The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up is Iowa. The last time these two teams met, the Wildcats came out on top against the Hawkeyes to secure the Big Ten West Division title for the first time in program history. Running back Isaiah Bowser led the team with 165 yards, a career-high. Despite not scoring until the third quarter, the Wildcats were able to pull ahead in the end after defensive end Joe Gaziano forced the game-winning fumble.
Returning production: 65 percent, (Offense 72 percent, Defense 57 percent)
2018 record: 9-4 (5-4 B1G)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (152-101, 21st season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2018 S&P+ Overall: 23rd
2018 S&P+ Offense: 54th
2018 S&P+ Defense: 18th
2019 S&P+ Projection: 25th
The Hawkeyes started off the 2018 season with three wins before entering Big Ten play with a loss to Wisconsin. They then won three games in a row against Minnesota, Indiana and Maryland before suffering three straight losses to Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern. To finish off the season, they secured wins against both Illinois and Nebraska, and Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl.
Four Iowa players were selected during the 2019 NFL Draft. Tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were selected eight and twentieth overall by the Detroit Lions and the Denver Broncos, respectively. Later, defensive end Anthony Nelson was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defensive back Amani Hooker was selected by the Tennessee Titans.
Iowa’s offense last year featured two standout tights ends, both of whom were drafted in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were two of the top three receivers last season, along with Nick Easley (who graduated). So, there goes that.
According to the preseason depth charts, it looks like the 2019 Iowa offense will function with one tight end and three wide receivers. Nate Wieting will fill the one tight end spot, with Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Nico Ragaini as the main pass-catchers. None of these players has seen any remarkable numbers, especially when compared to the former receivers, but they definitely show potential. Smith and Smith-Marsette each totaled 361 yards last season (matching!) and combined for five touchdowns.
Leading rusher Mekhi Sargent is back for his junior season.
The Hawkeyes’s defense in 2018 was strong, especially along the defensive line. The number of options available up front allowed them to keep the unit fresh even late in the game. This year, they have at least four solid linemen returning, but if they want to replicate the level of depth they saw last season, they will be forced to bring in some newer players. The loss of players like Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse will be made easier with returners such as Chauncey Golston, A.J. Epenesa and Amani Jones (who was recently announced to be switching to defensive end), but the Hawkeyes will still need to develop new talent to maintain the level of play on their defensive line.
Another question this defense faces going into 2019 is replacing Amani Hooker. The Phil Parker-created position he played (a combination of linebacker and safety) allowed him to be a dynamic player both in run and pass defense. Described by NFL.com as a “hybrid safety,” he will be a difficult player to replace. Based off of Iowa’s preseason depth charts, it looks like Barrington Wade and D.J. Johnson are slated to try.
Three Players to Know
Nate Stanley, QB
Senior quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his third season with the question being if he can be a consistent enough passer to make it to the next level. He lost a lot of his usual receiving options, but he should be able to adapt to the young talent that is set to replace them. Stanley ranked second in the Big Ten in touchdown passes (26) last season, and he also ranks best in school history for touchdowns thrown in a two-year period (52).
A.J. Epenesa, DE
Epenesa, slated to start at right end this season, will be a key leader in what has proven to be a solid defensive line for the Hawkeyes. He led the Big Ten and ranked 12th nationally in sacks last year (10.5), and ranked second in Big Ten and 16th nationally with four forced fumbles.
Whoever plays tight end
Redshirt senior Nate Wieting is expected to start at tight end this season, but there are also a few players (Shaun Beyer and Drew Cook) that may rotate in and out behind him. Whoever ends up trying to replace Hockenson and Fant has some big shoes to fill, but luckily, Kirk Ferentz has a great track record when it comes to developing tight ends. In his 20 seasons coaching, 11 of his tight ends have been drafted by NFL teams.