When: Sat. Oct. 21, 2017; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Evanston, Ill..; Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Iowa leads 50-25-3
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 38-31 (Oct. 1, 2016)
Line: Northwestern (-2)
The Northwestern Wildcats were struggling offensively. The defense did not look on firm footing. And nobody seemed to know what team would show up on a week-to-week basis.
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the exact same situation the Wildcats were in last year as they headed to Kinnick Stadium to face the Hawkeyes. Northwestern was 1-3 and averaging a lowly 16.3 points per game. The offense did not look that much better. And the defense got worn down.
Yet, when the Wildcats got to Iowa City, they rediscovered everything. Clayton Thorson had a solid game with 164 yards and three touchdowns on 18-for-30 passing. His confidence was starting to grow. Justin Jackson rushed for 171 yards.
Northwestern exploded on offense for a 38-31 win. It was an odd shootout for a team that struggled to score so much — and a defense to that point that had played pretty well. But NU made Iowa made again and put its season back on track.
The Wildcats host the Hawkeyes this time feeling a little bit more stable. They played their big games against the Badgers and Nittany Lions and did not measure up. But they came back and looked like the high-powered offensive team everyone suspected they might be against Maryland.
There, Justin Jackson got himself going for the first time, leaving the Terrapins without any answer and worn down as Clayton Thorson got firing from the pocket. The defense hit hard and limited the Terrapins offense, only letting star receiver D.J. Byrd out a few times. Hardly enough to make Northwestern sweat.
It always seems like the Wildcats are perfectly tailored to defeat the Hawkeyes. Their run defense has been strong and has done well against the Hawkeyes’ LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley.
Iowa has raced out to a 4-2 start this year behind them and the emerging play of quarterback Nate Stanley. Iowa is what the team generally is. A team that plays up and down to its competition. The Hawkeyes nearly defeated the Nittany Lions at home — a bitter loss that came in the last seconds of the game.
But Iowa is solid overall. Nothing spectacular. A typical Hawkeyes team.
The Wildcats know they will have to be solid themselves to get the win.
1 Burning Question: Can Nate Stanley deliver a win?
Northwestern’s run defense has been stellar throughout the season, giving up just 126.7 rushing yards per game. The Wildcats gave up just 67 rushing yards to Penn State and Saquon Barkley and just 85 rushing yards to Maryland.
Northwestern has quickly established itself as a strong defensive team against the run. And the team will do everything it can to take Akrum Wadley out of the game. To get the Wildcats into those late quarters where Wadley’s bruising style will pay dividends, the Hawkeyes have to get a consistent pass game.
Stanley has largely delivered to this point in the season. He has thrown for 1,290 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. He is an effective and efficient passer. Not someone it would seem the Hawkeyes want to rely on for everything. Iowa is still a run-first team.
But Stanley is the typical Hawkeyes quarterback. A game manager-plus capable of spreading the ball around and taking what the defense gives him.
But what happens if the Wildcats take away his run game? What happens if Northwestern gets a lead and Iowa needs to come back?
These are the questions the Hawkeyes have not yet answered about themselves. These are the questions Stanley still has to answer.
The good news is that if Iowa needs to get these questions answered, Northwestern’s secondary has struggled. The team has taken a major depth hit with injuries to the secondary. Northwestern gives up 249.7 passing yards per game.
Stanley may develop into more than a game manager. This could be a game where he takes charge.
2 Key Stats
133.7: The Wildcats go as running back Justin Jackson goes. There is no getting around it. Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher picks up chunks of yards when the team wins. He is virtually ignored when the Wildcats lose — 36.3 yards per game in losses. Northwestern wins or loses on whether the offensive line is able to get the protection for Jackson. He cannot win it alone, but a big game from Jackson is a good sign for Northwestern.
5/20: Anthony Nelson has been a pressure machine for Iowa through the early stretch of games, totaling five sacks for the Hawkeyes. That is quite a strong defensive showing for him. Northwestern has had trouble handling defensive pressure all year. They stood tall enough against Maryland, but Iowa presents a much sterner challenge.
3 Key Players
Riley Lees, Northwestern WR: The Northwestern wide receivers have been as inconsistent as anyone for the team. Not all of the sacks fall on the offensive line failing to protect. Receivers have often struggled to get separation too. Northwestern is still looking for some measure of consistency from this group. Lees is the next to step up, it seems. He has 13 catches for 183 yards. Northwestern needs a bigger game from him. Both on offense and in special teams.
Akrum Wadley, Iowa RB: Northwestern will key on star running back Akrum Wadley pretty heavily. He will figure a lot into Iowa’s game plan. He has 483 rushing yards and four touchdowns this year. His impact and the attention he garners goes beyond that. He also has proven himself effective in the pass game with 15 catches for 258 yards. Iowa will try to put the ball in Wadley’s hands and let him make plays. By the fourth quarter, that becomes a difficult thing to handle.
Nate Hall, Northwestern LB: The man who will have the main responsibility of stopping Wadley is Paddy Fisher. But Nate Hall will provide plenty of support. And his play will likely help Fisher and the Wildcats’ other playmakers make the big plays. Hall has been a grinder all season for Northwestern. He stepped up a lot in the first half Maryland with Fisher out for his targeting suspension. Hall is now second on the team with 42 tackles. He does not stand out athletically on this team, but he is just overall solid defensively. A sure tackler who prevents big plays from getting out of hand.