Perception is everything in college football. It is how the Playoff is virtually decided. And the Iowa Hawkeyes have never been big on perception.
Iowa went 12-0 last year in the regular season and arrived in the Rose Bowl as underdogs, getting stomped against Stanford. The Hawkeyes were favorites to win the Big Ten West and then quickly saw their status wrested away through Wisconsin’s strong play and a loss to North Dakota State at home.
Somehow Iowa just became Iowa again, falling back into the team’s usual narratives. The Hawkeyes are good, not great. And perpetually underachieving.
Iowa followed up its difficult running game against North Dakota State with an equally shaky win at Rutgers for the Big Ten opener.
The Hawkeyes are no longer the division favorites. And now no game seems certain. Not even that run-first identity with Akrum Wadley.
Luckily for Iowa, the team’s next challenge comes from another team seeking an identity.
Northwestern has struggled this year too. The defense has not quite been up to the same level as last year and the offense has again struggled to find footing. The Wildcats have seemingly been just good enough in their early games to keep things close. And that is about it.
And Iowa may be the best team Northwestern has seen all year — although Nebraska steamrolling to Lincoln East in Evanston might be close when it comes to Big Ten West competition.
As Northwestern leaves Ryan Field for the first time and Iowa returns to Kinnick Stadium, both teams are seeking identity and a chance to right the ship and meet expectations.
1 Burning Question: Can Iowa get its ground game going
Iowa is known for one thing: big offensive linemen and a ground game that takes advantage of them. This is Iowa football.
This Hawkeyes football team is not that football team. Not so far this year.
Iowa is averaging 159.3 yards per game with the veteran Akrum Wadley running for only 274 yards through four games. Iowa is struggling to run the ball. That is a weird statement to say for Iowa.
And the Hawkeyes offense has been inconsistent because of it.
Iowa is averaging 30.5 points per game. But to get only 14 points against Rutgers was somewhat alarming for Iowa. Particularly after struggling against North Dakota State the week before.
Wadley has a good track record against Northwestern. And Northwestern is not the strongest run defense as it is.
The Wildcats have given up 177.5 yards per game on the ground this year. The defensive line struggles to get push. And while the team is relatively disciplined, the team also gives space.
Nebraska was able to run well against Northwestern, racking up 310 yards on the ground. A lot of that came from Tommy Armstrong at the quarterback position. That is not a luxury Iowa has.
Something is going to give though. As both the run offense and run defense are the keys to both team’s success.
2 Key Stats
–250: Well, Clayton Thorson did not quite reach 250 yards last week against Nebraska. He was at 249. But after throwing for 320 yards against Duke, Thorson has put together back-to-back strong passing games. At least in picking up yards. He has four touchdowns and four interceptions in his last two games. But the Wildcats have some good receivers that have begun to emerge. Northwestern may suddenly have a passing attack. Not a consistent one, but one to be wary of.
–155.0: Akrum Wadley loves seeing Northwestern. He averages 155.0 yards per game against the Wildcats in his two games. Last year that included 204 yards on the ground and four touchdowns. He had 104 yards off the bench with a touchdown against the Wildcats in 2014. The bruising Wadley just finds a way to overpower the Wildcats defense the past two years. This is exactly the team he wants to see to right the ship.
3 Key Players
Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB: It has not been a strong year for the junior running back. Northwestern’s struggling offensive line certainly has a part to do with that. Jackson has 173 yards on 48 carries the last two games — 3.6 yards per carry. Jackson is still effective. But the Wildcats need a bigger game from him to give Thorson some time and create balance.
C.J. Beathard, Iowa QB: Iowa will be without Matt VandeBerg, the team’s leading receiver. That leaves tight end George Kittle as the only other receiver through four games with double-digit receptions. Beathard is a solid game manager as a quarterback, but he lacks some weapons. This is a time for Iowa to gain a little bit of confidence though. Northwestern will be without two of their top cornerbacks.
Josey Jewell, Iowa LB: Josey Jewell and his magnificent mustache has anchored Iowa’s defense all year. He has been good in the run game — 33 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss — and in coverage with one pass breakup. Northwestern is going to run the ball and that will put Jewell in the spotlight again.
4 Staff Predictions
Andy: Iowa 28-14
Dave: Iowa 21-17
Phil H.: Iowa 24-17
Philip R-R.: Iowa 24-20
Zach: Iowa 20-10