Coming off a 31-24 loss against the Terrapins, Northwestern (1-6, 1-3 B1G) will travel to Iowa (3-4, 1-3 B1G) on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have faced some tough competition lately, losing to ranked conference opponents Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan in their last three games, while Northwestern remains winless since Ireland.
Today, we’ll dive into key matchups to watch on gameday, as both teams desperately try to right the ship with the race for the Big Ten West slowly slipping away.
Brendan Sullivan vs. Whomever Iowa Decides to Start
After filling in for Ryan Hillinski in the second half against Wisconsin, Sullivan started against the Terrapins. Although his 18-for-24 passing, 143 passing yards, one touchdown and two interception statline looks ugly, he played well. Rushing for 53 yards and a touchdown, Sullivan utilized his athleticism and scrambling ability effectively, but more importantly kept the game close throughout. With Sullivan under center, the ‘Cats looked dangerous at times (or at least more than they have for the past six weeks), as Sullivan’s ability to move the ball with his legs kept Maryland’s defense off balance in the first half.
For Iowa, Spencer Petras struggled on Saturday against Ohio State. After giving the ball away three times in the first half, Petras was benched for mobile backup Alex Padilla who didn’t play any better, throwing for 32 yards and turning the ball over twice. Petras, who has 989 passing yards, two TDs and five INTs this year, played every snap this season before the second half of Saturday’s loss.
On Monday, Iowa’s official depth chart listed “Spencer Petras OR Alex Padilla” as Iowa’s starter, according to Hawk Central, calling into question who will start for the Hawkeyes this weekend. Given Petras’ struggles so far this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Padilla get the nod. At the same time however, Petras, whose leash is tightening by the minute, has been the starter all year. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see who coach Kirk Ferentz opts for this weekend with his offense only averaging 14 PPG.
With these two teams having issues at the QB position, expect this game to be sloppy. And when games turn sloppy, the player under center that takes care of the football and makes smart decisions wins. Therefore, watch out for the battle between the quarterbacks to indicate which team comes out on top this weekend.
Evan Hull vs. Iowa’s run defense
After staying quiet over the past couple weeks, Hull hit his groove once again on Saturday, rushing for 119 yards on 20 attempts against the Terrapins. It’s crazy how every time Hull is productive, the ‘Cats look like they have a chance to win — but when Hull is nowhere to be found, well… The ‘Cats lose to Wisconsin by 35.
This week will be another tough test for Hull, as the ‘Cats face a stout Iowa run defense, which ranks 14th in the country. The Hawkeyes, led by star senior linebacker Jack Campbell, are giving up only 104.3 YPG on the ground this season. Although Ohio State loves to throw the ball, the fact Iowa held one of college football’s best offenses to 66 rushing yards is really impressive. Yet against Illinois, Iowa gave up 200 yards on the ground.
The version of the Hawkeye run defense that shows up will be very telling to what Northwestern will attempt offensively as the game progresses.
Sam LaPorta vs. Northwestern’s pass defense
Sam LaPorta is a beast. Iowa has been great in recent history at producing tight talent with George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, and LaPorta could be next. On Saturday against Ohio State, LaPorta became Iowa’s career leader in catches among tight ends.
He’s the prototypical receiving TE, with a big frame, great hands and yards after catch ability. The Highland, Ill. native wriggles out of tackles and is great in open space. LaPorta is the guy to watch for the Hawkeyes in the passing game, having racked up a team-leading 36 catches and 334 yards so far this season.
Defensively, covering LaPorta is going to be a problem. For starters, Northwestern’s two best linebackers, Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller, specialize in stopping the run, not covering athletic tight ends who are slippery in the open field. This means that covering the 6-foot-4, 249 pound LaPorta will likely end up falling on junior linebacker Greyson Metz. Monitor that matchup closely as Jim O’Neil will look for Metz and his safeties to neutralize the threat of LaPorta.