We’ve done our best to provide you with all the Iowa preview content we can so far this week, but for a different look at the Hawkeyes, we went behind enemy lines. Big thanks to Max Brekke (GospelOfMax) of the Iowa SB Nation site Black Heart Gold Pants.
Inside NU: Iowa's off to just a 1-2 start in the Big Ten, but came within one possession of beating Penn State and Michigan State, both of which are ranked. What are the expectations within the fanbase for the rest of the season?
Max Brekke: Most people came into the season thinking that Iowa would be a 7-8 win team, and those performances only solidified those feelings for most. Iowa's defense has looked incredibly strong in the early going, and while they've allowed some pretty significant yardage to those aforementioned teams (and Illinois!), the Hawks have only allowed about 18.6 points per game this season.
The biggest question that Iowa has to answer in the second half of the season is whether or not they can develop a consistent run game; Iowa is averaging 3.7 yards per carry, which is way below what is expected of a team that wants to be a run-first offense. They switched the offensive line combinations up against Illinois and averaged five yards per carry, so hopefully they can bring that momentum into this game in Evanston.
INU: How has quarterback Nathan Stanley performed this season? Has he been better or worse than expected?
MB: Nate Stanley has exceeded just about everyone's expectations thus far this season. After rumors that he barely edged out backup Tyler Wiegers in fall camp, people were a just a bit skeptical of how far he could take this offense in 2017, and so far, he's been the most impressive piece of the puzzle this season. After a bad first start where he fumbled three times and threw an early interception, he's made great decisions with the ball — his interception against Illinois is his only pick in the past five games and in an offense where Iowa mostly throws quick passes, his rapport with the receivers has been spectacular. A lot of people think he can end the season as an all-Big Ten QB, and if he continues on the pace he's had through the first half of the year, it's hard to argue with the thought.
INU: Obviously, Akrum Wadley and Josey Jewell are stars. Does Iowa have good offensive and defensive lines that allow them to succeed, or do those two make plays in spite of the guys in front of them?
MB: This is a great question, because the potential in the trenches has yet to be consistently seen on either side of the ball this year. The offensive line won the Joe Moore award last year, which in case you haven't heard, is awarded to the best offensive line in college football, and they returned four of five starters from last year. The biggest problem is that thus far, they've used Sean Welsh, their best lineman, out of position, and it's hurt the team. As previously stated, they made some changes to the line and inserted true freshman Tristan Wirfs at right tackle and moved Welsh back to left guard, and things worked out for them. It's likely their best alignment on offense, but thus far, Wadley and Co. have struggled to make plays because of who's been in front of them.
On the other side of the ball, there's an abundance of talent on the line, but they haven't been able to consistently show it. They tortured Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions a few weeks ago, putting pressure on him all night, but haven't been able to do the same with lesser offenses. Jewell likely had his best game of the year against Penn State, but otherwise, he's been putting up numbers in spite of his line's lackluster performances.
INU: Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has thrown 9 interceptions already, tied for fourth-worst in the country. Do the Hawkeyes have the players in the secondary to add to that total? On the other side, how good has Iowa been at limiting turnovers on offense?
MB: Even though Iowa is 12th in the Big Ten in pass defense, they've made the most of their opportunities when forcing turnovers in the passing game and are third in the Big Ten in interceptions. The Hawks have forced eight this season — Josh Jackson has two of them, while six other players have one apiece.
On the other side of the ball, Stanley has been able to limit his interceptions, but Iowa struggles with fumbles. They've lost a whopping nine fumbles this season through six games and about half of those have been at the fault of the quarterback. They'll need to secure the ball better if they want to be successful against Northwestern, let alone Wisconsin and Ohio State.
INU: Give us your keys to success for the Hawkeyes, and of course, your score prediction.
MB: The biggest key for the Hawkeyes is to get their running game going. Wadley and whoever his backup happens to be this weekend will need to be able to run the ball consistently if Iowa has any chance of winning. The passing game has been strong thus far, but Iowa will need to use that to their advantage and keep Northwestern from stacking the box if they want to move the ball. Outside of the ground game, it'll be important that Iowa shuts down Justin Jackson, obviously. Northwestern is 3-0 when Jackson rushes for over 100 yards this season (editor’s note: 19-4 in his career when he gets to 100 yards, 6-15 when he doesn’t), and if he's able to go off against Iowa this weekend, it won't bode well for the Hawks.
I think that Iowa has a good chance of winning this one, although I think it'll be a low scoring and close affair. Let's say something like 20-13? The Hawkeyes limit Northwestern to 75 yards on the ground and Nate Stanley throws two touchdowns to his tight ends.
You can find Max on twitter @BHGP and @GospelOfMax. Roll Cats.