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Northwestern vs. Iowa: Three matchups to watch

Northwestern has struggled against Iowa recently, but pulling an upset this week would be a huge step toward bowl eligibility this season

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Football is an 11-on-11 game, but you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Iowa.

Austin Carr vs. Desmond King

Carr missed the Iowa game last year, but he comes into this year’s matchup leading the Big Ten in receiving. King, the reigning Jim Thorpe Award award winner as the nation’s best defensive back, provides Carr’s biggest challenge yet on the outside. Typically, King lines up on the right side of Iowa’s defense, so it’s unlikely that he will shadow Carr on every play if past trends hold true. But when King does cover Carr, it will be important for Carr to win some of these battles; without at least some production from Carr, it’s tough to see the passing game having success.

Northwestern’s front seven vs. LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley

How Northwestern deals with Iowa’s two running backs, especially on first down, could be a decisive factor Saturday. The two backs have combined for 575 yards and seven touchdowns in four games this season, and Wadley gashed the Wildcats for 204 yards and four touchdowns last season. So far, Northwestern’s defense ranks 84th nationally in yards per attempt (4.7), down from 19th a season ago. The defense has allowed nearly five yards per attempt on first down this season, which has made it tough to force third-and-longs and get off the field. If NU’s rushing defense does not improve, the Hawkeyes’ two-headed monster will control the clock and the game, which could result in a similar result to last year’s contest.

Northwestern’s offense vs Iowa’s defense in field-goal range

Because of Jack Mitchell’s kicking woes this season, Pat Fitzgerald will have some interesting decisions to make if the Wildcats are in scoring territory. This dynamic makes third-downs — and probably some fourth-downs — that much more important for the offense. Likewise, the unreliability of the kicking game will make scoring touchdowns crucial in the red zone. Iowa’s defense is strong in both situations, ranking 13th and 36th nationally in red zone and third-down defense, respectively. Northwestern cannot afford to leave points on the table if it wants to pull off the upset, so offensive execution and efficiency in Iowa territory will play a major role Saturday.