Searching for their first win over Northwestern since 2015, the 20th-ranked Io_a Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-2 B1G) will head into the most dangerous setting in college football: Ryan Field at 11 a.m. Central. Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats (1-5, 0-4) are going to have their work cut out for them, especially offensively, to avoid losing two winning streaks over conference opponents in the same season.
To get the inside scoop on the 2019 Hawkeyes, we talked things over with Jonah Parker from Black Heart Gold Pants, who filled us in on a struggling offense and an impressive defense (sound familiar?), along with some special teams tidbits and even insights into the true feelings of Iowa fans when it comes to their relationship with the ‘Cats.
INU: So, what’s the deal with Nate Stanley and this offense? How much of the blame for their Big Ten struggles are we pinning on Brian Ferentz?
BHGP: That’s the hot button issue for Hawkeye fans at the moment. The offense has looked really good this season against inferior opponents, but when faced with a competent defense they’ve really struggled.
The issues start in the middle of the offensive line where Iowa starts a freshman converted defensive tackle at center. Consensus is he’s going to be a future starter, but as of now he’s still a freshman starting center. Beside him, the two guard spots have been a revolving door due to injury and poor performance.
Starter Cole Banwart is out for the year and his backup Kyler Schott is out a few weeks. That’s meant sliding backup tackle Mark Kallenberger inside and playing some combination of him, seniors Levi and Landon Paulsen and RS freshmen Cody Ince and Justin Britt. No combination has hit its groove and the result has been a real struggle running the ball and lots of pressure on Nate Stanley.
His handling of that pressure has been less than ideal, particularly the last three weeks when he’s thrown 5 interceptions after not throwing any through the first four weeks. But he hasn’t gotten much help from OC Brian Ferentz. There have been few attempts at quick passes, screens or dump offs. Instead, we continue to see deep routes, which have resulted in more big plays than in the past, but more throwaways and drive killing sacks than most fans can stomach.
INU: The Iowa defense has been pretty dominant thus far this season. With all of the important veteran contributors in this group, is it the best Hawkeye defense in recent years? If not (or even if so), what are its weaknesses?
BHGP: I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s certainly been very good. The most interesting thing has been how they’ve been so good.
All the preseason hype was on star defensive end A.J. Epenesa, but the defensive line is on track for far fewer sacks than a season ago. That’s been due to every team using 2 and often 3 blockers to deal with Epenesa and a lack of others on the line taking advantage of the one on ones.
Despite the sack numbers and a slew of injuries in the secondary, the defense has been very good against the pass. The one potential weak spot has been runs right up the gut. Iowa’s starting defensive tackles are solid but not built to hold up against a smash mouth run game.
INU: How is the third phase playing right now? Iowa has certainly had some great kickers and punters in years past. Has that carried over to this season?
BHGP: Despite Hawkeye fans’ love of punting (it certainly started as a joke but there’s a genuine appreciation for the art of punting thanks to 21 years of Kirk Ferentz), things have been rough in that department the last couple years. That’s changed this year with the arrival of grad transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton. There have been some hiccups here and there, but largely the punting game this year has been a Kirk Ferentz dream.
In the kicking game, the Hawkeyes are breaking in a new old kicker. After two years of great kicking from Miguel Recinos, Iowa is back to Keith Duncan. Duncan is famous in Iowa circles for kicking the game winner against Michigan as a freshman in 2016. Now he’s leading the nation with 17 made field goals. He doesn’t have the range of Recinos, but Duncan has been very reliable in a season where the Hawkeyes have relied far too much on field goals.
INU: Who are some newcomers to look out for on both sides of the ball?
BHGP: Iowa is notorious for sticking with veteran guys, which you’d expect for a program built on player development. But this season there are several newcomer, including young guys, who have been major contributors.
On the offensive side of the ball, Tyler Goodson is a freshman RB from a Georgia who is Iowa’s most dynamic runner. He’s still filling out and learning the art of blitz pickup, but he’s electric with the ball in his hand and a number of Iowa fans would love to see him be the primary ball carrier.
On the outside, Iowa will be without their big WR Brandon Smith due to injury. While most fans would have expected former Michigan WR Oliver Martin to step into that role, this week’s depth chart listed RS freshman Tyrone Tracy on the outside. Tracy has played all year but has been splitting slot duties with fellow RS freshman Nico Ragaini. Now it looks like you’ll be seeing plenty of both of them Saturday.
On defense, safety Jack Koerner is a newcomer. He replaced Kaevon Merriweather when he went down with injury and has never looked back. And in the middle of the defensive line, look for Daviyon Nixon to have an impact despite not being a starter.
I have to call out the new punter, of course. Sleep-Dalton is an Aussie grad transfer from Arizona State who, as mentioned, has been largely tremendous this season.
INU: Generally, how do Iowa fans feel about this matchup, and Northwestern in general? Obviously there is plenty of animosity from the Wildcat side of things, led by Pat Fitzgerald, and Hawkeye fans certainly don’t seem to like NU, but just how much do they care/think about the matchup?
There’s a decent mix among Iowa fans, driven largely by age. Older fans who were around for the Fry era when the Hawkeyes rattled off 21 straight wins in the series tend to think about NW very little and be completely up in arms when we inevitably lose to you guys.
The flip side is younger folks who have only been around for the Ferentz era where Northwestern has been a vastly improved program. I think this segment of the fanbase views Northwestern with a bit more disdain as the Wildcats have won more than their fair share of games against the Hawkeyes of late and spoiled some pretty special seasons (*cough* 2009 *cough*).
Ed. note: stay tuned for more on this later this week!
Heading into this one I think Iowa fans are a bit nervous. Northwestern has had success against Iowa’s bend don’t break defense and the offensive struggles of the Hawkeyes are cause for concern. Despite the Wildcat’s own offensive woes, I think most Hawkeye fans know Northwestern is better than their record might indicate and are more than capable of beating Iowa this weekend.
Finally, what is your score prediction for this Saturday?
This is a tough one. On paper, Iowa should win. Vegas has them winning by more than 10 in Evanston. But with an offense that’s really struggling against a solid Northwestern defense, it’s easy seeing this become a rock fight. It’s not typically a good idea to get into a rock fight with teams like Iowa, but Northwestern has had success in weird games against the Hawkeyes.
Despite that, I think the Iowa defense does enough this week to get a hard fought road win. Give me the Hawkeyes over Northwestern, 17-10.