By Eli Karp
Northwestern does not face its biggest rival during rivalry week. The Wildcats’ biggest foe is arguably Iowa, and the Hawkeyes return to Evanston for Homecoming in late October. After a slow yet memorable most recent act in Iowa City in which Northwestern defeated Iowa 14-10 in a gutsy, Big Ten West-clinching performance in the gray Iowa cold, this game will again be critical in shaping the divisional race.
NU was an 11-point underdog entering last year’s affair, just the type of game in which Pat Fitzgerald’s teams thrive. This year, Kirk Ferentz’s team is ranked 20th in the preseason AP Poll, a ranking region to which the program is accustomed. This game should track like the past two matchups — both low-scoring, punt-heavy affairs — since the makeup of each team is generally the same.
NU Offense vs Iowa Defense
Northwestern’s offense will have yet another tough matchup against an Iowa defense that has allowed just 17 and 14 points respectively in the two schools’ past two matchups. Despite the Hawkeye defense losing seven starters, it returns plenty of talent at disruptive positions. Specifically, Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Amani Hooker is now in the NFL. That being said, Iowa has been Cornerback U the last few years (think Desmond King and Josh Jackson as well as Hooker) and the position is stacked with plenty of veteran talent by the likes of Michael Ojemudia, Matt Hankins and Julius Brents. This historically stout bunch of score-stoppers returns AJ Espenesa, who has the talent and potential to be one of the best pass rushers in the country. On the other side of the line is Chauncey Golston, oft overlooked by many but became a force last year forcing three fumbles and registering nearly double-digit tackles for loss. Hawkeye defensive ends alone recorded 27.5 sacks, and with similar depth there’s no reason they can’t make more quarterbacks’ lives hell once again. Based on how we saw the Iowa defensive line eat up the NU offensive line for the majority of last year’s game, the Wildcat group will have to be better than last, which may be easier playing at home instead of at Kinnick Stadium. Isaiah Bowser had a huge game in the last meeting, rushing for 165 yards and a touchdown, complemented by three catches for 33 yards. As one remembers, Bennett Skowronek made the full-extension, Big Ten West-clinching TD grab, one of his three catches that day.
Overall, it was a forgettable day last November for the ‘Cats offense which managed only 287 total yards, and it may be tough sledding again. But, as we all know, in the Big Ten West, it’s not always the stat sheets that matter, but the final score.
NU Defense vs Iowa Offense
Northwestern has a more favorable matchup on this side of the ball, especially compared to last year. Much of the Hawkeyes’ success will hinge on quarterback Nate Stanley. The senior signal caller started all 26 games over the past two years and tossed 52 touchdowns, and while he has NFL prospects, he is just 1-6 against ranked opponents and 5-5 on the road. While he has matured into one of the Big Ten’s better passers, he lost his two-headed tight end monster, Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson, to the NFL. Mekhi Sargent, who came on at the end of the season and totaled 745 yards and nine scores, will stand alongside Stanley in the backfield behind what should be yet another impressive offensive line. The offensive line will need to continue to make holes for Sargent and his backups, who underwhelmed last season and need to improve if the Iowa offense wants to fully complement its defense. Tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Warfs have All-American potential and gave up a combined two sacks last year, but it is the interior of the line where the questions and inconsistencies reside. Given what should be a better pass rush from NU this year, this could be a matchup to exploit for Marty Long’s men. Ferentz returns two promising juniors at wide receivers, Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and both will need to improve upon their statistically meh seasons to try and fill the void left by the outstanding tight ends. The Northwestern secondary lost Jared McGee and Montre Hartage, two important pieces, and although it remains to be seen exactly who will assume their spots (although Travis Whillock seems like a likely candidate for McGee), there is plenty of depth with guys who got valuable experience last year. Of course, the strength of the Wildcat defense right now looks to be the teeth, where the linebackers call home, and they will be busy whether it is tackling Iowa running backs, helping to permeate that big offensive line and pressure Nate Stanley or playing in pass coverage.
It’s going to be another defensive slugfest. Based on the two most recent renditions between these squads, I think the Wildcats defense will be better equipped to handle the Iowa offense without those tight ends. Offensively, it may not be easy, but something tells me playing at home will be easier than on the road and that Iowa’s stats are always a little padded by stomping on some inferior opponents early. Give me the ‘Cats in another 11 a.m. heart racer.
Final Score: Northwestern 20, Iowa 16