With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Next up is Northwestern’s first road opponent of the year, Iowa, as the Wildcats travel to the ever-cheery Kinnick Stadium for a big game against the Hawkeyes.
Returning Starters: 15 (7 offense, 8 defense)
2015 Record: 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 18th year (127-87)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 47th
2015 S&P+ Offense: 56th
2015 S&P+ Defense: 32th
2016 S&P+ Projection: 38th (8 spots above Northwestern)
Of all the unexpected things that happened in 2015, Iowa’s sudden reemergence as nationally relevant was one of the craziest. The Hawkeyes had their best regular season ever, going 12-0, earning a Big Ten West title and securing a birth in the Big Ten Championship game. They had a fairly weak schedule, but even so, they managed to win every single game. However, they weren’t exactly blowing too many teams out either. They won a hotly contested game against rival Iowa State (El Assico!) 31-17 after the game was tied at 17 late in the fourth. They beat Wisconsin in a beautiful 10-6 barnburner, and eked out a five-point win over Minnesota at Kinnick. They did have one blowout however, and that was October 17 in Evanston, IL. Iowa ran for 294 yards and 5 TDs and beat Northwestern 40-10. After the regular season wrapped up, Iowa headed into the Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State. They lost an incredible game on MSU’s last drive, falling 16-13. Then the hits just kept coming as they were obliterated by Stanford in the Rose Bowl 45-16.
Iowa’s offense can only really be described one way: run heavy. In 2015, the Hawkeyes ran the ball 568 times compared to only 369 passes (NU’s ratio was 600 to 352 for those wondering). However, they ran so much because it was incredibly successful. Hawkeyes’ running backs averaged 4.5 yards per carry over the season and 181.7 yards per game. Jordan Canzeri was the top back as he racked up 984 yards and 12 TDs, but with him gone, LeShun Daniels Jr. and Northwestern fan favorite Akrum Wadley are more than ready to replace him. Wadley ran for 204 yards and 4 TDs against NU last year. He ran for 292 and 3 against everybody else combined. The Iowa running back stable is still stocked and since the offensive line brings back four starters, the rushing attack shouldn’t miss a beat in 2016.
The passing attack is a little bit more up in the air. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is back following a stellar junior campaign, but the question remains if he can open up the field a bit more in 2016. Beathard did exactly what Iowa needed him to do last year, minimizing mistakes, running the ball and moving the chains when needed. He finished the year with 2809 passing yards, 17 TDs, 5 INTs and a 61.6 percent completion percentage. However, look for Iowa to try and open up the playbook a little bit to see if Beathard can make that next step.
Iowa doesn’t have a ton out wide other than Matt VandeBerg, but he’s still good enough to get the job done. They also bring back tight end George Kittle who only had 20 receptions last year, but six touchdowns. The Hawkeyes averaged almost 32 points per game last year, and because they bring almost everyone back, expect more of the same.
Iowa’s defense was really good last year, and it doesn’t really lose a lot heading into 2016. The secondary members were absolute ballhawks last year and proved to be the anchor of the defense at times. The Hawkeyes had 19 interceptions and 60 pass breakups in 2015. Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King is back at cornerback, and he might just be the best corner in the nation. At this point, he basically shuts down an entire half of the field. Last year, King had 72 tackles, 8 interceptions and 13 pass breakups all by himself. His battery mate Greg Mabin is no slouch either. He had 54 tackles, 2 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. Strong safety Miles Taylor also returns. The loss of Lomax Jordan and his 96 tackles hurts a bit, but there’s a lot of talent still here. Basically, the secondary is going to be really good again.
The front seven should be solid as well, but they do lose a little bit at linebacker. (Also it’s unclear about how good this rush defense really is after that Rose Bowl performance). Leading tackler and middle linebacker Josey Jewell returns to solidify the defense, but the Hawkeyes do lose Cole Fisher. Last year, Jewell had 126 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, and 4 interceptions, while Fisher kept pace, racking up 116 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks and 1 interception. His production will be sorely missed and it’s unclear if sophomore Aaron Mends will be able to replace it.
The defensive line takes a big hit with the loss of Nate Meier and his 6.5 sacks, and the Hawkeyes will need to hope that Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse are ready to step up. If they’re not, Iowa will have serious trouble getting to the quarterback. Drew Ott is also gone, but he played in just six games last season. Up the middle, Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata return and the duo will look to keep Iowa’s run defense as stout as it was in the regular season last year. There isn’t too much gone from last year’s defense, so there’s little reason to think it’ll be any worse.
Three Players to Know
QB C.J. Beathard – There are two very important barometers for how successful Iowa’s 2016 will be. The amount of improvement Beathard shows and how healthy he is. The offense may rely primarily on the run, but Beathard is the cog that keeps the whole machine running.
CB Desmond King – He was already detailed above, but it’s worth mentioning again, Desmond King is really really good at football. He’s currently ranked as the best cornerback in the nation by nfldraftscout and can shut down any receiver in the Big Ten.
RB LeShun Daniels Jr. – It’s safe to say that Northwestern fans are already pretty well aware of Akrum Wadley, but Daniels was actually the much more productive back in 2015. He had 646 yards and 8 TDs and is much bigger at 6-foot, 225 pounds. He will head Iowa’s two-back rushing attack in 2016.
Behind Enemy Lines
RossWB from SBNation’s Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants, takes our questions.
Best case scenario for Iowa in 2016
Ross: I suppose a true best case scenario would be Iowa putting together another 12-0 regular season but managing to improve on their results after that this time -- winning the Big Ten Championship Game and making the College Football Playoff, avenging last year's disappointments. But a second-straight undefeated season seems incredibly far-fetched. A more realistic best case scenario seems to be that Iowa trips up once during the regular season, but still wins the Big Ten West -- and this time they get the win in the Big Ten Championship Game. Does a 12-1 Big Ten champion Iowa get into the College Football Playoff? They'd have a good chance, I imagine.
Worst case scenario
Ross: The injury bug hits Iowa hard at some key players (C.J. Beathard, Desmond King, Josey Jewell), the bounces don't go Iowa's way, and the good fortune Iowa enjoyed a year ago evaporates. Iowa's luck in close games also turns sour and they have several narrow losses. Iowa stumbles down the stretch against Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska and stumbles to a disappointing 5-7 result.
Prediction for Iowa vs. Northwestern
Ross: After two straight blowouts, why not go for a hat trick of beatdowns for Iowa over Northwestern? But seriously... I expect a closer game this season. For whatever reason, Iowa has played brilliantly against the Wildcats the last two seasons and Northwestern has been completely hapless. I think both teams regress to the mean a bit in this year's game (bad for Iowa, good for Northwestern). But I think Iowa's defense is still able to stymie a Northwestern offense with several question marks and Beathard and the offense make enough plays to grind out a 7-10 point win.
Your season prediction for Iowa
Ross: Iowa returns a lot of key faces from a year ago, which gives me a lot of hope that they can try to put together another impressive 12-0 regular season. But the schedule is a little bit trickier and it's hard to expect Iowa to be have as much good fortune in the injury or turnover departments this year -- I think that ends up costing Iowa a game or two this season. I'll go with a 10-2 regular season and a return trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Not only is this Northwestern’s first road game of the season, but it’s arguably its most important. Even better, it signifies the beginning of the death month of the schedule. If Northwestern wants to compete for a Big Ten West title, it have to win this game. The only problem is that this is going to be a very tough game to win. All things considered, Iowa should still be about as good as they were last year, the game is at Kinnick and the Hawkeyes have seemingly had Northwestern’s number the last couple years. The Wildcats lost 40-10 last year and 48-7 in 2014, commemorated by this wonderfully named highlight real. It’s not impossible, and certainly crazier things have happened in NU football, but the Wildcats are going to need one of two things to happen. Either the offense vastly improves over last year and Northwestern is able to hang in a close game, or they win the turnover battle to an extent where they can pull out the victory like 10-9 or something. There’s no reason to think that Iowa will be any worse than they were last year, so Northwestern will be in for a real fight when it travels to Kinnick in early October.
Date: Oct. 1
Time: 11 a.m. CT