Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. 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.
The Wildcats first road trip of the year takes them to in Iowa City, where they’ll take on Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes. When we last saw Iowa, it was dominating USC in the Holiday Bowl to cap off a 10-3 season behind veteran quarterback Nate Stanley. Stanley has since graduated, but his arsenal of offensive weapons has stayed behind, leaving his replacement, redshirt sophomore Spencer Petras, a lot to work with.
Returning Production: 53 percent (Offense 50 percent, Defense 56 percent)
2019 record: 10-3 (5-3 B1G)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz
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.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 20th
2019 S&P+ Offense: 54th
2019 S&P+ Defense: 6th
Iowa got off to a hot start in 2019, due in part to the fact that the easiest part of their schedule, like many other programs, came in September during nonconference play. In the first four games of the season, the Hawkeyes’ 18-17 victory at sworn nemesis Iowa State in the battle for the CyHawk Trophy was their only game decided within a 24-point margin.
After a forgiving schedule helped them launch their season successfully, the Hawkeyes slowed down upon facing more intimidating competition. Facing Michigan and Penn State in back to back was too tough a task to handle for Kirk Ferentz’s team despite quarterback Nate Stanley throwing for over 260 yards in both contests. Tthey quickly fell to 4-2 and out of legitimate playoff contention.
Following wins over Purdue and Northwestern, the Hawkeyes then traveled to Madison for a battle with the Wisconsin Badgers, who, fresh off of losses at Illinois and Ohio State, desperately needed to stop the bleeding. While the Badgers got their wish, defeating the Hawkeyes 24-22, Iowa fans would get their hallmark moment of their season a week later with a field-storm inducing upset of then-undefeated Minnesota. To close out the season, the Hawkeyes posted wins over Illinois and Nebraska, giving them a 9-3 regular season record and a ticket to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, where they dismantled the USC Trojans 49-24.
When looking at Iowa’s offensive roster, one of Mike Bajakian’s favorite words comes to mind: playmakers. Despite the departure of reliable signal caller Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes return the bulk of their skill position players. Their top eight receiving leaders from the 2019 season are back for another year, and each possesses a unique skill set that makes him difficult to stop.
The leader of this bunch is Ihmir Smith-Marsette, whose 722 yards receiving in 2019 were most on the team. His speed makes him a threat to score every time he touches the ball, including on special teams, where he returned two kicks for touchdowns last season. Behind Smith-Marsette are Tyrone Tracy and Brandon Smith, two more possession-oriented receivers who combined for over 1,000 yards and eight scores. At tight end, usually a position of strength for the Hawkeyes, true sophomore Sam LaPorta, who presents opposing defenses with a 6-foot-4, 249-pound frame, looks to be the starter, backed up by redshirt senior Shaun Beyer.
In terms of running attack, Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent (no relation to the NU dorm/dining hall) return after posting over 1,200 yards combined in addition to 9 scores last season. They’ll be aided by a top-notch offensive line anchored by Tyler Linderbaum and Alaric Jackson, both of whom look likely to earn Preseason All-Big Ten honors.
At quarterback, the Hawkeyes are handing the keys to the program to redshirt sophomore Spencer Petras. We don’t know much about his ability to perform at the college level, as he attempted only 10 passes and never saw the field after Iowa’s fourth game of the year against Middle Tennessee State. For what it’s worth, he wasn’t an incredibly high-profile recruit out of high school, ranked the 20th best pro-style quarterback in the class of 2018 by 247Sports. That said, he has all the pieces around him to succeed, from a sturdy front of linemen to a seemingly endless assortment of experienced skill players. For Northwestern to limit the Hawkeyes offensively, they’ll have to try and penetrate Ferentz’s formidable offensive line, putting pressure on the pocket-passer Petras in hopes that he makes a few rookie mistakes to capitalize on.
Iowa’s defense was a force to be reckoned with in 2019, allowing opponents the fifth-least points per game in the country, and there’s no reason to believe it can’t repeat that performance. That said, some key defensive departures pose holes they must address.
In 2019, the Hawkeyes allowed under 200 passing yards a game and intercepted 12 passes total. Safety Geno Stone and cornerback Michael Ojemudia were both key parts of this effort, combining for 13 passes defended, four interceptions and three forced fumbles. Both Stone and Ojemudia are now in the NFL, and defense coordinator Phil Parker must find replacements. Defensive backs Matt Hankins, Dane Belton and Riley Moss will still have to step up. The good news for Iowa fans is that walk-on safety Jack Koerner is back after posting 81 tackles, five pass defenses, an interception and a forced fumble in 2019.
Up front, the Hawkeyes will be tasked with replacing defensive end AJ Epenesa, who was drafted in the second round of the draft by the Buffalo Bills after recording 11.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles, both team-leading marks. Chauncey Golston, who intercepted a pass from Aidan Smith in the Hawkeyes’ game against Northwestern last season, has started alongside Epenesa and is a prime suspect to pick up in production this season. Containing Golston, as well as avoiding giving the ball up to an Iowa defense that was third best in the conference at forcing turnovers will be essential if the Wildcats want to put up points in 2020.
Three Players to Know
Coy Cronk, OT
Much like new Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey, Cronk is a graduate transfer from Indiana closing out his career in the Big Ten West. Cronk will be lucky to even match the play of his predecessor, Tristan Wirfs, whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected 13th overall in this year’s NFL draft. The offensive line around Cronk is already strong, but he’ll need to be reliable given the inexperienced quarterback he’s protecting and the elite lineman who came before him.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR/KR
Smith-Marsette was a multi-sport athlete in high school, running a segment in the 4x100 meter race in addition to his time on the football field. His track background checks out when you watch his highlights, in which he regularly leaves defenders in his dust and dazzles with his agility. Able to make plays for himself as well as any receiver in the Big Ten, ISM may present this season’s biggest challenge for Greg Newsome II in just the second week of the year.
Dane Belton, S
Northwestern will need to pass for more than 138 yards to compete in this game. While the departures of the aforementioned Geno Stone and Michael Ojemudia — as well as a hopefully revamped playbook and offensive scheme under Mike Bajakian — will make matters easier for the Wildcats, they’ll still have to get around Belton, a true sophomore who made major improvements at the end of his first season. Like Cronk, Belton is a player to watch largely because of how essential his predecessor was to the Hawkeyes, but he’s also worth keeping an eye out for because his youth ensures he’ll be affecting Northwestern QBs for the foreseeable future.