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.
Northwestern hopes to get back on track this week, but that’s no easy task, especially against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. We talked with Max Brekke of the always excellent Black Heart Gold Pants. Make sure to check out our answers at BHGP as well.
Inside NU: Iowa seemed to regain its run offense against Rutgers, but it didn't look great previous to that, especially against North Dakota State. What have been the issues in that area?
Max Brekke: The offensive line has not been particularly good. At times, they're great and look like your typical Iowa offensive line; other times, they look downright horrible. Granted, against NDSU, the team was dealing with some injuries from their starting center and guard which didn't help. Akrum Wadley was injured against NDSU (despite how many times Kirk Ferentz says he was healthy, this is a hard sell when he only had four carries). This is a team that wants to run first, as evidenced by the huge games from Wadley and LeShun Daniels in the first two weeks of the season. I think that against Rutgers, the Hawks were looking to exploit what hasn't been a great pass defense and didn't run as much as they normally would have, which led to fewer rushing yards than you'd normally expect against the Scarlet Knights. They should be looking to get fully back on track against Northwestern this week after the Wildcats surrendered over 300 yards on the ground against Nebraska last week. More on that in a moment.
INU: Iowa boasts a two-headed monster with LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley. What does each bring to the table, and how should we expect carries to be split on Saturday?
MB: The number one question that everyone wants to know about Iowa's offense is what to expect from Thunder (LeShun Daniels) and Lightning (Akrum Wadley). I think Northwestern fans should already have a pretty good idea what to expect from Wadley since he's torched the Wildcats' defense for over 300 yards and 5 TDs in his two career games against Northwestern, but in case you're new here, or maybe forgot (who could blame you for wanting to?), Wadley is an elusive and electric runner, hence the "lightning" moniker. To avoid reopening old wounds, here's a highlight from last week against Rutgers or this jump-cut/spin cycle from the game against Miami (OH). In the highlight against Rutgers, you can see just how fluid his hips are to be able to maintain his speed yet change direction on a dime while he tightropes his way to the end zone; in the highlight from the Miami game, you can see just how elusive he is in space. He can run though guys on occasion, too, although he's more likely to make things happen in space. While both backs are big play threats, Wadley averages 7.4 yards per carry and 13.1 yards per catch. He's my favorite of the two running backs in this tandem.
LeShun Daniels brings the thunder, and he really does like to make contact with defenders. There have been a couple plays this season where he's carried a couple defenders on his back while he's pushed forward for a couple extra yards. Northwestern hasn't seen him yet, as he was injured the past couple years when they faced the Hawks, but think of him like a traditional Iowa running back. He's probably not quite as strong as Mark Weisman (although it's close), who had success against Northwestern a couple years ago, but he's definitely a lot faster. He can also make defenders miss in space, as he's fairly shifty for a guy you'd expect to be more of a power back. In the past two weeks, he had two HUGE carries called back for offensive penalties that were pretty questionable. He averages 5.8 yards per carry, which is nothing to scoff at. He's the perfect compliment for Akrum Wadley in this Iowa offense.
In regards to usage, Iowa does a pretty good job at mixing things up and playing both of them fairly equally. Daniels has 15 more carries than Wadley (although Wadley had 10 fewer carries when he was injured against NDSU), but Wadley has out-caught Daniels 7-3. Wadley will more than likely see more action in obvious passing situations (such as 3rd down), but one could reasonably expect to see former WR/current RB Derrick Mitchell, Jr. in those situations, too, as he's great at catching the ball out of the backfield and probably our best pass-blocking running back to boot.
INU: This week it was announced that leading receiver Matt Vandeberg will miss significant time with a foot injury. How does that change the offense, and who needs to step up in his absence?
MB: Matt VandeBerg was indeed lost for what most are assuming is the remainder of the season and there are no surefire solutions as to how Iowa will replace his production. I wrote about all the different options Iowa has to replace VandeBerg in the offense, but there's a whole ton of uncertainty as to who has the ability to do it. Jerminic Smith and Riley McCarron are now listed as 1/2 in the depth chart, but they combine for a whopping 13 catches so far this season. In fact, ALL WIDE RECEIVERS NOT NAMED MATT VANDEBERG ARE BEING OUT-CAUGHT BY MATT VANDEBERG 19-15. That's a damn statistic for you.
C.J. Beathard appeared to lack trust in his wide receivers all season, and this won't help anything, but at least it will force him to throw the ball to the unknown quantities this team has. Wide receivers Jay Scheel and Ronald Nash should get some more looks, and in empty backfield situations, maybe even Devonte Young. Expect the tight ends to get more involved in the passing game, too, as George Kittle has 10 catches for 192 yards this season. More than likely, expect more of the load to get pushed onto the running backs.
INU: The defense has fallen off quite a bit for this team in terms of total yards, and the same can be said for Northwestern. What's up on that side of the ball?
MB: The main problems for the defense appear to start at the defensive line, which once again is unable to provide a pass rush in the wake of Drew Ott's departure. On the instances that they do pressure the quarterback, they are unable to contain him and he buys himself a ton more time. I think that Clayton Thorson could do the same thing against this Iowa defense. Freshman Anthony Nelson has been really good, though, as he has 3.5 sacks on the season.
Teams have had a good amount of success running against the Hawks, too, and that's because of the linebacking corps. "The Outlaw" Josey Jewell has found himself playing great football again after being ejected on the first drive of the Miami game for targeting and struggling a bit, but Bo Bower has truly been poor at just about everything next to him. Ben Niemann has been pretty good at the last linebacker spot, though, but he usually ends up in pass protection where he's pretty good for a linebacker.
Finally, the secondary. Safety Brandon Snyder had a pretty good game against Rutgers, forcing the turnover that led to the game winning drive against the Scarlet Knights, but he's been pretty bad in pass protection and has missed tackles far too often. At the other safety position, Miles Taylor has played the exact same way, minus the big game against Rutgers. CB Greg Mabin has been picked on a whole lot, as teams don't want to throw at Desmond King at all, but part of his struggles relate to the fact that the DL hasn't gotten pressure and it's been difficult for him to contain a wide receiver for so long on plays. Lastly, that brings us to Desmond King. He's great. Hasn't done anything wrong all season, really. Teams are also not throwing towards him at all so that helps.
INU: Kirk Ferentz got a massive deal earlier this season. How do Hawkeyes fans feel about that right now? Has it changed from their opinion when it was first announced? How do you guys feel about it?
MB: Yeah, the deal is pretty big in numbers and years. Hawkeye fans are either pretty mad about it or they love it. The majority are pretty mad, though. Fans don't blame Kirk for getting paid, though, but instead they're more mad at AD Gary Barta for negotiating yet another eyesore of an extension. At this point, we know what Kirk is going to be and he's not going to change a whole ton, but the infuriating part for most is that Iowa is going to get 7-8 wins a season and they don't think Kirk Ferentz is going to get Iowa over the hump into becoming what we want to be, which is a powerhouse year in and year out. The thing that infuriates people the most is that Iowa doesn't beat down on lesser opponents like they have in years past (like they did under Hayden Fry) and that there seem to be a lot of games that Iowa loses that they shouldn't. Change obviously won't be coming soon, but Iowa has been stagnant for so long as a 7-8 win school. Fans demand more, and they should because it's hard to love something that never gets any better. It's hard for fans of other schools like Purdue, Rutgers, etc. to understand because they would kill to be Iowa. Iowa just wants nothing more than to be at least 9-10 win team every year like Ohio State or Michigan State. Maybe one day Brian Ferentz will lead us to the promised land. Ten more years of Kirk, though, for better or for worse. I like to think things will be okay.
INU: Prediction time: Who's coming out victorious on Saturday and why?
MB: I've got Iowa winning this one over my childhood team of Northwestern. C.J. Beathard will hopefully have a field day against a Wildcats team stacking the box to stop Wadley and Daniels, as they should. Iowa needs to prove they can move the ball through the air before they can respect the passing game, and I think Beathard makes some key connections with Jerminic Smith to open the ground game, and then Akrum Wadley will torch the Northwestern defense for a third straight season. Iowa 42, Northwestern 20. Hope we don't hurt your boys too bad.