The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up is Iowa, a team that won six straight in 2020 after losing their first two games. Northwestern has won four out of the last five matchups against the Hawkeyes. The last time these teams met in Evanston, Iowa won 20-0.
Returning Production: 72 percent overall (Offense 69 percent, Defense 76 percent)
2020 Record: 6-2
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.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 10th
2020 S&P+ Offense: 45th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 2nd
After a strong 10-win season in 2019, which concluded with a bowl win over USC, the Hawkeyes turned to sophomore Spencer Petras to replace Nate Stanley at QB. In his first season as the starter, Petras put up mediocre numbers, but, with the help of a defense that ranked in the top ten in nearly every metric, head coach Kirk Ferentz’s team had a winning record for the 17th time in his 22 years at the helm.
The Hawkeyes season started with a disappointing 24-20 loss at Purdue. The following week, they returned home, only to lose a 17-point lead to Northwestern and fall 21-20 behind three Petras interceptions.
Things soon turned around, as the Hawkeyes slaughtered Michigan State 49-7 and trounced Minnesota 35-7 on the road. Between these two games, Iowa’s defense was dominant, forcing five turnovers. They soon moved to 3-2 after forcing four turnovers en route to a 41-21 victory at Penn State. The week after, the Hawkeyes squeezed out a 26-20 victory vs. Nebraska for their fourth straight win.
Petras had his best game of the season against Illinois, throwing for 220 yards and three touchdowns. After going down 14-0, the Hawkeyes scored 35 unanswered and marched ahead with a fifth straight victory. Now ranked No. 16 in the country, Iowa defeated Wisconsin 28-7 behind another strong performance from their sophomore QB.
Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes’ season ended early due to their game against Michigan being canceled because of positive COVID tests within Michigan’s program. Iowa was selected to play in the Music City Bowl versus Missouri, but that was also canceled due to COVID-19, so the Hawkeyes finished their 2020 season with a 6-2 record.
Iowa’s offense in 2020 wasn’t bad, but there was certainly room for improvement. They ranked 87th in all of the FBS in total offense, averaging 368.6 yards per game, and 107th in third-down percentage, only converting 33.6 percent of the time. However, they were elite in the red zone, as they finished tops in the Big Ten and 10th in the country in red zone conversion percentage, scoring 91.7% of the time. On top of that, the Hawkeyes averaged 31.8 points per game, an impressive mark for Petras’ first year as the starter.
It’s also important to note that Petras played his best ball toward the end of the season, as his yards per game and passer rating trended up and he turned the ball over less. The Hawkeyes’ two top receivers are gone, making junior tight end Sam LaPorta a top target. While receiver Nico Ragaini struggled in 2020, he had a strong 2019 season and can be a reliable option for Petras. The rest of the receiving group is a ragtag group of maybes, consisting of Charlie Jones — a return specialist that will see receiver reps — true freshman Keagan Johnson and Tyrone Tracy Jr., a talented receiver who could make a leap this year.
Junior running back Tyler Goodson will likely be the team’s workhorse after receiving First Team All-Big Ten honors in 2020. He averaged over five yards a carry last season and rushed for 762 yards and seven touchdowns. Iowa’s second leading rusher, Mekhi Sargent, is gone, so senior Ivory Kelly-Martin will likely get some touches in his place.
The running game for Iowa is usually a credit to the tremendous offensive line play they’ve had through the years. This year, however, some new guys will have to step up. The Hawkeyes will be replacing both tackle positions. Additionally, they will have a new offensive line coach in George Barnett, who is taking over for Tim Polasek. Center Tyler Linderbaum was originally a defensive lineman but converted to offensive line during bowl prep and is one of the toughest lineman in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have guard-depth and experience, but lack experience at tackle.
Iowa’s defense was one of the best in the nation in 2020, finishing ranked sixth in scoring defense, 12th in red zone defense and 10th in rushing defense. Iowa’s defensive S&P+ ranking sat at second at the end of last season and they’re returning over 75% of their production. Their biggest losses include leading tackler linebacker Nick Niemman, defensive end Chauncey Gholston and star defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon.
A key returner for the Hawkeyes is senior right end Zach VanValkenburg, who started every game last season and earned Second-team All-Big Ten honors. VanValkenburg plays with an excellent motor and could certainly be in line for a big season in 2021. The competition at left end could continue through fall camp, but junior John Waggoner is the leading candidate for the job after the coaching staff described him as “one of the most consistent and steady” players during spring practice. On the interior front, look for Noah Shannon and Yahya Black to be the anchors.
Last year’s stout defensive line allowed Iowa’s linebackers to be freed up and make plays. However, the Hawkeyes’ lack of experience up front this year may require their linebacking corps to get off more blocks. Seth Benson, Jack Campbell and Jestin Jacobs are the Hawkeyes’ top linebackers and strong seasons from Benson and Campbell will go a long a way towards keeping a top 10 defense.
Iowa’s secondary may be their best defensive unit in 2021. Their depth and talent at the cornerback position is going to stifle opposing quarterbacks. Matt Hankins is returning for a final season; Riley Moss is an uber-fast corner who has improved every year; Xavior Williams is a jack-of-all-trades and can play safety or corner; Terry Roberts was projected to start before Hankins returned and will be a great depth option for the Hawkeyes to turn to. Iowa is returning their two top safeties and they’re adding Cooper DeJean, a freak athlete who could be a breakout star this year.
Three Players to Know
RB Tyler Goodson
At 5’10” and only 200 pounds, Goodson uses his speed and small stature to break big runs and jumpstart the Iowa offense. His lateral movement and acceleration is reminiscent of Alvin Kamara, and like the Saints running back, Goodson is a threat in the receiving game, as he recorded 15 catches for 152 yards in 2020. Only a junior, Goodson has already received First Team All-Big Ten Honors and is listed as the No. 4 running back on Mel Kiper’s 2022 NFL Draft list.
C Tyler Linderbaum
Regarded as one of the best centers in college football, Linderbaum stands at 6’3” and 290 pounds. When watching him play, the first thing you’ll notice is his athleticism. He is explosive off the line and goes hard and fast on every play, occasionally leading to impressive takedowns away from the action. Originally recruited as a defensive lineman and once a wrestler, Linderbaum is incredibly strong and is a man-mover for Iowa’s offensive line. His head is always on a swivel for an extra pass rusher and he has never had a bad snap or fumbled exchange when snapping the ball. Linderbaum is a first round talent and could be one of the best offensive linemen in college football this year.
DB Xavior Williams
Williams joins the team as a graduate transfer from Northern Iowa. He didn’t play in 2020 but he received First Team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors in 2018 and 2019. He joins an already loaded secondary and will see playing time either at safety or corner. In 2019, he recorded 26 solo tackles with 13 pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries (one that was returned for a touchdown) and one interception. In 2018, he had 42 total tackles and four interceptions, one of which was taken back for six. Any questions the Hawkeyes have up front will be answered by great secondary play and Williams is right in the fray.