6 things to watch in Northwestern vs. Iowa
By Ryan Choe
After thoroughly defeating Maryland at home last Saturday, the ‘Cats look to build on their winning ways with a Halloween matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Here are six key things to watch this weekend.
1. Peyton Ramsey & Mike Bajakian’s offense
The new offensive scheme along with high-quality quarterback play from Ramsey breathed new life into the offense. After averaging a paltry 17.3 points per game last season, the ‘Cats scored 30 points in the first half against Maryland and 43 by the end of the game. Although Bajakian’s offense ran the ball heavily, Ramsey executed nearly every time he was called on to throw the ball. Ramsey completed over 76% of his passes, finished with a QBR of 94.1 and was responsible for nearly half of the total yards on offense.
After facing one of the worst defenses from 2019, the ‘Cats will face an Iowa defense that allowed the fifth-fewest points per game in the country last year. Although Iowa lost a number of quality players from last year’s stout defense, the Hawkeyes still managed to produce a pair of interceptions and two sacks against Purdue. It will be important to watch how Ramsey’s performance and Bajakian’s play-calling respond to stronger defensive units like Iowa’s as the season progresses.
2. Northwestern’s defense
Northwestern came away with three interceptions and two sacks to go along with a fumble recovery on special teams against Maryland. Historically, Pat Fitzgerald’s defensive units have performed well (the ‘Cats fielded a top 25-ranked defense in three of the past five years), but the game against Iowa provides an opportunity for Northwestern to showcase its defense against a more legitimate offense compared to that of Maryland. After a strong showing led by the senior linebacking trio of Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin, and a confident secondary including senior JR Pace and potentially star junior cornerback Greg Newsome II, the ‘Cats will need to show that their defense can dominate any opponent.
3. The battle of the trenches
Both the ‘Cats and Hawkeyes are coming off games where they dominated the running game on both sides of the ball. Northwestern ran the ball 53 times against Maryland for 325 yards (6.1 yards per attempt) and four touchdowns, while holding the Terrapins to 64 yards rushing on 20 attempts (3.2 yards per attempt) and no touchdowns.
What makes Northwestern’s performance all the more impressive is that the offensive line didn’t give up a single sack to the Maryland defense. True first-year Peter Skoronski, one of the top-rated recruits in Northwestern history, filled in admirably at left tackle for Preseason All-American Rashawn Slater, who opted out of the season. By giving Ramsey time to survey and complete passes, and creating clean gaps for the running backs to run through, the ‘Cats seized control of the Maryland game early and never looked back.
Iowa meanwhile ran the ball 36 times for 195 yards and 2 touchdowns (5.4 yards per attempt) and held Purdue to 104 yards rushing on 27 attempts (3.9 yards per attempt). Neither team allowed a rushing touchdown in its week one matchup. Whichever team is able to control the running game will likely win the game.
4. The Ramsey and Raine connection
Graduate transfer tight end John Raine established himself as a reliable target against Maryland, leading the ‘Cats in receiving yards and receptions. Ramsey consistently found Raine for good yardage pickups and first-down conversions, which contributed to Northwestern’s 50% third down conversion rate. After only converting 35.75% of third downs last year, it appears that Northwestern’s ability to extend drives will depend on Ramsey’s connection with Raine just as much as the success of the run game.
5. Penalties and turnovers
The ‘Cats and Hawkeyes combined for a single penalty in week one, and keeping the game clean will be essential for both teams this week. However, the similarities end there from when analyzing the turnover department. Northwestern forced four turnovers (3 INTs, 1 fumble recovery) and never turned the ball over, while the Hawkeyes fumbled the ball three times and failed to recover two of them. The ball security issues were a major reason Iowa lost in week one. The Hawkeyes will need to fix this issue against a confident Northwestern defense. Meanwhile, if the ‘Cats can keep their turnover number as low as week one, they have a good chance to win this week.
6. Time of possession
Northwestern held possession for over 61% of the game against Maryland while Iowa held possession for just under 50% of its game. The best strategy for the ‘Cats may be to keep their offense on the field as long as possible in order to exhaust the Hawkeye’s defense while keeping the ball away from the Hawkeye’s offense. Northwestern’s first drive of the second half impressively covered 75 yards with 17 plays in 8.5 minutes and resulted in a touchdown. If the ‘Cats can dominate the time of possession by extending drives like this, it will limit the number of opportunities for the Iowa offense.
After a decisive victory against Maryland, the ‘Cats will look to prove they are serious contenders in the Big Ten West. If the running game gets off to a quick start and the defense continues to generate turnovers, Northwestern will leave Iowa City 2-0. Should Greg Newsome II return, Northwestern’s defense becomes even stingier. My prediction is that the ‘Cats running game along with Ramsey’s precision and a strong defense leads to a ‘Cats victory.
Score prediction: Northwestern, 27-17
Bold prediction: Peyton Ramsey connects with John Raine for two touchdowns