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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Iowa

Definitely watch this one. Ohio State is next week.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Brooke LaValley / USA TODAY NETWORK

Northwestern (1-6, 1-3 B1G) is on the road again this weekend. Coming off a heartbreaking loss to Maryland, the Wildcats will head to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes at 2:30 P.M. CST on Saturday. In what’s expected to be his second start at QB, sophomore Brendan Sullivan will look to help NU to its second win of the season against another middling, beatable Big Ten team. With Ohio State looming next week, enjoy this one, ‘Cats fans. At the very least, it should be watchable. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will take down the Hawkeyes, and three reasons why they won’t:

Why Northwestern will beat Iowa:

Brendan Sullivan

It’s a new era in Evanston. (Seemingly) gone are the days of watching Ryan Hilinski drop back, and stand there, and stand there some more. Brendan Sullivan is here, and it’s glorious. In his first career start against Maryland, Sullivan’s numbers were admittedly mediocre. He had two interceptions, and he only threw for 143 yards. But he inarguably passed the eye test. In college ball, there is nothing like having a quarterback with a little shiftiness to his game. Sully has just that. The guy can run, and it allowed the Northwestern offense to be much more fluid and creative last Saturday.

The Iowa defense is significantly better than the Maryland defense. It has only allowed 16.1 points per game this season and has kept the Hawkeyes in games despite their abysmal offense (more on that to come). Sullivan will have to be sharp for the ‘Cats to succeed on offense, but the newcomer has some moxie, and Iowa only has one game worth of game tape to prepare.

Iowa’s offense is awful

Fourteen. That’s how many points per game the Iowa offense is scoring this season. It’s the worst in the Big Ten by over four points; I’ll let you guess who’s the second-worst. But regardless, Iowa has a terrible offense. Sandwiched on the ‘Cats’ schedule in between two high-powered offenses in Maryland and Ohio State, the Hawkeyes should prove to be an easier task for Jim O’Neil’s unit to deal with.

Sure, the Wildcat D has been suspect. There’s no denying that. But the Hawkeyes have yet to score 100 total points on the season. They haven’t scored more than 14 points in the past three weeks. Northwestern has to be able to stop this offense.

Iowa’s quarterback situation

It’s not really clear who will start under center for the black and gold on Saturday. It could be senior Spencer Petras, but it could also be junior Alex Padilla, who took over in the second half of a 54-10 loss at Ohio State last week. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has been non-committal so far this week, and we could very well see both signal callers get playing time. Either way, though, Northwestern doesn’t have much to worry about.

Petras, who has started all of last season, has two total touchdown passes to five picks. He also turned the ball over three times last week before being replaced. Padilla, meanwhile, only threw for 32 yards last week and also had two turnovers of his own. He has some experience at the college level, throwing for 636 yards and two touchdowns in 2021, but his first game action this year was last week. Even with a starter making his second career start, Northwestern may have the advantage in the QB department. No matter who is throwing the football for Iowa’s offense, the Wildcat D should be able to handle him.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Iowa

Big plays and bad tackling

Both were themes in Northwestern’s 31-24 loss in College Park last week. After a huge Andrew Clair touchdown to even the score late in the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats’ defense promptly gave up a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of Maryland’s next drive. That can’t happen. The play was indicative of a larger theme that was prevalent in the game: Northwestern’s crippling tackling issues. Coach Fitzgerald addressed this in his press conference this Monday, saying “we just didn’t do it.”

It certainly looked that way. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but it seems like virtually every bad football team ever has tackling problems. There is no fundamental more important than tackling. Even though the Hawkeyes usually aren’t big on scoring points, Northwestern cannot gift them anything. The ‘Cats simply do not have enough talent to make up for sloppy play. A few mental mistakes on Saturday, and it’s all over no matter how good Sullivan looks.

Iowa’s recent tough schedule and eye toward postseason play

The Hawkeyes’ most recent win was on Sept. 24 against Rutgers. Since then, they’ve played three games. The first was home vs. Michigan, who is still undefeated. The second was a 9-6 loss in an absolute barn-burner at Illinois. Iowa’s third straight loss was the blowout at Ohio State last week. All this is to say, the Hawkeyes have played some tough competition in recent weeks. Northwestern doesn’t exactly compare.

Iowa will be hungry for a win on Saturday after slogging through that brutal stretch in its schedule, and it really cannot afford a loss in its pursuit of a bowl appearance. The ‘Cats, meanwhile, don’t have a ton to play for anymore. Pride must factor into the calculus if Northwestern wants to hold off a motivated Iowa team.

Jack Campbell, Lukas Van Ness and a talented Iowa defense

Not counting losses to Michigan and Ohio State, both top-four teams in the country, Iowa hasn’t allowed more than 10 points in a game. Arguably the Hawkeyes’ best player is senior middle linebacker Jack Campbell, who leads the team in tackles and is currently PFF’s highest-graded LB in the Power Five. The star is motivated and all-in on this Iowa team.

“When outsiders say, ‘Why not give up on the season?’ No offense to them, but that may be kind of why you’re an outsider…. If you’re going to give up when stuff gets hard, that’s not the right way to look at things,” Campbell said this week.

The Hawkeye defense isn’t all Campbell, though. Lukas Van Ness is a 6-foot-5, 269-pound beast rushing off the edge. Riley Moss is a really solid defensive back. Brendan Sullivan and the Wildcat offense will be taking on a unit that has more than enough pieces to completely stymie them on Saturday.