Northwestern will get an opportunity to get to .500 in conference play Saturday when the Wildcats visit Big Ten West rival Iowa. The sides enter with opposite records; Northwestern dropped to 1-3 (0-1 Big Ten) after a loss to Nebraska last weekend and the Hawkeyes barely edged lowly Rutgers 14-7 to improve to 3-1 (1-0).
The Wildcats will have their work cut out for them against a more talented and experienced Iowa team. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will and won’t taste victory in this contest:
Why Northwestern will beat Iowa
1. Justin Jackson will run all over the Hawkeyes
Jackson has come back to earth since his breakout Week 1 performance, but Saturday poses an opportunity for the Ball Carrier to re-assert himself as a premier back in the nation as he tries to drag Northwestern’s offense back to respectability. Iowa is allowing 179 rush yards per game (4.0 yards per carry) this season, good (or bad) for 12th in the conference and 91st in the country. If Northwestern’s patchwork offensive line can open lanes for Jackson, he should find success against an Iowa defensive unit that held him to 30 yards on ten carries last season, but has clearly regressed. And if Northwestern establishes any semblance of a run game...
2. The Wildcats will win the time of possession battle
Iowa’s struggles to defend the run have been reflected on the stat sheet in more ways than one. While racking up big yardage on the ground can be fun for the sake of braggadocio alone, opposing teams (primarily North Dakota State and Rutgers, Iowa’s last two opponents) have been able to leverage effective run games into lengthy drives. Three-and-outs and stalled drives have plagued Northwestern forever, but it seems the blueprint to beat Iowa is to out-grind the Hawkeyes. Whether NU has what it takes to outlast Iowa up front remains to be seen.
3. This is the week Northwestern’s defensive line shows up
There’s absolutely no indication that this is going to happen; Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten with six sacks in four games and those six sacks are evenly distributed over six players. Safe to say, the Wildcats have been consistently overmatched up front on both sides of the ball to this point in the season. However, if they want to steal a win in Iowa City, they’re going to need to bother Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who was been torching opposing defenses to the tune of a 152.3 passer rating through four games.
Why Northwestern won’t beat Iowa
1. The Hawkeyes will run wild on Northwestern’s defense yet again
Whether it’s LeShun Daniels Jr. or Akrum Wadley, expect Iowa’s run game to find success against Northwestern in this one. Both have run well in their opportunities thus far in 2016, as each is averaging over five yards per carry and, like Iowa, Northwestern’s run defense hasn’t performed to its 2015 standard. The Wildcats are giving up 177.5 yards per game on the ground and surrendered 310 rush yards en route to a loss to Nebraska last week. Expect both of these trends to continue on Saturday.
2. Iowa’s offense is deeper than its running game
In both this article, and one I wrote earlier this week, I have lauded Iowa’s rushing attack. It makes sense. Iowa tore Northwestern to shreds for 294 rush yards in the 2015 matchup in Evanston and, given the success of Daniels and Wadley this year, this figures to be an important storyline going into the weekend. But it’s easy to forget that Beathard has a dangerous group of wide receivers, even without Matt VandeBerg. They can make a point of attacking Northwestern’s inexperienced secondary — a strategy opponents haven’t shied away from — and really get the Wildcats on their heels.
3. Iowa is better than Northwestern at football
This is probably the most important one. One side enters 3-1. The other 1-3. Both have lost to a FCS opponent (Iowa to a much better one, to be fair). Regardless, Iowa outranks Northwestern in most statistical categories and possesses much greater depth on both sides of the ball. That likely doesn’t spell victory for the Wildcats. Sometimes one team is simply better than the other and it feels like that’s the case here. Upsets are bound to happen, though, especially when the Cardiac ’Cats are involved.