate tool with which to gauge the quality of college football teams, but if you buy into that sort of thing, Iowa – by positing that, because the Hawkeyes beat Minnesota, who beat Northwestern – should have a clear advantage over Northwestern. If a > b and b > c, well…you know the rest. Vegas seems to agree: the Hawkeyes opened as a 3-point favorite.

That seems like a fair number. After all, Iowa has, over the past few weeks, beaten the Gophers and played Ohio State to a close 10-point loss (with a humbling 12-point defeat to Michigan State sandwiched in between). The Wildcats, meanwhile, suffered a 10-point loss to Ohio State at home, got dumptrucked, 35-6, at Wisconsin and suffered a three-point home loss to Minnesota.

Those are just the numbers; Iowa has looked better, too. The Hawkeyes at times controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against Ohio State and, at least for one half – when freshman quarterback Jake Rudock threw two touchdown passes to help stake Iowa to a 17-10 lead at the break – were better offensively than Northwestern has been over the past two weeks. I wrote about the Hawkeyes’ defense above, but in case you decided to skip the first section, here’s a brief synopsis: it’s one of the better units in the Big Ten. It’s also better than Minnesota’s, against which Northwestern mustered just 17 points and converted 6-of-16 third downs Saturday. Much like Northwestern’s defense, though, Iowa couldn’t hold up in the second half against Ohio State once Carlos Hyde – or, in the lexicon of great Ohio State site Eleven Warriors, “El Guapo” -- began bulldozing defenders and picking up big chunks of yards.

But the fact Iowa was able to win the battle in the trenches for parts of the OSU game – something Northwestern never did, especially not on defense – means it should have an advantage against the Wildcats up front (though the potential return of defensive tackle Sean McEvilly should help the Wildcats in this regard). The Hawkeyes appear to be the bigger, more physical team – one capable of opening up holes for tailbacks to burst through, and exploiting the Wildcats’ inconsistent offensive line, which has now given up 22 sacks, the most in the Big Ten.

Iowa should be able to physically impose itself on both sides of the ball Saturday. On defense, it should penetrate the backfield and snuff out Northwestern’s run game. On offense, it should be able to create holes and ride bruising tailback Mark Weisman, whose Hyde-like strength and toughness could be problematic for Northwestern’s run defense. You can also expect tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and/or Jake Duzey to find swaths of open space off play action, something Northwestern has struggled to defend most of this season. That’s a formula that should result in the Wildcats leaving Kinnick Stadium Saturday with their fourth consecutive loss, and Iowa celebrating an important fifth victory that, given the quality of competition remaining on its schedule, could well qualify as a “must-win” in the context of its postseason hopes.