Thanks to Iowa’s buzzer beater loss to Purdue, Northwestern has a clear path to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. Win two of their final three matchups and Fitz’s team is in for the first time. The first of those three matchups comes in the form of a test at one of the most challenging environments in college football, Kinnick Stadium. Northwestern visits Iowa having won the previous two contests between the teams. Here are some matchups that will help determine this one.
Northwestern’s offense vs. A credible run/pass balance
In recent weeks, Northwestern’s offense has either decided to solely focus on running the ball or solely air it out. Against Nebraska, Thorson threw the ball 64 times, partly due to necessity, but mainly because there was no run game. Against Rutgers, Thorson was only able to throw for 150 yards, as NU relied on the run game to will the team to victory. A similar trend continued against Wisconsin and Notre Dame, as Northwestern hasn’t truly been able to establish a consistent passing attack in either game. To its credit, the Northwestern offense has found chunk plays in the air, but beyond that, there isn’t much going on.
In order for the offense to break through and be able to put consecutive drives together, they’ll need to find a way to balance the passing and rushing attacks. Iowa boasts a defense ranked 18th in S&P+ rushing defense and 47th in S&P+ passing defense. It’s a difficult task to find success in both phases of the offense against Iowa, but it’ll be crucial for NU if it is going to leave Iowa City with a victory.
Northwestern safeties vs. Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson
Iowa’s most effective offensive weapons come in the form of their tight ends, Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. The two are matchup nightmares in the end zone, and have hauled in 10 touchdowns on the year so far. What makes this an even more pressing matchup for Northwestern is their current health issues at the safety position.
In his weekly Monday press conference, Fitz stated that he would call Jared McGee, one of Northwestern’s starting safeties, doubtful for Saturday’s game. That means Travis Whillock will probably be forced to step into the role beside JR Pace. Whillock had 10 tackles and a PBU on Saturday, but he doesn’t have the experience McGee has.
We could also see Joe Bergin at safety. Bergin is a special teams ace, but he hasn’t really seen any snaps at safety.
On the other hand, Fitz is consistently praiseworthy of Bergin and his brother, Chris. Just two weeks ago he noted, “The Bergin brothers bring it every single day, they’re a joy and a privilege to coach.” Northwestern will need to find a way to put Whillock and Bergin in a position to succeed against Iowa’s stellar tight end combination.
The Kinnick Stadium atmosphere vs. Northwestern
Kinnick Stadium is a daunting place to play. With the fans’ close proximity to the field to a pink visitor’s locker room, it has it all. Iowa is also a significantly better team at Kinnick than on the road. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 at home as opposed to 2-2 on the road and have a history of playing well in big games at home. Iowa fell to Wisconsin this year on a late touchdown, but last year they played inspiring football in big moments at home.
Iowa shocked Ohio State in blowout fashion last year, in addition to pushing a then undefeated Penn State to the very last play of the game. In short, Iowa never fails to show up at home.
Northwestern has an interesting recent history at Iowa. In their last three matchups in Kinnick Stadium, Northwestern has pushed Iowa to overtime, gotten blown out, and pulled out a win. They don’t seem to be fazed by the atmosphere, and current Northwestern players echoed those sentiments this week. Both Joe Gaziano and Flynn Nagel acknowledged how fun it is to play in the famed stadium.