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Three matchups to watch ahead of Northwestern vs. Iowa

The ‘Cats hope to gain a winning record at Wrigley Field.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

After achieving an upset victory over Maryland, Northwestern is once again at .500 and in the thick of the competition to make a bowl game. One step in getting there will be winning this weekend’s showdown against Iowa at Wrigley Field. The ‘Cats are looking to continue their winning ways, while the Hawkeyes hope their bye week gave them enough time to recover from their loss to Minnesota two weeks ago. Here are three matchups to watch for in this Big Ten West showdown.

Brendan Sullivan vs Iowa’s defense

While Ben Bryant’s status remains up in the air, expect David Braun to stick with Brendan Sullivan for the foreseeable future. Sullivan excelled against Maryland, registering over 300 yards from scrimmage against a tenacious defensive unit. He also recorded a QBR of 82.5, a colossal improvement from his previous two starts in which he failed to record a figure above 30 in either game. He has seen massive improvement, particularly given the circumstances surrounding injuries and other concerns on the offensive side of the ball. Especially following the loss to Nebraska, a 33-point showing on offense coupled with Sullivan’s resurgence is encouraging news ahead of another formidable opponent.

Unfortunately for Sullivan and the NU offense, Iowa’s defense is not just one of the best in the Big Ten, but one of the most dominant in the country. Even with a struggling offense, the defense has kept the Hawkeyes in games, oftentimes giving them just enough ammunition to win close matchups. Iowa kept Wisconsin’s offense to six points in Madison, winning a huge Big Ten West game as a result. At home, the defense has also held its ground, allowing only 14 points to Purdue and 12 to Minnesota, despite Iowa losing the latter game by two points. Against the ‘Cats, the defense could be a determining factor, potentially halting Sullivan’s glorious return to form. Indeed, Iowa’s defense could cause Sullivan to make mistakes and revert back to pre-Maryland form. Conversely, the arduous matchup could motivate Sullivan and give him and the offense the ability to outplay the defense and continue their offensive progress from last week. Only time will tell how this plays out.

Northwestern’s defense vs Iowa’s offense

This feels kind of basic, doesn’t it? It might seem like an obvious matchup, but Iowa is a team of polar opposites. The Hawkeyes might have an elite defense, but their offense is far from elite. So far this season, it ranks dead last in the Big Ten, averaging a measly 232.4 yards per game. The ‘Cats, who are second worst in this category, have averaged a much more respectable 307.4 yards per game — a number in line with other programs, including Minnesota, Indiana, and Michigan State. Iowa’s offense has failed to be prolific in any capacity since they lost transfer quarterback Cade McNamara to a torn ACL, leaving Deacon Hill to take his place. In the three games that Hill has started, the Hawkeyes have averaged just 15 points per game and have only escaped due to their dominant defense. The program has already announced that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the son of longtime head coach Kirk Ferentz, will be let go at the end of the season. This decision being made in October – while the Hawkeyes still have four regular-season matchups remaining and likely a bowl game awaiting them – is telling.

With that in mind, the onus is on the Northwestern defense to keep Iowa’s offense dormant. The Wildcat defense held its own against Maryland but did struggle at times against the arm of Taulia Tagovailoa and a strong passing attack. The Northwestern defense will need to play some complementary football of its own and limit any opportunities for Iowa to score. Firstly, it will require the pass rush – which got to Tagovailoa five times last week – to push Hill outside the pocket into uncomfortable situations. The strong secondary must also play its part and force the receivers and tight ends into tight coverage. Given that Hill’s completion percentage thus far rounds to a lowly 38%, this shouldn’t be immensely difficult but could be vital in giving NU the edge. If Hill can evade some of these troubles and exploit Northwestern’s defensive weaknesses, Iowa could be in pole position to emerge victorious.

Northwestern and Iowa vs the over/under line

This game is quite a rarity, as both teams face a common enemy – the over/under scoreline. Sports betting companies have set the over/under at 29.5, which comes in as the lowest in college football history. Given that Northwestern just put up 33 points against Maryland, this might seem unusual. However, Iowa’s defense is exceptional and could throw a significant wrench in Northwestern’s plans. Things could also go the other way if NU’s defense can shut down the Iowa offense and provide them with no ability to elude pressure and make game-changing plays.

It may seem ridiculous to make this one of three matchups to watch for, but it is an indicator of how this game might play out. There is a very good chance that this will be a gritty, low-scoring game that tests the resolve of both defenses to keep their teams alive until the end. It also foreshadows a game that will be close throughout, enabling both teams an opportunity to break out and pull ahead. It will be up to Sullivan and Hill’s unit to prove this somewhat shameful number wrong. Yet, there is plenty of reason to believe the under wins here. Both of these teams have played games below the line so far this year (Northwestern vs. Nebraska and Iowa vs. Wisconsin), and based on each team’s strengths and weaknesses, it could absolutely happen again.