Every Thursday during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, the Wildcats play their second consecutive top-20 matchup in what is arguably their most pivotal game of the season as they take on the 6-0 Iowa Hawkeyes in Evanston for their Homecoming game. After flying under the radar in their opening games of the season, the Hawkeyes emerged in the AP Poll week 6 and have since moved up to No. 17 in the most recent poll.
Iowa currently sits in the driver's seat of the Big Ten West after defeating Wisconsin and Illinois to start conference play and a win on Saturday against Northwestern would put Iowa on the inside track to a trip to the Big Ten Championship. For Northwestern, a loss to Iowa would drop the Wildcats into a tough spot in the Big Ten West title discussion, making Saturday a relative "must win" for the Wildcats.
Here are the reasons NU will or won't win on Saturday.
Why Northwestern will lose to Iowa...
1. The defensive lapses continue into this week and Iowa runs all over Northwestern
Last week against Michigan was the worst game Northwestern's defense has played all season. The Wildcats let up a season-high 380 total yards and allowed the Wolverines to convert 7-of-14 times on third down. Northwestern's defense also gave up a season-high 24 points (the other 14 were on the opening kickoff return and the pick-six) and was dominated by Michigan in time of possession, staying on the field for 37:05. As pointed out earlier in the week by Nate Williams and Ian McCafferty, the defense had major problems on Saturday with their pre-snap alignments and being able to read the run. This week the Northwestern linebackers, led by Anthony Walker, will look to bounce back against an Iowa team that loves to run the ball.
The Hawkeyes are led by senior running back Jordan Canzeri, who has established himself this season as one of the best backs in the Big Ten. So far this season, Canzeri has 697 yards (third in the Big Ten) and nine touchdowns (second in the Big Ten), he has also been a weapon in the passing game, catching 16 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown. Last week against Illinois, Canzeri carried the ball 43 times for 256 yards, both career highs for the senior back, and earned himself Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. Last week, Northwestern's defense allowed Michigan to run for 201 yards. This week, the Wildcats should expect to see a healthy dosage of Canzeri and will need to have a much improved performance against the Hawkeyes if they want to come away with a win. If last week's performance continues and the Wildcats' defensive line gets sucked up by blocks while the linebackers struggle to read runs, then Canzeri could have a big day on the ground.
More on the matchup with Iowa
More on the matchup with Iowa
2. The offense stays in a rut
Northwestern's offense has had their struggles for the majority of the season (with the exception of a few quarters), but those struggles were magnified against Michigan as the offense failed to score any points, or even reach the red zone for that matter. The coaching staff seemed to have no confidence in the offense, opting for a conservative gameplan filled with speed options, runs on first down, and virtually no passes thrown downfield. After the loss, many voiced their disappointment over the lack of confidence shown by the coaching staff as well as the play calling throughout the game, which many thought to be predictable.
Based on what Iowa has to study leading into this week, it seems inevitable that the Hawkeyes' defense will be keying in on the run and bringing lots of pressure on Clayton Thorson in the pocket. Last week, the Wildcats' ran the ball 25 times for a total of 38 total rushing yards (an average of 1.5 yards per rush). This week they could have similar troubles. The Hawkeyes' rush defense has been significantly better than their passing defense thus far, allowing an average of 232 passing yards per game (No. 77 in the nation) and just 78 rushing yards per game (No. 5 in the nation). The Hawkeyes rank sixth in run defense S&P+. This week, the Wildcats will need to branch out with their play calling and show more confidence in the passing game. If they fail to do so, Northwestern could struggle to move the ball once again, making it difficult to score points for a second straight week.
3. Iowa wins the turnover battle
In four of the Wildcats' five wins this season, the defense has forced more turnovers than their opponent did. In the loss against Michigan, Northwestern did a fairly good job taking care of the ball, only throwing one interception (which was actually a nicely thrown ball by Thorson). The problem, however, came on the defensive end, where the Wildcats' defense was unable to force any turnovers for the first time all year. Iowa has done a good job this season forcing turnovers, recording eight interceptions (two that were taken back for touchdowns) and recovering four fumbles. Two weeks ago, when Iowa went on the road to Madison and beat Wisconsin 10-6, the Hawkeyes recorded four turnovers--two interceptions and two fumble recoveries--that turned out to be turning points in the game. If Iowa is able to force multiple turnovers against Northwestern like they were against Wisconsin, it should result in the Hawkeyes getting better field position, which would be crucial in a matchup that many expect to be a low-scoring game between two excellent defenses.
Why Northwestern will beat Iowa...
1. The offense has a revival
Last Saturday's 38-0 beatdown could serve as a wake up call to the Northwestern offense. And after their worst performance of the year, it's possible that the Northwestern offense comes out with a vengeance against Iowa on Saturday. There was plenty that went wrong for the Wildcats against the Wolverines that Northwestern will look to correct before Saturday's game. Justin Jackson rushed for a career low 25 yards on Saturday on just 12 carries, the offensive line didn't block great and the receivers struggled to get open for most of the day; as a result, Thorson was sacked twice and hurried plenty of other times in the pocket. In his press conference on Monday, Pat Fitzgerald expressed the team's need to capitalize on first and second downs in order to limit the third-and-long situations that occurred during the Michigan game. The Wildcats will have success against the Hawkeyes as long as the offense makes the necessary adjustments and plays at the level it played at two weeks ago against Minnesota, where the offensive line blocked solidly (their best effort of the season, according to Fitzgerald), Thorson completed multiple critical passes on third down, and Jackson was able to wear down the opposing defense.
2. Iowa has too many key injuries
All year, Iowa has had to play with a "next man up" mentality as a result of numerous injuries suffered on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Iowa will be without their senior defensive end Drew Ott for the rest of the season after Ott tore his ACL last week against Illinois. Ott had been the leader of the Iowa defense so far this season, registering five sacks, three forced fumbles and seven tackles for a loss on the year. Starting in Ott's place will be redshirt freshman Parker Hesse. On the offensive side of the ball Tevaun Smith, Iowa's leading receiver from last season, will miss his third consecutive game with a knee injury, while starting offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger will also be out for Saturday's game. Starting for the Hawkeyes in place of the two tackles will be junior Cole Croston and freshman James Daniels. Furthermore, backup running back Leshun Daniels, Jr. will miss his second straight week with a high ankle sprain. Furthermore, even starting quarterback C.J. Beathard is battling a lingering hip injury. While Beathard assured reporters on Tuesday that he will not be missing the game, his mobility could be hindered because of the injury.
The plethora of injuries for Iowa will force inexperienced players to have an immediate impact on Saturday's game. So far this season, the Hawkeyes have responded well to the injuries but the more they pile up, and the more significant they become, the more I expect to see Iowa struggle. Depth is obviously the biggest concern for Iowa heading into Saturday. If the Hawkeyes suffer any additional injuries against the Wildcats, we might see head coach Kirk Ferentz and his assistants scrambling to find a solution.