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.
Iowa has gone 8-5 in its last two seasons. 2017 saw a stunning blowout win over Ohio State but lost its four other games to good competition. Three of those losses were in one-score games, but Iowa ended the year third in the Big Ten West, an unfamiliar spot for recent Kirk Ferentz teams.
The Wildcats will visit Iowa on November 10th. Here’s what you need to know about Iowa:
Returning Production: 61 percent (67 percent on offense, 54 percent on defense)
2017 Record: 8-5 (4-5 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (Entering 20th season, 143-97)
2017 S&P+ Overall: 49th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 106th
2017 S&P+ Defense: 15th
2018 S&P+ Projection: 36th
Iowa had a brutal schedule in 2017. The Hawkeyes dispatched a Josh Allen-led Wyoming team 24-3 before hitting a tough non-conference test in Week 2 against Iowa State, the surprise team of the Big 12 last year. Iowa’s 44-41 overtime win in Ames was an instant classic. Iowa defeated North Texas the week afterward to start 3-0.
Then, Iowa lost on the final play of the game against No. 4 Penn State. They followed that up with a brutal 17-10 loss to Michigan State in which Iowa’s offense just refused to cooperate. A win over Illinois was followed by another brutal loss to Northwestern that featured more offensive ineptitude. Of course, two weeks later the Hawkeyes beat Ohio State 55-24 in the biggest regular season upset of the Big Ten season. Iowa followed that up with disheartening losses to Wisconsin and Purdue. But hey, they blew out Nebraska and won the Pinstripe Bowl, which is something.
Despite Akrum Wadley, a good offensive line, and a competent sophomore quarterback in Nathan Stanley, Iowa’s offense was mediocre in 2017. The running game never got going all year, even with the addition of Nevada’s James Butler, and it forced Iowa to revert to rely on big plays and longer passes, which is just not Iowa’s thing. That conservative offensive mindset might have to change this year, in spite of the Ferentz father-son tandem’s better judgment. Wadley is gone and and two of Iowa’s key offensive linemen, including First team All-Big Ten guard Sean Welsh, have graduated.
So what’s left? Nathan Stanley had a fine season last year and he is surrounded by a bevy of good pass-catching options. Tight end Noah Fant, known to Northwestern fans for his fourth down drop that cost Iowa against Northwestern, is back. He’s much better than that one play suggested, having averaged 16.5 yards per catch with stellar blocking last season. Iowa’s other tight end, T.J. Hockensen, could also make an impact. Veteran wide receiver Nick Easley will lead a young but talented group of wide receivers.
However, for the first time in a while, Northwestern won’t need to worry about Akrum Wadley. Sophomore Toren Young is in line to be the starter, but his experience is obviously limited. He did average 4.29 yards per carry in 2017 for two touchdowns, but Iowa doesn’t have a known quantity at running back just yet.
There’s no question that Iowa had an elite defense in 2017. The big questions for 2018 will center around how Iowa replaces linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson, both of whom graduated and are in the NFL. Iowa also lost its other two leading linebackers— Bo Bower and Ben Niemann, leaving a significant hole in the defense.
Iowa has plenty of options to choose from at linebacker, but we won’t know who’ll get the starting nod until the fall. Iowa doesn’t really rotate its linebackers, meaning that there’s very little knowledge on how good guys like Jack Hockaday, Amani Jones and Aaron Mends are. Iowa’s done a good job of developing middle linebackers though, so it’s hard not to see a decent group emerging here.
In the secondary, losing Jackson is a big blow. Juniors Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia will need to pick up the slack. The duo managed 51 tackles and five pass breakups between them in 23 games last year, so I think they’ll be fine. Iowa was also getting solid free safety Brandon Snyder back from injury, but it was announced yesterday that he’s departing the team. That’s not great. Iowa should have enough production returning on the defensive line to cobble together a good Big Ten defense, but we should expect some natural regression without Jewell and Jackson.
Three players to watch
DE Anthony Nelson
Speaking of that defensive line, Iowa will be bringing back a strong group that finished top-25 in passing downs sack rate last year. The headliner in that group will be junior defensive end Anthony Nelson, who recorded 7.5 sacks last year, 2 forced fumbles and 21 solo tackles. Nelson, coming in at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, should give Northwestern’s offensive line fits in November.
TE Noah Fant
It’s worth mentioning Fant again, as he has the potential to end the year as a high-round NFL prospect. Fant had 11 touchdowns on 30 catches last year and is Iowa’s premier red zone target. With his ability to block, stretch the field and make plays in tight spaces, Fant might be Iowa’s most dangerous offensive player with Wadley gone. He is certainly poised to have a breakout season at tight end. Northwestern kept Fant under wraps last season (31 yards, 1 touchdown) but the sky is definitely the limit for the junior tight end.
RT Tristan Wirfs
Kirk Ferentz would not consider this a fair Iowa preview if we didn’t focus in on the offensive line at least once, right? Well, he won’t like that we’re using this an excuse to mention Iowa’s two drinking-related arrests in the trenches in the last week! Tristan Wirfs, last year’s starting right tackle (and the best-rated recruit left on the line, if that means anything) got an OWI for having a BAC of 0.129 while driving a moped. He’s been suspended for one game and might not get his starting spot back for the foreseeable future. Yikes.
What I don’t understand is how he got the same suspension as defensive tackle Brady Reiff, who drunkenly mistook a police car for his Uber. Sure, they both got intoxication arrests, but at least Brady Reiff wasn’t driving a vehicle around campus while doing so! Mopeds can be dangerous! That being said, Iowa’s offensive and defensive lines will probably be fine.