After a trouncing by Ohio State, the Wildcats finish their two-game home stand with Io_a coming to Evanston for homecoming. NU is already a nine-point underdog, but with their opponent’s offensive struggles thus far in conference play, they have a chance to keep this one close and even potentially make it four straight wins over the Hawkeyes. Here are the battles you should keep an eye on for Saturday’s game at Ryan Field:
Northwestern’s Red Zone Defense vs Iowa’s Red Zone Offense
Bend, don’t break. The Wildcats rank fourth in the Big Ten in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score on 79 percent fo their red zone possessions. They have allowed 11 touchdowns and opponents are just four of seven on field goal attempts. While Iowa’s offense hasn’t been a juggernaut this season, it is efficient once inside the 20 yard line. The Hawkeyes have scored on all 24 of their possessions in the red zone, and it helps that kicker Jack Duncan is 9-for-9 on RZ field goals.
Fitz talked Monday about forcing turnovers and how it has been a point of emphasis for this team that has made just two interceptions and recovered six fumbles this season. In what is shaping up to be a grind-it-out type game, Mike Hankwitz’s defense is going to need to stand tall in the red zone and potentially turn Iowa over multiple times.
Michael Ojemudia vs whoever he’s matched up against
Northwestern’s passing game has struggled, and Fitz said Monday the receivers are frustrated they’re not getting the ball. Things don’t get easier this week against an Iowa pass defense that has given up just about 190 yards per game through the air, very similar to NU’s secondary.
The leader of the Hawkeye secondary is Michael Ojemudia. The senior has battled a slew of injuries but has put together an outstanding first half to this season. He has used his length and physicality to make two interceptions and defend four passes. Ojemudia can be moved just about anywhere on the field and is Iowa’s most versatile and talented defensive back.
A few weeks ago, this would likely be a matchup with Skowronek, but his injury clouds who Ojemudia will cover on Saturday. His matchup vs receivers like Lees, McGowan or RCB could heavily influence if Northwestern can make any sort of stride in the passing game.
Mick McCall vs Brian Ferentz
The two offensive coordinators have made fans of each team pull their hair out with uninspiring play calling and an inability to put points on the board. Iowa’s offensive ranks 67th in SP+, a very average mark, while we’ve talked ad nauseam about Northwestern being a bottom-five offense using that metric.
Despite having a senior quarterback who threw 26 touchdowns in each of his last season seasons, Iowa’s offense is only averaging 19.5 points per game in conference, with that number bolstered by a 30-point showing versus Rutgers. We know what we’re going to get from a stout Hawkeye defense, and this could be a defensive slugfest on both sides with the similar play calling from each offensive coordinator. Each offense is also going against a sure-handed defense, so whoever gets more creative could certainly provide the edge for his side.