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NORTHWESTERN (4-3, 0-3) at IOWA (4-3. 1-2)
IOWA RUSH OFFENSE VS. NORTHWESTERN RUSH DEFENSE
Another week and another Big Ten team that will try to force Iowa out of its comfort zone. Against Ohio State, the Hawkeyes O-line got the Buckeyes' attention, definitely in the first half with 101 yards on 21 carries. In the second half, Iowa's defense couldn't get a stop and Ohio State ground out the Hawkeyes. But, Iowa's running game did put that first half on video and it looked winning.
Northwestern will attack Iowa's running game with numbers. Iowa has seen the 4-3 over defense the last two weeks. Northwestern probably won't be any different. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz will want one more defender in the box than Iowa has blockers. Either Hankwitz or head coach Pat Fitzgerald has a good handle on stopping Iowa's run. During the Wildcats' 5-1 run against Iowa, dating back to 2007, Iowa has averaged just 113.6 rushing yards a game.
Personnel-wise, the Cats might get DT Sean McEvilly back. He's been out with injury since week 3 and is generally considered NU's best inside D-lineman. The Wildcats front seven has a lot of names you've heard before, namely DE Tyler Scott, who's tied for the Big Ten lead with five sacks. Defensive tackles Chance Carter (6-3, 300) and Will Hampton (6-3, 295) are the kind of inside players who've given Iowa trouble this year.
Iowa seemed to come out of the Ohio State game in good health, which is a start compared to the bodies (running back Mark Weisman and tackle Brandon Scherff) that were dinged about Michigan State.
Iowa used the three-tight end set last week and found space behind it. Tackles were able to seal their blocks and tight ends got a piece of someone on the edge. Northwestern will be prepared for this. Iowa will try to hammer through the inside and outside zone rushes, but keep in mind, the second half of Iowa's back-to-back Big Ten losses, Iowa has rushed 10 times for 35 yards.
Iowa will have to work hard to establish the run, which has been effective 1 1/2 times in three games against Big Ten defenses. During its three Big Ten losses, Northwestern has allowed an average of 236.7 rushing yards.
IOWA PASS OFFENSE VS. NORTHWESTERN PASS DEFENSE
Northwestern leads the Big Ten in maximizing its talented athletes. On third downs against Minnesota, the Wildcats used a package of four defensive ends to rush the passer. That package was responsible for three key sacks that kept the Wildcats in the game.
Minnesota hurt NU with the play-action pass, which happens to be a staple for the Hawkeyes. Along with the D-line, the linebacker group is all names you've heard before, beginning with middle linebacker Damien Proby and weakside linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo tied for the team lead with 58 tackles. NU linebackers will have to be disciplined against Iowa's play-action game, which sprouted new life with the three-tight end look last week.
The Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten with 256.7 passing yards allowed a game. The bright side there is that the Cats lead the B1G with 13 interceptions, with safety Ibraheim Campbell's four leading the way. Corner Dwight White got turned on a play-action pass and gave up a TD last week. NU's secondary is a physical group. Iowa will have to be successful in the passing game to back off the Cats in run support.
Admit it, you're tantalized by the three-formation. You know it freaked you out a little bit when Iowa went empty backfield with three TEs split out. You wondered how it would work and then you saw sophomore TE Jake Duzey post up a corner for a first down. Sicne offensive coordinator Greg Davis arrived, the passing game has been the last element of the offense to get unstuck. Maybe it'll be a sliver going forward, but the three TEs was the best and most well executed concept Iowa has shown in the passing game the last two seasons.
WR Kevonte Martin-Manley's fast start has slowed to one catch (a 6-yard TD at Ohio State) the last two weeks. Of course, he left the Michigan State game with a groin injury. He seems OK. Speedster Damon Powell is getting more looks and might've been one block from taking another tunnel screen the distance last week.
Quarterback Jake Rudock remains unflappable. He leads the Big Ten with 11 completions for a first down in third-and-7-to-9 situations. Rudock is reading defenses and spitting out checks with internet speed. Instead of staying in a dead play, he's going to "this, this or this." He understands that not every play is going to be a home run, but knows that there are better options and he's generally getting Iowa into those plays.
NORTHWESTERN RUSH OFFENSE VS. IOWA RUSH DEFENSE
The week has been a bit of a health watch in Evanston. Quarterback Kain Colter said Tuesday he's a go for the Iowa game. The sneior missed last week's game with an ankle injury. All reports from NU's practices this week have indicated good health, with Colter showing burst and cutting ability. Running back Venric Mark is out with a leg injury. This is big for NU's running game, passing game and special teams.
This leaves NU with junior Treyvon Green (leads the team with 463 yards and five TDs), a 210-pounder, senior Mike Trumpy (6-1, 210) and Stephen Buckley, a 180-pound freshman who had his best game last week, gaining 58 yards with TD on just nine carries. Can Buckley be cast in a Venric Mark-type role this week?
This is either a great time for Iowa to face Northwestern's read-option or the absolute worst. Last week, Ohio State ran every which way through Iowa's defense, following quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde to 273 rushing yards, the most against Iowa since Northwestern put 349 on the Hawkeyes last season. There are similarities.
This week, Iowa defenders talked about going back to the Northwestern '12 video for grim reference of what they shouldn't do. Iowa has to stay disciplined in a game of leverage and angles. Will Colter be healthy enough to pull an eighth defender into the box against then run and then take a step back and pass? Colter is an accurate mid-range passer, but can he hurt Iowa in the running game?
Iowa had contain issues last week, particularly on the backside, where defensive ends are taught to stay even or inside of the runner on the opposite side of the field. If contain is blown, the door is open for Colter and the Wildcats and, given the amount of "fixing" that went into the defense after last season's matchup between these teams, defensive coaches will be in full conniption.
NORTHWESTERN PASS OFFENSE VS. IOWA PASS DEFENSE
Northwestern runs a two-QB system that pretty much telegraphs what it plans to do. Colter triggers the Cats' read-option and Trevor Siemian is the passer. The thing is even with that quick read, this set up has worked for NU for the better part of the last two seasons.
With Colter out against Minnesota, Siemian (58.3 percent on completions, seven TDs and five picks) was the primary and he threw two picks, fumbled and was sacked three times. Minnesota put pressure on with its front four and that kept this iteration of the Cats contained. In the last two weeks against Wisconsin and Minnesota, Siemian has completed 47 percent of his passes (38 of 80) for a below par 4.96 yards per pass attempt, one TD and two picks. The playcalling shifts to Siemian's strengths without Colter and the results have been mixed.
Colter is back this week. That should help. Also, Northwestern has developed some go-to in the passing game with receivers Tony Jones and Christian Jones (26 catches for 359 yards and two TDs). Tony Jones is fifth in the Big Ten with 37 receptions (488 yards with four TDs).
Against Ohio State, Iowa tried to "catch" the Buckeyes' speed with the corners playing 10-yard cushions in zone coverage. Miller picked apart Iowa underneath, completing 22 of 27 and sending Iowa to a slow death rather than a speed blender. Iowa's success here will come down to two factors: You've seen Iowa's corners in man-to-man coverage at different times this season. Can the Hawkeyes rely on corners B.J. Lowery and Desmond King to hold up in man to free other personnel to play the read-option near the line of scrimmage.
Also, Iowa has not generated consistent pressure with its front four. Ohio State ultimately wore down the Wildcats because its front four frolicked in NU's backfield. If Iowa's corners can hold up in man, Iowa might be able to blitz. If they can't, the Wildcats will find matchups and door is wide open for them to pick off their sixth win in the last seven games of this series.
Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien is one of if not the best in the Big Ten. Last season, he led the Big Ten with 19 of 20 field goals made. This year, he's 12 of 14 with no misses (6 of 6) in Big Ten play and 18 of his 44 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. Mark's absence takes a bite out of the Cats' return games. He returned the final kick off against Ohio State for 38 yards, but has played sparingly since. Last season, he led the Big Ten with 18.67 yards per punt return. Brandon Williams has dropped 10 of his 35 punts inside the opponent's 20. The Cats' coverage units are in the top three of the conference.
Iowa's special teams seem to have cooled after becoming sort of a national pinata after coach Kirk Ferentz's "never returning another punt" lead balloon. Coincidentally, Iowa didn't have a choice last week against the Buckeyes, who didn't have to punt. WR Martin-Manley continues to lead the Big Ten in punt returns with 25.78 on nine returns. That remains a phenomenon of the Western Michigan game. Since his groin injury against Michigan State on Oct. 5, he hasn't returned a punt. The changes special teams coordinator Chris White has brought to Iowa's kick return team haven't meshed with senior Jordan Cotton. Last season, Cotton led the Big Ten with 28.21 yards on 19 returns. On 15 returns this season, he's at 20.93 and seventh in the league.
1) Elimination game For today's winner it's on to the next round of survival games. Next week for Iowa that's No. 25 Wisconsin (woefully underrated and probably playing for a second B1G BCS bowl bid). The Wildcats travel out to Lincoln for a game with Nebraska that a lot of predictions had pegged for a piece of the Legends Division ceremonial title cap. For the loser, it's steak knives and the end of the championship season. And then, the losing team's fan base will start looking at the schedule, back at the team and then back to the schedule to see where two more wins might come.
2) Emotionalism Maybe it's something, maybe it's nothing, but the Wildcats bring a ton of energy into this game. If nothing else, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald seems to have a keen awareness of one very simple concept: When Northwestern is playing for serious notions, it has beaten Iowa. Now, this year? The Wildcats are playing to get the engine started. But even now, a loss today would drop NU to its worst Big Ten start since losing the first four in 2011. It's clear that Northwestern has elevated Iowa to rivalry status. Whether Iowa ever outwardly acknowledges this doesn't matter. These two teams will be buds in the Big Ten's west division for the next several seasons. The rivalry is on whether Iowa acknowledges it or not.
3) Eureka! Did Iowa stumble into its next great iteration last week with the three-tight end offense? Can this really be a thing? Tight ends always will be in the tool belt for Iowa. Iowa can recruit 215 pound kids from a lot of places around the midwest and sort of Frankenstein strength-and-condition them into what sophomore Jake Duzey showed he can be last week (six catches, 138 yards and a TD). Duzey put on 30 pounds from his days as a WR/RB for Athens (Troy, Mich.) High School. When is the last time Iowa found a silver streak like WR Damond Powell? Duzey showed he can get vertical in a hurry. That's one key. The other is the TEs all can block. Don't pooh pooh that. Two- and three-TE sets force defensive backs into run defense. A TE has a size and situational advantage here. It might be a blip, it might be a thing. We'll find out more today.
IOWA WILL WIN IF . . .
The defense contests the quick yards and makes nothing easy. Too many times in the Hawkeyes' 2-6 slump the last eight games against Northwestern the Wildcats have been handed yards in a "bend don't break" mentality. The breaks then come all over the place last season it was big plays against in the rushing game and a blocked punt. In this game of chicken, Iowa has been the team that has pulled up. Northwestern is well-schooled against Iowa's 4-3 defense and the only way to unplug check upon check upon check is good old pressure on the quarterback. The hard part there is that hasn't been easy to come by.
NORTHWESTERN WILL WIN IF . . .
Finds rhythm in the passing game and hampers the run. Can Colter go from "emergency QB" one week to spinning, whirling dervish the next? Possible, but more likely the Wildcats will be an air attack today. It's better for NU if Colter can do his thing, but this pass offense dinged Ohio State for 343 yards and an 80.6 completion percentage (25 of 31). In its two Big Ten defeats, Iowa's running game was broken in one and abandoned in the other. That hasn't been a winning formula for the Hawkeyes. Conversely, NU has allowed only one opponent to less than 100 yards rushing.
PREDICTION: Iowa 28, Northwestern 24
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