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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Iowa

There is a path to victory for Northwestern against their Big Ten West rival.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Northwestern takes on Iowa in Evanston on Saturday at 6 p.m CT for their third night game of the year. Iowa is coming off back-to-back losses against Purdue and Wisconsin after going 6-0 to start the season. The last time these teams met, the Wildcats walked away with a win, but the Hawkeyes have won two of the last three games they’ve played in Evanston.

Despite the Wildcats’ struggles this season, the Hawkeyes’ recent slip-ups are enough to only have them favored by 12. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will knock off the No. 22 Hawkeyes and three reasons why the ‘Cats will lose their third straight.

Why Northwestern will beat Iowa

Spencer Petras

Enough said.

In all seriousness, Petras might be the worst Power Five quarterback the Wildcats have faced this year. In the past two games, Petras has averaged 144 yards through the air and has turned the ball over five times. He has also taken nine sacks and lost 45 yards rushing the ball. When Northwestern and Iowa met last year, Petras turned the ball over three times — including two interceptions that wound up in the hands of Brandon Joseph. Fortunately, Petras has shown hesitance to throw the ball deep, as we’ve seen ‘Cats defense has given up their fair share of big plays. Petras is a quarterback Northwestern’s defense should feel comfortable against — a good sign for Saturday.

The defense can turn it around

Despite giving up a combined 74 points against Michigan and Minnesota, Northwestern’s defense has shown a few signs of life. Against the Golden Gophers, the Wildcats had a strong stand at the end of the second half that temporarily kept the game close. They have forced four turnovers in their last three games and were able to remain competitive in the first half of each game. Joseph has looked more like his 2020 self in the last two games. Against Minnesota, he had a spectacular interception to go along with seven tackles, and against Michigan, he recorded 12 tackles and a sack. Chris Bergin has been active, making 31 tackles in the last two contests. Bryce Gallagher has also been effective, recording 26 tackles. Undoubtedly, the ‘Cats have displayed signs of fatigue, as is evidenced by the fact that they’ve given up 44 second-half points in their last two losses. However, if the Northwestern offense can stay on the field long enough to give the defense a breather, the ‘Cats could slow down Iowa’s limited offense.

The Hawkeyes are trending down

Iowa was exposed against Purdue and Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes were creating turnovers at an unsustainable rate — forcing 19 in their first six games. In their two losses, they’ve only forced one and they have coughed up the ball eight times. The Hawkeyes allowed an average of 13 points per game during their win streak, but against Purdue and Wisconsin they gave up 24 and 27 points, respectively.

The slide in defensive consistency has revealed the offense’s inability to sustain long drives. Against Big Ten competition, Petras has struggled to find his targets and has consistently been sacked over three times a game. Tyler Goodson is yet to eclipse 100 yards on the ground, and Sam LaPorta is averaging under four receptions a game. Northwestern is catching the Hawkeyes at an ideal time, and they could accelerate Iowa’s free fall.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Iowa

Iowa’s front seven

The Hawkeyes bolster a top-twelve rushing defense that allows under 100 yards a game and under three yards per carry. Jack Campbell — Iowa’s leading tackler — and the rest of the defense have limited opponents to a .374 third-down conversion rate; Northwestern’s defense, in comparison, allows third-down conversions 45 percent of the time. Lukas Van Ness, John Waggoner and Joe Evans have combined for nine sacks and have been able to clog the middle against opposing rushing attacks.

This spells trouble for the Wildcats. Evan Hull has been the ‘Cats’ best option offensively and is the fourth-leading rusher in the Big Ten. Hull has averaged 94 yards a game and 10.3 yards per attempt in Northwestern’s last two games. A strong performance from Hull is crucial for a Wildcats win. If Iowa is able to stifle his production, the ‘Cats will struggle to score.

Lack of offensive threats

If Hull is unable to get going and Stephon Robinson Jr. is out again, the Wildcats are down their top offensive options. Iowa’s offense has been abysmal the last two weeks, but it might not matter if the ‘Cats can’t take advantage of their deficiencies. Without a reliable running game and the Wildcats’ best receiver, Mike Bajakian and Pat Fitzgerald will turn to JJ Jefferson and Malik Washington, who had one and four receptions last week, respectively.

As we saw a week ago, the Northwestern offense can look much different with Andrew Marty at quarterback. Marty brings a dual-threat versatility that Ryan Hilinski doesn’t offer, and that mobility could open up the run game. When and how much Marty is used, however remains an unknown, and if Fitz persists and starts Hilinski, any spark in the Wildcats’ offense could be too little, too late.

Northwestern’s run defense

There are a lot of reasons Northwestern is 3-5, but the primary issue has been the Wildcats’ inability to stop the run. Among the worst in all of the FBS, the ‘Cats are giving up 229.5 rushing yards per game and 5.45 yards per carry. Last week against the Golden Gophers, Northwestern allowed 308 rushing yards, with two Minnesota rushers reaching 100 yards. Michigan found similar success, nearly rushing for 300 yards - with two players passing the century mark.

Gallagher, Bergin and Peter McIntyre have been the ‘Cats starting linebackers and Bergin leads the FBS in most solo tackles. However, opposing running backs have gotten past the linebackers with ease, and Brandon Joseph and Coco Azema have combined for 113 tackles — an incredibly high number for two secondary members. Even against an Iowa rushing attack that has only mustered 100 yards combined on the ground in the past two games, Northwestern’s run defense will be pivotal in deciding who comes out victorious on Saturday.