Every week during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.
This week, No. 20 Northwestern (5-1 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) is back home taking on the No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-0, 2-0). It's a huge game in the Big Ten West title race, as the Hawkeyes currently hold the top spot in the division. To preview Iowa, we talked with RossWB of Black Heart Gold Pants.
Inside NU: There's really no other place to start this Q&A: Iowa is 6-0, a really impressive start that has included a win over Wisconsin at Camp Randall. If you had to choose one reason above all others for this undefeated start—the first time Iowa has been 6-0 since 2009, when the Hawkeyes won the Orange Bowl—what would it be and why? Basically, what makes this team better than past teams?
ROSS: Former Iowa quarterback (and current BTN commentator) Chuck Long was talking about this team earlier today and he thought that they have a "unique and hard-to-come-by chemistry" and that's what's driving their success. I think there's probably something to be said for intangible factors like that (and for some changes that Kirk Ferentz has made to his coaching approach), but I also think there's a big on-field reason for Iowa's turnaround: C.J. Beathard. Beathard's numbers are solid (99/162, 1239 yards, 9/2 TD/INT, plus 192 yards and 3 TD on the ground) but more than anything he's just made Iowa's offense work for the first time since Greg Davis got here. His arm is strong enough that he can make Iowa's short passes around the line of scrimmage work because the ball gets to receivers fast enough to give them a chance to make plays -- and it's also strong enough to get the ball downfield and enable Iowa to stretch the field vertically. Suddenly Iowa's passing offense no longer looks like a clogged toilet. And a better passing game has made it much more difficult for teams to completely load up on the Iowa rushing attack and grind it into dust (also helping on that front: using an actual running back as the primary tailback instead of a converted fullback... but I digress). Beathard wins on the intangibles front, too -- confidence, leadership, poise, etc. -- and overall it just feels like his presence has unlocked Iowa's offense and made it feel like something that can actually work.
Inside NU: Iowa heads into this matchup pretty injury-riddled. Beathard isn't 100 percent, Drew Ott is out for the season with a torn ACL, top wide receiver Tevaun Smith is out, and both starting tackles, Boone Myers and Ike Boettger are out and doubtful, respectively. What injury is most worrisome for Hawkeye fans, and who needs to step up in those players' absences?
More on Iowa-Northwestern
More on the Matchup
ROSS: I think it has to be a tie between the starting offensive tackles, Myers, and Boettger -- unless Beathard's injury is much worse than he and the coaches are letting on. If he's not able to go or if he's severely limited in what he can do... well, just re-read my response to your first question, you know? Iowa would have to replace the guy who makes the offense click with a guy (Tyler Wiegers) with barely any experience -- on the road, against a top-notch defense. That's a recipe for an ulcer if I've ever seen one. But Beathard aside, the thing that's giving me the most anxiety leading up to Saturday is the tackle position. Myers and Boettger haven't been stellar, all-conference performers this season, but they have been solid -- and Iowa's depth behind them is very shaky. If they're both out, Iowa is going to be starting a true freshman (James Daniels) at RT. He filled in there last week against Illinois and the results were... rough, especially in pass protection. If Iowa only had to replace one of Myers or Boettger, it would be easier -- they could just shade a tight end or fullback over to help the replacement tackle out. But if there are replacement tackles on both ends of the line... yikes. If that's the case, Iowa's offensive line could be in for a very, very long day.
Inside NU: The Hawkeyes have been very stout against the run, ranking sixth in the nation in run defense S&P+. Who has been especially good against the run in the Iowa front seven, and what makes them so good?
ROSS: There was some real concern among Iowa fans about how the defense would replace Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat at defensive tackle, but Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata have done a very nice job in their places. Johnson -- all 6-foot-4, 310 pounds of him -- has been a black hole in the middle of Iowa's line, gobbling up any running backs who dare to test the middle of the Iowa defense. Iowa's linebackers have also done a better job of stopping runs for short gains this year -- Cole Fisher (51) and Josey Jewell (50) are leading Iowa in tackles this year and many of those have been around the line of scrimmage.
Inside NU: Jordan Canzeri has been phenomenal this year and despite his slight frame, he's carried the pigskin 22 times per game. What makes him so good and able to shoulder such a significant portion of the offense?
ROSS: I think his performance has been almost as much of a surprise to Iowa fans as it has to everyone else this year, honestly. Canzeri has already blown by his previous season highs in carries, yards, and touchdowns -- and he did that by halftime last week. More than anything, it seems like we're just seeing the best possible version of Canzeri this year -- he's patient, reading his blocks well, and showing more strength and durability than you'd expect from a back his size. Canzeri isn't excellent at anything in particular -- he doesn't have breathtaking speed, he doesn't have jaw-dropping agility, and he doesn't have stunning strength -- but he is good at pretty much everything. With the offensive line blocking well for him and Beathard's passing ability keeping defenses more honest than they've been over the last few years, that's really helped put Canzeri in situations where he can succeed -- and succeed he has.
Inside NU: The defensive secondary hasn't been great yardage-wise, but they have been very good at creating turnovers, led by Desmond King's five picks. It looks like the Hawkeyes use some press coverage tactics in their defensive scheme. Does that physicality lead to the turnovers, or is it more that the defenders just possess great ball skills?
ROSS: Iowa has played a little more press coverage under Phil Parker, but probably not as much as Iowa fans would like -- there's still a lot of hand-wringing and consternation about the large cushions that Iowa defensive backs leave opposing receivers at times. I think the credit probably has to go to the ball skills of the defenders, particularly King -- he hasn't had too many interceptions in college prior to this year, but he was an interception machine in high school, and he's shown a tremendous ability to read quarterbacks and get in precisely the right position to take the ball away this year. Iowa's secondary has employed a lot of its standard bend-but-don't-break philosophies this year and that approach has been mostly effective. Iowa's pass defense has been most vulnerable in the middle of the field (when teams exploit mismatches with Iowa linebackers in coverage) and at the corner opposite King -- opponents have had quite a bit of success targeting Greg Mabin this year.
Inside the Matchup
Inside the Matchup
Inside NU: What worries you most about this matchup?
ROSS: Iowa's health. Northwestern's defense is formidable and I would have been concerned about how Iowa matches up with them even before Iowa's offense got ravaged with injuries, but the injuries over the last few weeks have made Iowa's offense absolutely threadbare. As I discussed above, the biggest concern is the offensive tackles (assuming Beathard isn't too compromised by injuries himself, that is). As injuries have mounted over the last two weeks, Iowa's passing game has atrophied considerably (aside from the first half against Illinois). Iowa survived last week by riding Canzeri and a bulldozing offensive line in the second half, but I'm not convinced that the team can survive doing that this week. Iowa's going to need something out of the passing game and if the tackles can't keep Beathard clean, it could be an incredibly long and painful day for the entire Iowa offense.
Inside NU: Prediction time: Who wins this weekend in Evanston, what's the score, and why?
ROSS: Before the tackles went down and question marks about Beathard's health emerged, I was feeling optimistic about Iowa's chances to get a win in Evanston (where they haven't won since 2007). I still think they can get the win, but probably only if they're able to get some unconventional points -- like a score by the defense or the special teams. I think this will be an ugly, low-scoring game dominated by defense, but if Iowa isn't able to get scoring from someone other than the offense, I'm going to go with Northwestern to win, 17-10.