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Northwestern-Iowa preview: Three matchups to watch

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Akrum Wadley and Josey Jewell star on this Hawkeyes squad.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Every week, we look at three key matchups for Northwestern’s upcoming game. This week, Northwestern welcomes a 4-2 Iowa team to Ryan Field. Iowa has been up and down this season, but always provides a good test for the Wildcats. Iowa played close games against Penn State and Michigan State, but lost both. The Hawkeyes have arguably more talent and have unarguably looked much better than Northwestern thus far, but anything can happen on Saturday.

Northwestern’s front seven vs. Akrum Wadley

Running back Akrum Wadley is not Heisman contender Saquon Barkley, but his game should not be taken lightly. In Iowa’s last game against Illinois two weeks ago, Wadley ran for 115 yards — his 12th career 100-yard game — and could’ve had more if things didn’t get out of hand in the second half (just 3 of his 23 carries came in the fourth quarter). Wadley rushed for an impressive 1,081 yards last season, placing him just outside of the top 50 rushing yards leaders in 2016. He also is adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, averaging 11.5 yards per reception for his career.

Even so, Northwestern’s rush defense has performed very well lately, coming in at 16th in the country in rushing defense S&P+. Junior linebacker Nate Hall had an explosive game at Maryland last weekend, tallying 11 tackles and four tackles-for-loss against the Terps and helping hold junior running back Ty Johnson to a season-low 20 rushing yards. With redshirt freshman MIKE backer Paddy Fisher able to take the field from the opening snap after sitting out the first half of the Maryland game, the pair will try to disrupt the run game and limit Wadley’s success. With the help of a stout front four led by defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster, Northwestern has done a really good job of avoiding explosive runs thus far. The Wildcats will need that to continue against Wadley.

Justin Jackson vs. Iowa front 7

On the opposite end, senior running back Justin Jackson’s ability to cut through the Iowa front seven will be crucial, unsurprisingly. It seems like Jackson having a good day raises Northwestern’s win expectancy by 30 percentage points. Against Maryland last weekend, Jackson had 28 carries for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and was responsible for six first downs. In the midst of becoming the program’s all-time leading rusher, Jackson wore down the defense, helping the Wildcats have 12 more minutes of possession time than the Terrapins. Iowa’s rushing defense S&P puts them at 62nd in the country, but that’s still 28 spots higher than Maryland. Northwestern shouldn’t expect to create holes quite as easily.

Fisher, an emerging star for the Wildcats, will have an excellent player to look up to on the opposite sideline. Hawkeye linebacker Josey Jewell might be the best linebacker in the country and is a player to watch on Saturday. The senior was named a mid-season first team All-American by the AP and every other major news outlet. The 6-foot-2, 236-pounder has 70 tackles on the season, which ranks first in the Big Ten and seventh nationally. Jewell led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons, ranks eighth in program history in that department, and was recently named a quarterfinalist for the Lott IMPACT Trophy.

Iowa passing attack vs. Northwestern secondary

As significant as Wadley is in Iowa’s offense, sophomore QB Nathan Stanley — who ranks just behind Thorson in the Big Ten with a completion rate of 57.7 percent — is also a threat, especially in the red zone. The Hawkeyes have relied heavily on their receivers in that area, with 16 passing touchdowns and only six rushing. The Wildcats are going to have to do better against this kind of passing attack, considering their pass defense ranks 61st in the country. Montre Hartage and the rest of the secondary struggled to cover junior wide receiver DJ Moore last game, allowing 12 receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns. This time, the receiver to watch will be junior Nick Easley, who has four touchdowns and 483 yards this season.