It’s safe to say that last week’s onslaught at the hands of Minnesota was not what Northwestern was hoping for, but with a new week comes a new chance at a pleasant surprise (or a confirmation of already-secured fears). This Saturday, the Wildcats will take on the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team that they’ve had some success against in recent years and that — after starting off incredibly strongly this year — has fallen in their last two contests.
To help us get up to speed on all things Iowa, we talked to Jonah Parker, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Black Heart Gold Pants. Give the piece a read to hear his thoughts on how the Hawkeyes match up against the ‘Cats, and give Jonah a follow on Twitter if you want to know more about Iowa Athletics on a regular basis.
Inside NU: Just a few short weeks ago, it seemed as though the Big Ten West was Iowa’s division to lose, as the Hawkeyes sat undefeated at 6-0 fresh off of a come-from-behind thriller win over Penn State. The last two games, however, have not been so kind to Kirk Ferentz and company, and as a result, Iowa now finds itself back with the rest of the pack in its division. What changed, and do you think the Hawkeyes have what it takes to turn things around and book a trip to Indy?
Jonah Parker: The last two weeks, we’ve seen a couple of key differences from the first six. With Purdue, Aidan O’Connell played the absolute game of his career. Iowa’s defense forces opposing quarterbacks to consistently make throws in tight windows, and he did that without a mistake all day. Part of that was the front four getting virtually no pressure, something they had been able to do in the first six weeks. So when Phil Parker dialed up some pressure, it left David Bell in man coverage and O’Connell hit him every. Single. Time.
Once Iowa got down, it was over. And that’s essentially the same recipe Wisconsin used. After throwing just 8 times in their win against Purdue, the Badgers came out with Graham Mertz carving up the Iowa secondary playing with a third string corner. They then settled into the run game once they started to pull away.
The commonalities were lack of pressure from the Iowa defensive front, which led to better than average QB play and just one turnover created in the two games combined. On the other side of the ball, the Hawkeyes fell behind and never established the run, accumulating just 100 total rushing yards in the two games. That led to an absurd 7 turnovers in those two games.
INU: Spencer Petras has been somewhat hard to watch under center at times. Obviously, this is probably a simplistic way of looking at things, but does Iowa truly not have a better option on its roster? If it does, what do you think would motivate Ferentz to pull the trigger and bench Petras?
Parker: It depends on who you ask. Some Hawkeye fans will tell you that literally anyone would be a better option. I disagree. From a pure talent perspective, Petras is the best QB on the roster. He has all the physical tools Iowa wants in a QB.
The problem he has right now is none of those tools include any ability to escape or pocket presence, and this is perhaps the worst offensive line Iowa has had under Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes have a redshirt freshman starting at left tackle and a former walk-on sophomore at right tackle. They’ve had injuries at both guard spots, and the result has been no time to do anything the Hawkeyes traditionally rely upon in the passing game.
INU: Iowa is currently 9 points in the positive in terms of turnover differential. Northwestern sits at a flat 0. Just how essential have these takeaways been to the Hawkeyes’ success this season, and how many turnovers do you think each side will generate on Saturday?
Parker: As I mentioned in the first question, the turnover margin is the difference between a top five Iowa team and a barely-ranked Iowa team. It’s no fluke that the Hawkeyes generated so many interceptions through the first six weeks — that’s the scheme and that’s why the team leads the nation in interceptions since 2017. But when opponents carve up the underneath stuff and then pound the ball against a front four that has weakened as the season progresses, the turnover opportunities are just not there.
If Iowa wins the turnover battle on Saturday, it’ll win the game.
INU: If you could pick only three Iowa players that you think Northwestern fans should know about heading into this contest, who are they and why?
Parker: I’m going to try to avoid pointing out the stars of the team (Tyler Goodson, Jack Campbell, etc.) here as I think those go without saying. So let’s talk a few sleepers.
On the offensive side of the ball, Keagan Johnson is a name to watch. He’s a true freshman receiver and the fastest player on the team. He’s really come on the last several weeks and has stepped into the No. 1 receiver role. If Iowa has time to throw deep (a big if), it will be to Johnson.
On defense, Jestin Jacobs is another younger guy that is just an absolute monster. He has NFL size and athleticism, and is only held back by the fact his other two LBs are All-Big Ten material. Iowa runs a 4-2-5 base set against offensive personnel groupings that don’t include a FB or two TEs, so his snap count is limited a bit, but when opponents are in heavier personnel groupings, he is a terror.
And then on special teams, Tory Taylor is an absolute monster. He will have at least two punts downed inside the 10 on Saturday and one inside the 3. As a bonus, Charlie Jones is Iowa’s return man, and he is truly dynamic in the return game. Not Ihmir Smith-Marsette speed, but he makes people miss and has been very close to multiple house calls this year. Notably, when he exited against Wisconsin, Max Cooper promptly mufffed his first punt.
INU: Alright, predictions time. How do you seen this one playing out on the field, and what is your final score prediction?
Parker: This one, like Wisconsin, has all the makings of a rock fight. The Cats are 6-0 against Ferentz when Iowa is favored by double digits (hat-tip BoilerHawk) and this one could certainly be one of those 17-14 slugfests that Northwestern pulls out.
But I’m going with a bold prediction this week and saying we get our annual F-U game from Brian Ferentz where the score gets run up in a way that masks the season-long scoring average enough to provide some semblance of job security. I think Iowa finds success on the ground in this one, and that translates into one of the best days from Petras outside of the Maryland game earlier this year. Iowa 44, Northwestern 13