Iowa’s heartbreaking loss to Purdue last week means this Saturday’s matchup is not the de facto Big Ten West Championship Game many had been looking forward to. Nevertheless, Northwestern (5-4, 5-1 Big Ten) could do itself a huge favor and win this one, leaving just one final win for the Big Ten West crown. Despite two straight losses, Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) is still a solid team and tough to beat at home. Here are three things to know about Iowa:
Beware of the Tight Ends
Iowa has always been a ground-and-pound-style offense, but quarterback Nate Stanley has seen significant success this season targeting his tight ends. Of the team’s 2,113 total passing yards and 18 passing touchdowns, a whopping 979 yards and 10 touchdowns have gone to tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. It’s not just the big bodies that excel in the red zone, though; these men are athletic and both have catches for over 50 yards. They are simply threats anywhere on the field at any time. Fant is the one who has been tabbed as a potential high NFL draft pick, but injuries have hindered his ability to be on the field this season, and thus Hockenson has reaped the benefits. Northwestern fans might remember Fant as the Hawkeye who dropped the fourth down pass in the ‘Cats overtime win last year, but since then he’s been nothing short of a force.
Statistically, the defense looks good
Iowa boasts the second-best statistical defense in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have given up just 18.6 points per game, 86.2 rushing yards per game and 283.7 total yards per game. Those are solid numbers, good enough to rank fifth nationally in rush defense and eighth nationally in total defense. Let’s take a deeper look at the offenses they’ve faced, though. The defense ranks 21st in S&P+, but its performance over past two weeks is cause for concern. Facing Penn State and Purdue, offenses loaded with playmakers, Iowa gave up 30 and 38 points, respectively. These two games could be a blip in the stats, but when looking at the quality of the its opponents, there appears a notable difference in performance. The 13-3 win over Iowa State in Week 2 looks good now, but the defense “balled out” against the offenses of Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Maryland. None of those teams are currently ranked, and the Big Ten portion of those schools don’t field particularly potent scoring units. Scoring on Iowa is always harder at Kinnick, a notoriously tough place to play, as evidenced by Maryland’s goose egg three weeks ago, but that’s not to say the ‘Cats cannot put up points.
Northwestern fans may groan from time to time that Pat Fitzgerald will never be on the hot seat and therefore lacks accountability. Clearly, they haven’t met Iowa fans. Kirk Ferentz is coaching his 20th season in Iowa City, and to many it appears his reign may never end. Ferentz is a solid 149-100 over his score at Iowa, and while a nearly .600 winning percentage is nothing to gawk at, the numbers break down to a little over 7.5 wins per year. It seems like the Hawkeyes usually have a few straight decent years with bowl appearances, and then every five or so years they rattle off a great year over an easier schedule. Case in point: the Hawkeyes entered this year with five straight bowl appearances, but among them just one bowl win, and a notable blowout loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This year has thus far proven to be much of the same: a hot start over weaker opponents and a few wins over mediocre or poor Big Ten teams. Sometimes there is a signature win over a highly-ranked team, but the formula in the prior sentence usually gets Ferentz’s team to a 7-5 or 8-4 before a bowl game. It’s not to say Ferentz has done a bad job -- some programs would kill to have this type of stability -- but some are irked by the program’s stagnation.