With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland just over two weeks away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
We’ll continue with Iowa, the team with the most returning production in the Big Ten.
Returning Production: 76% (73% offense, 71% defense)
2020 Record: 10-4 (7-2 B1G)
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.
2021 SP+ Overall: 27th
2021 SP+ Offense: 92nd
2021 SP+ Defense: 5th
Heading into the 2021 season, all signs pointed to Iowa relying on its defense for most of its success. The only question was how far the unit would take the Hawkeyes.
The sky appeared to be the limit in the season’s first half. Iowa won its first six games without giving up more than 20 points, beating then-top 10 Iowa State and Penn State along the way. By the middle of October, the Hawkeyes had climbed all the way up to No. 2 in the polls.
At that point, Iowa’s fortunes began to change. In consecutive weeks, the Hawkeyes lost decisively to Purdue and Wisconsin. Iowa’s offense put up a combined 14 points in those defeats, effectively ending its College Football Playoff hopes.
Kirk Ferentz’s squad rebounded in the ensuing weeks, racking up four straight wins in conference play to clinch the Big Ten West. For the bulk of that stretch, Alex Padilla took over under center for starting quarterback Spencer Petras, who battled a shoulder injury. However, Ferentz benched Padilla in Iowa’s regular season finale when it trailed Nebraska at halftime. Petras led the Hawkeyes to a comeback victory, which fueled the quarterback competition heading into the Big Ten Championship against Michigan.
Petras got the nod, which ultimately didn’t matter in a 42-3 Wolverines blowout. A few weeks later, Iowa concluded its season with a loss in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. It was a microcosm of their season: the Hawkeyes dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides but somehow possessed the ball for 16 fewer minutes than Kentucky.
If you haven’t already gotten the message, Iowa does not have a great offense. Most of their starters are returning, but the Hawkeyes had the second-worst total offense in the conference last season with that same core. Spencer Petras appears to be the QB1 for the third straight season, but he hasn’t provided much firepower for the Iowa offense. Petras averaged under six adjusted yards per attempt last year, and threw almost as many interceptions as he did touchdowns. Should he struggle, Alex Padilla will be waiting behind him once again.
Petras will have most of his top playmakers from 2021 at his disposal. Tight end Sam LaPorta should be the focal point of offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s passing attack. The Hawkeyes will also have their top two wideouts, Keagan Johnson and Nico Ragaini, in the fold. But, Iowa’s offense places a much bigger onus on establishing the run and winning the line of scrimmage. Ironically, that’s the area where Iowa has the least experience.
Sophomore Gavin Williams is set to replace NFL-bound Tyler Goodson at running back. Iowa also reshuffled its offensive line, which did not play well in 2021. The loss of Rimington Award winner Tyler Linderbaum could drastically hinder the run game unless guards Tyler Elsbury and Connor Colby make leaps in production.
Iowa has one of the most dangerous front sevens in the country. Preseason All-American Jack Campbell, who led the NCAA with 143 total tackles, will run the show at middle linebacker. Jestin Jacobs and Seth Benson will lead the linebacking corps again, while defensive tackles Logan Lee and Noah Shannon will also return. Iowa’s most significant loss on the defensive line is Zach VanValkenburg, who led the Hawkeyes with 5.5 sacks last season.
The secondary behind them has a few question marks but is still very good. Cornerback Riley Moss will be in contention to win the Jim Thorpe Award in his fifth season in Iowa City. He posted the best Pro Football Focus grade (80.1) of any defensive back in the Big Ten last season. Jermari Harris should man the side opposite Moss after starting a few games late in 2021.
At safety, Kaevon Meriweather is the only player who has garnered a significant number of snaps. Iowa will need to replace Jack Koerner, who started three seasons at free safety. Junior Quinn Schulte is the favorite to earn the spot, but there isn’t much on-field experience behind him.
Three Players to Know
Sam LaPorta, TE
It’s no secret that Iowa has an illustrious list of tight ends who have headlined its offense, and Sam LaPorta seems to be the next one up. The senior led the Hawkeyes with 670 yards and three touchdowns, amassing almost double the yardage as second-leading pass-catcher Keagan Johnson. LaPorta isn’t as much of a vertical threat as the most recent NFL-bound Hawkeye tight ends were, but he is a great blocker. With former All-American center Linderbaum now with the Baltimore Ravens, LaPorta will play a huge role in improving Iowa’s rushing attack, which averaged the fourth-fewest yards per game in the Big Ten.
Jack Campbell, LB
A second-team All-American in 2021, Campbell was the centerpiece of an extremely stout Iowa defense. His presence was a huge factor behind Iowa’s conference-leading turnover margin. Campbell especially thrives as a run defender, which has earned him an abundance of preseason honors. With another year of experience under his belt, he could turn an elite Hawkeye defense into the nation’s best unit.
Riley Moss, CB
Like Campbell, Moss is an established star who was a driving force behind Iowa’s 2021 success. Even though he missed a month due to injury, he was still second on the team with four interceptions. Without as much experience in the secondary, Moss is an even more important piece for the Hawkeyes. It’s not coincidence that Iowa suffered blowouts in the first two games he missed.