With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Coming off Northwestern’s first visit to College Park since the Terrapins joined the Big Ten, the familiar Iowa Hawkeyes will make a Week 8 visit to Evanston. After taking four of five from the Hawkeyes between 2008-12, Kirk Ferentz’s team has flipped the script by winning three straight between 2013-15. Of course Pat Fitzgerald got the last laugh in Iowa City last year, torching Iowa’s often stingy defense for 38 points for seven point victory. Here’s everything you need to know about Northwestern’s division rivals.
Returning Starters: 7 offensive, 8 defensive
Returning Experience: 47.5%
2016 Record: 8-5 (6-3 Big Ten)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (18th year at Iowa, 135-92 overall, 83-64 conference)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 30th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 78th
2016 S&P+ Defense: 15th
It’s never easy to follow up a 12-2 season, including an 8-0 record in the Big Ten. Although Iowa didn’t play poorly, 2016 was a roller coaster season for the Hawkeyes. They showed signs of their New Year’s Day hangover that may have carried over into the 2016 season. After narrowly missing a Playoff berth, the Stanford Cardinal had their way with the highly vaunted Iowa defense in a 46-16 Rose Bowl romping.
Iowa started its 2016 campaign rather easily with wins over Miami (OH) and Iowa State. Red flags started flying when the Hawkeyes dropped a Week 3 contest to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State 23-21. After a narrow 14-7 win over lowly Rutgers, it became apparent this wasn’t shaping up to be Kirk Ferentz’s best performance in his 18 years as the head coach in Iowa City. Northwestern further exposed the Hawkeyes woes, dropping 38 points at Kinnick Stadium to stun the black and gold.
That three game stretch that spanned late September and early October was the low point of the season for Iowa. They bounced back with road wins over Minnesota and Purdue before dropping contests to Wisconsin and Penn State. With a mid-November record of 5-4 (3-3 Big Ten), many chalked up Iowa’s season as a failure with Michigan and Nebraska looming on its remaining schedule.
Iowa and Michigan were two teams trending in opposite directions. The Hawkeyes had dropped two straight games and three consecutive at home, while Michigan was undefeated, No. 3 in the latest AP Poll, and had their eyes set on a College Football Playoff appearance. Iowa knew that feeling from just the previous season, and they showcased the defense that was expected to help the Hawkeyes compete for a second straight Big Ten title. Iowa won 14-13, using that momentum to cruise past Illinois and Nebraska by a combined 58 points. The defense only gave up 10 points in those final two contests.
Seemingly prone to bowl game routs, the Hawkeyes looked outmatched in a 30-3 Outback Bowl blowout at the hands of Florida. Despite the disappointing end to the season, 2016 was a season full of promise for Iowa. Although they did not live up to the lofty expectations set by 2015’s Rose Bowl run, the defense stepped up big down the stretch in Big Ten play and the offensive line fought through an injury-plagued season.
The Michigan upset may have salvaged Iowa’s season, but nonetheless, it was yet another impressive performance for Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes haven’t missed a bowl game since 2012, but making it back to eight wins will be a challenge in 2017. Iowa drew Penn State, Michigan State, and Ohio State from the East division, and will take on Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Northwestern on the road, the latter of which will come on Oct. 21 in Evanston.
Iowa will need to replace a three-year starting quarterback, a 200-carry running back, and three of its top four receivers.
C.J. Beathard’s run at quarterback is over, and the likely replacement is sophomore Nathan Stanley. Stanley surprised many by earning backup reps over sophomore Tyler Wiegers last season, although Ferentz is taking his time to announce 2017’s starter. The two have combined to throw 13 collegiate passes so new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz will need to be patient with an inexperienced signal caller.
What Ferentz should do is get the ball in Akrum Wadley’s hands as much as possible. Wadley rushed 168 times for 1081 yards, a 6.4 YPC clip, and 10 touchdowns. He also added 36 receptions for 315 yards and three touchdowns through the air. The senior running back gained at least five yards on 44-percent of his carries. He’ll be joined by Nevada transfer James Butler who amassed 1,717 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns last season. They’ll form an explosive duo and provide a nice security blanket for either Stanley or Wiegers.
Wadley and Butler will run behind a very experienced offensive line. Third team All-Big Ten left tackle Cole Croston is gone, but the senior only started seven games due to injury. Fellow third team All-Big Ten offensive linemen Sean Welsh and James Daniels are back. So are 12-game starts Boone Myers and Ike Boettger. The offensive line should help anchor Iowa’s offense once again.
The issue for Iowa will be finding reliable targets for its young quarterback. Three of the Hawkeyes four leading receivers are gone. Without Riley McCarron, Jerminic Smith, and George Kittle, Matt VandeBerg, who broke his foot last season and hurt it again in the spring, is the only returning receiver with a reception last season. JUCO transfer Nick Easley, who caught 72 passes at Iowa Western last season, will see the field early and often. Fellow junior Adrian Falconer will be asked to step up, and so will sophomore Devonte Young. If VandeBerg can stay healthy, he’ll provide a solid go-to target for Stanley or Wiegers. If he doesn’t, one of a handful of unproven receivers will have to be that guy.
Iowa’s defense came up huge down the stretch last season. In its final three conference games, the Hawkeyes gave up a total of 23 points to Michigan, Illinois and Nebraska. To further put this defensive dominance into perspective, Wilton Speight, Wes Lunt and Tommy Armstrong combined to throw for just 365 yards in those three games. The three teams ran for a total of 249 yards, none of them eclipsing 100 rushing yards.
Losing defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie is tough. That’s 50 solo tackles and 12 tackles for a loss that Iowa will have to find elsewhere. Johnson also racked up 7.5 sacks, playing his way into the fourth round of the NFL Draft. The Hawkeyes do have defensive line depth in its favor, returning six guys who played in 12 or more games. Senior Nathan Bazata and sophomore Garret Jansen should assume the starting defensive tackle positions, while there will be a formidable rotation at defensive end. 6-foot-8 Matt Nelson, 6-foot-7 Anthony Nelson and 6-foot-3 Parker Hesse combined for 52 solo tackles and 15.5 sacks, while incoming five-star A.J. Epenesna should contribute immediately.
No team in the Big Ten returns quite the linebacker depth that Iowa has. Seniors Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann anchor the Hawkeyes most experienced unit. The three combined for 211.5 tackles and 18 pass break ups. Jewell led the way with 9 passes defended, more on him later. If any of them miss time with an injury, senior Kevin Ward and junior Jack Hockaday both played in all 13 games last season. There’s an abundance of veteran depth at this position, and the linebacker’s are set to anchor Iowa’s defense once again.
What Iowa lacks in linebacker turnover is made up for by the secondary of Iowa’s S&P+ 15th ranked defense, highlighted by the graduation of cornerbacks Desmond King and Greg Mabin. Talented sophomore Manny Rugamba is healthy after a collarbone injury cut his freshman year short, and he combined with junior Joshua Jackson for eight pass breakups. The duo will likely be given the starting nod. Sophomore Michael Ojemudia saw time as a nickel corner and redshirt freshman Cedric Boswell will get reps as well. Ferentz isn’t afraid to play his freshman in the secondary, and highly regarded first years Djimon Colbert and Matt Hankins could conceivably see the field.
Iowa caught a really tough break when free safety Brandon Snyder, the leading tackler of the secondary, tore his ACL in April. Junior Jake Gervase and sophomore Amani Hooker will likely get the first shot to replace Snyder, but with six freshman defensive backs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of them develop into a starting free safety alongside veteran strong safety Miles Taylor.
The Hawkeyes will inevitably be involved in some tough games once again this year. Two years ago, they were 5-1 in games decided by one possession. Last year, they dropped to 3-3. If their defense can keep them in games like they did last season, Iowa could repeat as eight game winners despite a very difficult schedule.
Players to Know
MLB Josey Jewell
Jewell was a two-star recruit out of high school and has blossomed into a two-time team captain for the Hawkeyes. A third term most likely awaits the senior. Jewell finished second in the Big Ten with 124 tackles, a number he reached by starting all 13 games at middle linebacker last season. Jewell’s stellar season earned him a spot on five preseason award watch lists, including the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, and Bronko Nagurski Trophy. He’ll anchor a veteran group of linebackers that should once again be among the most productive in the country.
CB Manny Rugamba
Iowa has big shoes to fill with the departure of All-American and two-time First Team All-Big Ten cornerback Desmond King. Sophomore Manny Rugamba is ready to be the No. 1 corner. The Naperville, Illinois native made 19 tackles, broke up four passes, and had two interceptions in his freshman campaign. Rugamba’s first interception was jumping a Mitch Leidner first half throw, but his second pick was a game-winner against Michigan where he ripped the ball away from Jehu Chesson. Although his freshman year was cut short by a broken collarbone in the regular season finale, Rugamba is healthy and should assume a greater responsibility on the Iowa defense.
RB James Butler
For the fifth consecutive year Iowa gave two running backs at least 100 carries. Akrum Wadley will start, but Leshun Daniels Jr. has graduated and his 213 carries will need to go somewhere. Enter Butler, a transfer from Nevada who is the perfect complement to the 5-foot-11 Wadley. Butler, a native of Bloomingdale, Illinois, is 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds. He’s explosive and elusive; Butler is the leading returning FBS running back in missed tackles forced with 87. He put up 1,342 rushing yards and 381 receiving yards last season, and seems like the perfect back in Iowa’s interior zone run system. Butler and Wadley combine to form perhaps the most versatile backfield in the Big Ten.