The Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-2 B1G) will enter Ryan Field Saturday morning as 10.5 point favorites over the seemingly hapless Wildcats (1-5, 0-4). But historically, Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald have had plenty of success against Kirk Ferentz as significant underdogs, and in what is essentially a must-win game, expect NU to come out firing. But what do they need to do to come out on top in the end? Find out:
Why Northwestern won’t beat Iowa:
Iowa’s elite defense
Northwestern has already faced two top-five scoring defenses in the country in Ohio State and Wisconsin. Going into this game, Iowa currently ranks fifth in the country, right up there with those elite foes, allowing fewer than 11 points per game. They’re headed by a terrific defensive front that consists of projected top-10 draft pick DE AJ Epenesa and another solid DE opposite of him in Chauncey Golston, among a slew of talented linemen on their two-deep.
Their secondary, despite injuries, has been solid as well, led by senior DB Michael Ojemudia who has 2 interceptions and 4 passes defended thus far. As a whole, they’re a classic, hard-nosed Iowa defense that will give even the best offenses a challenge (just ask Penn State), and Northwestern’s current offensive woes will do them no favor against this group.
The Hawkeyes should be very motivated for this game
Not to say that Northwestern won’t be motivated to win as well, but one has to consider the predicament for the Hawkeyes. They’ve lost two of their last three games in very ugly fashion, and the game they did win wasn’t very pretty either. This is a team that likely feels like they’re playing under their potential (they very well should’ve beat both Michigan and Penn State), and may be looking to make a statement here soon.
And what better game in which to do so than against their formally informal rival, on the road, in a series that currently sees them on a three-game skid (the last time Iowa lost four straight against NU? 1932). In short, this is close to a must-win game for Iowa too, and that may be enough to push them over the hump this year.
Northwestern’s inconsistent offense
The theme of Northwestern’s season so far has been their inability to execute on offense when they need to, leading them to be among the worst groups in the country statistically on that side of the ball.
Last week’s return of RB Isaiah Bowser helped the ‘Cats reach their highest total rushing yards this season since their matchup against UNLV, yet the passing game still left much to be desired. Unless NU can show a good amount of improvement this week offensively, they’ll likely still struggle to find points against the aforementioned stingy Iowa defense.
Why Northwestern will beat Iowa:
Iowa’s offensive struggles
After scoring 30 or more points in three of their first four games, the Hawkeyes went seven straight quarters without a touchdown, finally breaking the streak with a Brandon Smith TD in garbage time against Penn State. Iowa QB Nate Stanley has had trouble taking care of the ball in their last three games as well, throwing five interceptions to only one touchdown.
While talented, Iowa’s offense isn’t too hot right now and losing WR Brandon Smith, who leads the team in both receptions and receiving touchdowns, will certainly not help. If NU can exploit a weak interior offensive line and get pressure on Stanley (which is exactly what Michigan and Penn State were able to do), they can certainly shut down this Iowa offense.
They tend to play well against the Hawkeyes
As Avery Zimmermann noted earlier this week, Northwestern has fared well against Iowa recently, having not lost to them since Iowa’s 2015 12-0 regular season. In fact, Pat Fitzgerald has more wins against Kirk Ferentz-led Iowa teams than any other coach, notching an 8-5 record since taking over as head coach in 2006.
Additionally, Northwestern is 8-5 against the spread when playing against Iowa under Fitzgerald. While Northwestern isn’t having a ton of success thus far in 2019, they seem to always play some of their best football against Iowa, and this week could be a crucial turning point for them.
The ‘Cats really need to win one
As I stated earlier, this is somewhat of a must-win game for Iowa. The same can certainly be said for Northwestern. While the ‘Cats currently sit at 1-5, they still have half of a season of football to play. If there is any hope to try and salvage this season and possibly end up bowl-eligible, a winning streak is going to have to start immediately.
Northwestern has a better chance at winning this game than most might assume, and they know that. The Wildcats have little left to lose at this point, but if they can come out strong this week and pull off the upset it could help change the narrative of this season drastically. Expect Fitzgerald and co. to get the squad pumped up for the 11 a.m. Ryan Field kickoff.