With both teams struggling, neither Northwestern nor Iowa fans are expecting to see a high-scoring bout on Saturday. Inside NU spoke with Black Heart Gold Pants’ Jonah Parker to discuss Saturday’s matchup against the Hawkeyes ahead of kickoff:
INU: First off, let’s start with the quarterback. Spencer Petras has had a rough year to say the least, and Alex Padilla was recently listed as an OR on the depth chart. What’s the likelihood of a quarterback change Saturday?
JP: Boy, we’re just going to jump in and get Hawkeye fans riled up right off the bat, huh? This has been a major point of contention within the fanbase, really dating back to last season. Spencer Petras has all the physical tools we’ve come to… expect of an Iowa quarterback under Kirk Ferentz. He’s got prototypical size, a big arm and he’s been in the system for several years, so his mastery of the pre-snap reads has put him head and shoulders above everyone else on the roster. The problem is he possesses absolutely no mobility, something that has historically not been a significant constraint for Iowa given strong offensive lines, but this season the OL is a major weakness and Petras is wholly incapable of adjusting and completing a throw off-script. Beyond that, the frequency with which he has been pressured over the last year and half has given him happy feet, so he is prone to start dancing when he sees ghosts and throw himself off-script. That’s resulted in myriad missed throws and even more missed reads.
Alex Padilla does have mobility and escapability, which Hawkeye fans have been clamoring for, but he lacks the big arm. The fact he has really only been given first-team reps for a stretch of a handful of weeks a season ago, he is well behind Petras both in reading a defense and making adjustments at the line (something that makes Iowa’s archaic and simplistic offense overly complicated for a young QB to operate). That also means he continues to look worse in practice as he takes reps with a second team against Iowa’s stingy first-team offense, while Petras reportedly looks markedly better in practice against the second-team defense or (insert the biggest of eye rolls) on air.
INU: Iowa’s offense is the worst in the conference in scoring, total yardage, passing yardage and 13th in rushing yardage. Are there any bright spots, or is everything as advertised? Is there a specific source of the problems?
JP: I’m really trying not to throw my laptop, but you’re not making it easy here. We better get to the defense soon or my kid’s college fund is going to be tapped to pay for my anger issues.
No, things are as advertised. It’s really hard to be dead last nationally in total offense. Like, REALLY hard. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has drawn ire for saying a QB change wouldn’t fix the problem, and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz caught even more when he snarked “What’s the upside?” when asked what the downside would be to trying a backup QB (despite the struggles, Iowa was the very last team in the country to give anyone other than their starter a game rep), but candidly they’re right. The issues on offense are so extensive that no single change can fix things.
As noted, Petras has struggled with accuracy issues, and that has been exacerbated when he is forced off script. As a result, he has really started to lock in on tight end Sam LaPorta despite opponents keying on LaPorta given the complete lack of difference-makers at the wide receiver position. That’s come as a result of — and this is not a joke — six of the seven scholarship WRs being injured at the same time to start the year and the most dynamic among them (Keagan Johnson) still being sidelined with soft tissue issues.
Coming into the year, the limitations of Petras and lack of depth behind Johnson and running mates Arland Bruce IV and Brody Brecht was thought to be mitigated by a strong running game. Despite losing Tyler Goodson to the NFL, Iowa has two backs who looked quite good at making a read and getting downhill in the bowl loss to Kentucky last season, and brought in a pair of freshmen who were expected to be contributors. The issue in the running game has been the offensive line has been incredibly inconsistent. When there is any crease, freshman Kaleb Johnson and Leshon and Gavin Williams have shown an ability to hit the hole and even break big runs. But those holes are rarely there and more frequently there are defensive linemen blowing things up in the backfield.
The end result is everything you’ve seen in the statistics. A run-first team cannot run with any sort of success and finds itself repeatedly behind the chains, asking the same putrid offensive line to block for a QB who can’t move or throw off-script. So three-and-out we go, and we get to see a whole lot more of the talented special teams and defensive units than anyone really wants to.
INU: On the other hand, the defense looks strong again for the most part, as the only teams that have scored more than 10 against the Hawkeyes are ranked in the AP top five. How can Northwestern look to generate offense against a unit that held the ‘Cats to just 12 points in their matchup last year?
JP: The thing that I think concerns Hawkeye fans about this matchup is that Northwestern has historically been one of the teams that seems to have figured out the recipe to attack Phil Parker’s defenses. The group’s philosophy is predicated on the idea that it’s really hard for a group of college kids to string together eight-to-10 plays over 70+ yards without making a mistake. So, they look to keep everything in front of them and willingly give up the underneath stuff while being able to prevent big runs.
Michigan was happy to do that and found success doing so. Ohio State was never put in a position to do that, as the Iowa offense gave it six turnovers and four possessions in the first half that started in Iowa territory. The defense held the Buckeyes to 16 points on those four possessions before finally collapsing in exhaustion late in the game to give up a few genuinely big plays.
Historically, we’ve seen Pat Fitzgerald-coached teams willing to take the Michigan approach and just dink and dunk their way down the field. When they’ve avoided mistakes, they’ve won the matchup. I suspect the Wildcats will again try to take what is there with short throws under the zone coverage and continuing to try to run the ball. If they can do that, the Iowa offense is sure to give them plenty of opportunities at a short field. If they get impatient and try to take too many shots, the Iowa defense is among the best in the country at making offenses pay for their mistakes and creating turnovers.
INU: There’s been a lot of chatter about both Kirk and Brian Ferentz being on the hot seat. Is this the end of the line for the father-son combo?
JP: I think at just about any other school, the answer would be a resounding “yes” for Brian, and the handling of the situation to-date by Kirk would likely have him out as well. But this is Iowa, and the athletic director is Gary Barta. So, as much as the national media wants to put Kirk Ferentz on the hot seat, his seat is not even warming up. He is certainly uncomfortable with the publicity, and he’s stooped to the level of taking shots at reporters who have asked difficult questions about his intentions with Brian and the offense, but there are $42 million reasons Iowa won’t fire Kirk. Even if the buyout wasn’t there, the athletic director that gave him that contract is. Gary is also technically the direct supervisor of Brian (which is how the program got around the state’s nepotism laws), but has publicly stated that Kirk doesn’t make staff changes midseason, so there won’t be an evaluation of Brian until the season is over.
At the end of the day, I continue to believe that Brian won’t be fired. Either Kirk calls in a favor to get him a job as an assistant in the NFL, or he uses offensive line coach George Barnett as a scapegoat to buy Brian another year. Neither will make the fanbase happy, but we’re too far into this to believe that Kirk will do what should have been done weeks ago and fire his son.
INU: Lastly, what’s your score prediction for Saturday? Is it a defensive slugfest, or does Iowa’s offense finally get something going?
JP: Well, we’ve gone full circle, and now I’m genuinely laughing. I’m trying to think what Iowa’s offense getting something going might look like. Maybe it stumbles its way into more than two touchdowns by just finding success running the ball over and over and over? That’s not getting something going, but it would be worlds better than what we’ve seen so far, which is so bad it’s funny.
In all seriousness, I think this is another defensive slugfest. Iowa’s offense needs to simply exist long enough to give the defense a breather. That means no turnovers and pick up a first down every other possession. It’s a stupidly low bar they haven’t been able to consistently get over, but I think they do this weekend. I expect the defense to do as it’s done and play the boa constrictor role as Northwestern moves the ball some but fails to garner many points, and ultimately makes a few mistakes that hand the Hawkeyes some easy points (likely scored by the defense). Iowa 17, Northwestern 13.