Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Iowa.
1. Northwestern's Defensive line vs. Iowa's Offensive Line
Robert Gallery, Bryan Bulaga, Marshal Yanda. That's just a few of the many NFL linemen that have come out of the offensive line factory that is the University of Iowa. While none of those guys will be suiting up for the Hawkeyes on Saturday, the Hawkeyes still have a solid group up front. With the exception of 18-year-old right tackle James Daniels, they've got letter-winners across the board, including veterans Austin Blythe at center and Jordan Walsh at right guard. This may not be the best line in the country but they've given up only 10 sacks through six games and are 47th in adjusted line yards.
On the other side of the ball there's the Northwestern defensive line, a group that just turned in its worst performance of the season. Michigan's offensive is bigger and more athletic than Iowa's but not by that much. The play of the defensive line is not only important to pressuring the quarterback, but it affects the linebacker play as well. As Nate Williams pointed out yesterday Northwestern's linebackers did not play well against Michigan, and a lot of that had to do with the defensive line getting pushed around. When the line is playing well it allows the linebackers to just make plays downhill instead of having to make reads. Northwestern will need an better performance from the big men up front if they want to improve to 6-1.
What swings this matchup is injuries though. The only reason Daniels, as true freshman, is starting is that both of Iowa's starting offensive tackles, Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, are expected to missed the game. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson will try to feast on their replacements. Whether those replacement can hold up under pressure — and whether Iowa can find a way through scheme to help them out — will be crucial for the Hawkeyes' offenses.
Advantage: Northwestern defensive line
2. C.J. Beathard and Jordan Canzeri vs. Anthony Walker and Co.
Speaking of Northwestern's linebackers, they also need to step up their game after getting solidly beaten by Michigan. Again, read Nate Williams' analysis from yesterday for the nitty gritty stuff, but basically the linebackers were much less effective when forced to make reads on Saturday. You can bet that Iowa will attempt to use that fact to their advantage, and luckily for Iowa they've got a couple pretty good players at their disposal.
C.J. Beathard has been solid for the Hawkeyes all season, although he's somewhat banged up coming into this game. While Beathard has been solid, Jordan Canzeri has been an absolute workhorse for the Hawkeyes. Through six games Canzeri has 132 carries for 697 yards and 9 touchdowns. Also he's coming off a 43-carry, 256-yard, two-touchdown performance this past weekend. A week removed from getting gashed by De'Veon Smith and the Wolverines to the tune of 201 rushing yards, the linebackers (as well as the d-line) will have to step up and at least make Iowa throw the ball.
Advantage: Anthony Walker and Co. (Barely)
3. Northwestern's wide receivers vs. Desmond King and Greg Mabin
While we've spent a lot of time talking about Northwestern's defense, Iowa has a pretty good one themselves. The 21st best defense in the nation according to S&P+, Iowa has shut down their opponents' rushing game so far this season (6th in rushing defense S&P+). This may prove troublesome for a run-heavy offense like Northwestern.
However, Iowa is much weaker when it comes to pass defense (62nd). What that means is that Northwestern will have to air the ball out to be successful offensively, something they haven't done at all this season. The only danger here is that while not great yardage wise, Iowa's defensive backs have been ball hawks this year. Cornerback Desmond King has five interceptions and 10 pass defenses, while his battery mate Greg Mabin has 4 pass breakups and 1 interception. Clayton Thorson should be able to get chunks of yardage through the air, but he'll have to be careful to throw it only where his receivers can get to it.
On the topic of Clayton Thorson, he really didn't play all that terribly against Michigan. It's hard for a quarterback when you don't have any time to throw and your receivers aren't getting open, just ask Christian Hackenberg. Over the season as a whole, Northwestern has played the current #1, #5, #11 and #27 ranked defenses in the nation. That's tough on a young quarterback. That's why this week it will be of the utmost importance that Christian Jones and company can run good routes and get open, something they were unable to do last week in Ann Arbor.
Advantage: Desmond King and Greg Mabin