It's week three of conference play and who better to roll into town for Homecoming Weekend than the 6-0 Iowa Hawkeyes? Kirk Ferentz's bunch has already upset Wisconsin at Camp Randall and taken care of business against a pesky Illinois bunch. They currently lead the Big Ten West race outright, making this game all the more important as Northwestern looks to bounce back from a 38-0 trouncing at the hands of Michigan.
Press conference notes
Here are three things you need to know about the Hawkeyes:
1. Iowa is undefeated
Let's just repeat that for effect, with added emphasis... IOWA IS UNDEFEATED. And that's weird. Iowa has squeaked by Pittsburgh (on a last-second, 57-yard field goal) and Wisconsin, but other than that has been fairly comfortable in rolling through half their schedule unblemished. Furthermore, after a quick look at the second half of that schedule, it's not difficult for Hawkeye fans to conjure up visions of 12-0. In fact, a road game at Northwestern might be their last real test until a trip to Nebraska the day after Thanksgiving.
Why have the Hawkeyes been so good? Well, other than a little bit of luck, the answer is a defense that has forced turnovers and stopped the run. The Hawkeyes rank 10th in the nation in adjusted turnover margin, as they've forced 12 so far this season. Led by Desmond King's five interceptions, the Hawkeyes have an aggressive secondary that will punish any mistakes made by Clayton Thorson on Saturday.
Overall, Iowa has the 21st-best defense in the nation according to S&P+. A big reason for that has been an imposing defensive front. Iowa ranks sixth in the nation in defensive rushing S&P+. That front will be without its best player on Saturday, and for the rest of the season — defensive end Drew Ott tore his ACL against Illinois — but it's still a strong unit.
The last time the Hawkeyes sat at 6-0 was 2009, when their bid at a perfect season was eventually ended by Northwestern in November. The Wildcats have a chance to do similarly on Saturday.
2. The offense is better than expected
Led by quarterback CJ Beathard and running back Jordan Canzeri, the Iowa offense is ranked solidly in the top half of FBS in S&P+, coming in at 44th. Beathard is a dual-threat player who has thrown nine touchdowns to just two picks. He also has three touchdowns on the ground this season. He has, however, struggled in Big Ten play, most notably against the one real defense the Hawkeyes have faced. Against Wisconsin, Beathard threw for just 77 yards on 9-for-21 passing, with one touchdown and one interception.
But Beathard's mediocre play hasn't shown up in the win-loss column, because Jordan Canzeri has been absolutely phenomenal. He's coming off a 43-carry, 256-yard performance against the Illinois, has 697 yards on the season (3rd in the Big Ten) and already has nine touchdowns. At 5-foot-9, 193 pounds, Canzeri isn't as big as last week's feature back, Michigan's De'Veon Smith, but he is still quite the workhorse.
And as evidenced by his heavy workload last week, it is around Canzeri that the offense is structured. The gameplan is simple and pretty similar to Northwestern's, and for that matter Michigan's: Run the ball until the opponent proves they can stop it. The Hawkeyes run the ball nearly 70 percent of the time on standard downs, and have 252 rushing attempts this year, almost 100 more than they do passing attempts. If Northwestern's run defense hasn't tidied up from last week, it may have trouble again.
3. Iowa is banged up
The Hawkeyes will be missing several key players when they travel to Evanston on Saturday.
- As mentioned above, the big loss is Drew Ott. Ott, a senior defensive end, had recorded five sacks in four games. Matt Nelson will see more time in his stead.
- Tevaun Smith, Iowa's top wide receiver, is out with a knee injury. Jerminic Smith will start in his place.
- Both of Iowa's starting offensive tackles, Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, look set to miss Saturday's game. Myers is definitely out, while Boettger is doubtful. Junior Cole Croston will start at left tackle in place of Myers. If Boettger cannot go, true freshman James Daniels looks set to start at right tackle.
- Running back LeShun Daniels, who began the season as the team's lead back ahead of Canzeri, will be out for a second straight week.
- Quarterback C.J. Beathard is banged up. He is sure he'll play, but it is unknown exactly how sever his injury is.
Ott is the best player who will be missing, but the biggest worry for the Hawkeyes might be the tackles. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson vs. two backups, one a true freshman, on the edge could be a matchup Northwestern can exploit.