Game Preview: Northwestern Wildcats
Iowa will look to build on its hard fought victory over the Purdue Boilermakers when they travel to Evanston to square off with the Northwestern Wildcats at 11:00 A.M. Iowa will enter the contest sporting a 5-2 record (2-2 in the Big Ten) after their 26-20 victory over the Boilermakers a week ago. Iowa currently sits in 20th in the AP poll and 19th in the Coaches polls. Northwestern currently sits at 1-5 (0-4 in the Big Ten) after dropping a Friday night tilt against Ohio State by a score of 52-3. Northwestern will enter the game having won the last three matchups between the two teams, with last year's contest being decided by a score of 14-10 in Iowa City. Iowa is currently listed as a 9 point favorite.
Iowa's Offense Against The Wildcats Defense
Iowa's offense against Northwestern's defense is the most interesting matchup in this game. Iowa's offensive struggles are well documented in recent weeks, and solving those issues won't be any easier with the absence of Brandon Smith due to injury. Smith was quickly becoming Nate Stanley's favorite target in the passing and Iowa will turn to Tyrone Tracy, Oliver Martin, and Calvin Lockett to fill that void.
Iowa will likely lean on their run game early in this one, and here should be an opportunity for the run game to continue to grow. The Northwestern defense is not as stout as it has been in recent seasons, with the Wildcats allowing just over 160 yards per game, similar to what Purdue had done entering last weeks game. Northwestern sits midpack in terms of points allowed per game at 25.2 (54th of 130). Iowa should get at least a few opportunities to move down the field.
Iowa will look to build on their final drive against Purdue, where the offensive line was punching massive holes for Mehki Sargent to get to the second and third levels of the defense untouched. Iowa likely won't try to run the ball down Northwestern's throat, but they will continue to be fairly balanced in the number of run and pass plays they call. Nate Stanley will need to return to distributing the ball to numerous receivers, with the magic number for me being 7 different pass catchers. It won't be pretty all the time, but there should be marked improvement from last week.
Iowa starts slow, but chips away at the Northwestern defense and hits a couple of big plays in the pass game to put up 17 offensive points.
Iowa's Defense Against The Wildcats Offense
This matchup could get ugly. Northwestern is experiencing some serious growing pains following the departure of long time starting quarterback Clayton Thorson as they rank near the bottom in nearly every offensive category. Their 12.5 points per game ranks 128th out of 130 teams in the country. The Wildcats have struggled to find a replacement for Thorson, as four Wildcat pass throwers have combined for a total of 2 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions on the year. The lone bright spot for Northwestern has been their running game, which has averaged 153.3 yards per game and yielded 6 touchdowns.
Conversely, Iowa's defense has been exceptional this year, allowing just 11.6 points per game, which ranks 5th in the country. The Hawks have continued their tradition of being good against the run, allowing just 92.6 yards per game, while steadily improving in pass defense.
Saturday should be a big day for the Iowa defense. Northwestern likely scores once or twice. That is just the nature of the "bend, don't break" defensive style, those scoring drives will be flashes in the pan for an otherwise overmatched Northwestern offense. There will be opportunities for the Iowa defense to force turnovers, and I expect at least a couple of takeawys, with one being a pick 6 for Iowa's first defensive score of the year.
Iowa stifles the Northwestern rushing attack and forces the young Wildcat quarterbacks to try and beat them. Northwestern musters 10 points, but no more, while providing Iowa with 7 of their own.
Keith Duncan shouldn't be nearly as busy in this one as he was a week ago, as the Iowa offense will look to convert drives into touchdowns instead of field goals. Michael Sleep-Dalton will likely be asked to flip the field a couple of times and has proven the ability to do that. The returners will get opportunities to set up the offense in good position and have proven capable all year.
The loss of Brandon Smith could really hurt this Iowa offense, but I think it acts as a rallying cry for other guys to step up. Stanley will likely have to return to his early season habits, where he was finding 7 or 8 different receivers per game and getting more receivers involved should help an offense that has been sluggish in recent weeks.
This game won't be pretty, so if you're expecting an offensive gem, its time to lower those expectations. Iowa's offense will continue to show flashes of greatness and should be consistently better than they were a week ago. Luckily for them, It shouldn't take much to beat this year's edition of the Northwestern Wildcats.
Iowa's defense carries the team early and the offense comes on late to deliver the deciding blow in a fairly low scoring affair that really never feels as close as the score.
As always, On Iowa! and Go Hawks!
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