Preview, Prediction: First-Place Northwestern Up Next for Hawkeyes

November 7, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa plays four trophy games every season. Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin are considered rivals.

Perhaps another school should join the group. Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz feels the annual meeting with Northwestern qualifies.

“This game has really become a big rivalry between us and Northwestern going back 20 years. We’ve had a great series over the years, and it’s not a trophy game officially but really kind of feels like that,” he said.

Iowa plays host to the Wildcats on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, FOX) in a matchup of Big Ten West members. Northwestern leads the division with a 5-1 conference mark. The Hawkeyes are 3-3 in the league.

Statistically, Iowa is superior to the Wildcats in more areas than not. Northwestern just finds ways to win, including its last six on the road.

“These guys are gritty, they’re tough, and they play good football, and they get back to situations. They find a way to win when it’s important. They do what you have to do to win, and that’s a big challenge in anything you do,” Ferentz said.

For the third week in a row, the Hawkeyes will be facing a veteran quarterback. They’ll be trying to fair better against Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson than they did against Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Purdue’s David Blough.

“It really doesn’t change our approach too much,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said of facing a seasoned signal caller. “Up front, we want to make him uncomfortable. We want to make him get out of rhythm. If we get him in passing situations, that’s what we’re going to be trying to do just like every other week.”

Thorson is completing 60.2 percent of his passes for 2,213 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The latter statistic shows that Iowa can rattle him if it generates pressure.

Flynn Nagel serves as Thorson’s top target. His 63 receptions rank second among conference performers. He averages 11.8 yards per catch. Cameron Green (39-350-3) and Bennett Skowronek (34-417-1) keep teams from focusing too much attention on Nagel.

It took the Wildcats some time to rebound from the loss of leading rusher Jeremy Larkin. He rushed for 346 yards through the first four games before a cervical-stenosis diagnosis forced him into retirement.

After some trial and error, Isaiah Bowser has emerged as Northwestern’s bell cow in the backfield. He’s totaled 320 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Thorson also has kept defenses honest by scoring six times on the run.

While the Wildcat offense is making plays when it counts, the defense performs consistently well and holds up well against other conference teams statistically. Linebackers Blake Gallagher (9.6 tackles per game) and Paddy Fisher (7.7) rank among the Big Ten’s Top 12 tacklers.

“They’re extremely physical,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said of the Northwestern defense. “They know what they’re doing. Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald has been there for a long time. They have their defensive schemes kind of set in stone as far as how they want to play certain things.”

Wildcat Jake Collins isn’t among the league’s best when it comes to average yards per punt (39.9). He does have five punts of more than 50 yards and has killed punts inside the opponent 20 on 17 occasions.

Northwestern may have figured things out with its place kicking. Drew Luckenbaugh has connected on 3 of 4 field goal attempts, including a 39-yarder against Notre Dame last week.

The Wildcats don’t hurt themselves. They’re the least penalized outfit in the country with only 26 penalties all season.

Despite the two-game lead over Iowa in the West Division, Northwestern expects the Hawkeyes’ best shot. Their three losses are by a total of 19 points.

Ferentz (20th season) and Fitzgerald (13th) are the two most tenured coaches in the Big Ten. That helps feed what is a compelling rivalry.

“Our staff has so much respect for their staff. We’ve competed against each other now a number of times and they’ve all been challenging games,” Fitzgerald said.

TV ANNOUNCERS: Joe Davis, Brady Quinn, and Bruce Feldman on FOX.

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SERIES: Iowa holds a 50-26-3 advantage in the series that began with a 12-6 Iowa victory in 1897. The Hawkeyes are 26-10 all-time in games played in Iowa City. Iowa won 21 consecutive games over Northwestern prior to a 31-20 Wildcat win in 1995 in Evanston. The Wildcats hold a 12-9 advantage since snapping that Hawkeye win streak.

BETTING LINES: Iowa opened as a 10-point favorite on Sunday. It remained there Tuesday at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas. The total was set at 45.5.

TRENDS

-Northwestern is 20-5-1 Against The Spread in its last 26 conference games.

-Wildcats are 5-0-1 ATS in their last 6 games as an underdog.

-Iowa is 4-1 ATS in its last 5 home games.

-Hawkeyes are 13-3-1 ATS in their last 17 games as a favorite.

NORTHWESTERN PLAYERS TO WATCH

Clayton Thorson, QB – The senior has recovered impressively from an ACL injury he suffered at the end of last season. He doesn’t have the same running ability that he did prior to the setback, but he can still move. Thorson is a “gamer” who finds ways to win even if it isn’t pretty at times.

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Flynn Nagel, WR – He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the fastest guy. But like many Wildcat receivers before him, Nagel is a precise route runner with a knack for getting open. He’s sure-handed and reads defenses well, adjusting the route when necessary. He has an excellent rapport with Thorson.

Paddy Fisher, LB – Fisher brings to mind Fitzgerald when he was roaming the second level for the Wildcats. He’s a tough, smart kid that plays above any physical limitations he might have. Not only is he productive statistically, he’s an excellent leader.

KEYS TO VICTORY

Northwestern: The Wildcats have run the ball competently the last few games and need to continue doing that to keep Iowa’s defensive line from teeing off on Thorson.

Iowa: Iowa must find a way to close things out in what should be a hard-fought, physical matchup.

GAME NOTES

-The Wildcats are seeking their first Big Ten West division title in program history and lead the pack thanks to a perfect 3-0 record versus division foes this season. The ‘Cats have won nine-straight versus West Division foes and are 12-1 in their last 13 Big Ten contests dating back to last season.

-Northwestern had zero penalties in its matchup versus No. 3 Notre Dame last Saturday. The Wildcats are the least penalized team in the country with just 26 penalties and 245 penalty yards through nine games.

-Northwestern won its sixth straight Big Ten road contest with an 18-15 victory at Rutgers. The Wildcats have allowed fewer than 20 points in three of the six contest and are averaging 31.3 points per game offensively during the stretch.

-By surpassing 9,000 career passing yards versus Nebraska on Oct. 1, Clayton Thorson joined former Ohio State
Buckeye J.T. Barrett as the only other Big Ten player to pass for 9,000 yards and score 20 rushing touchdowns in his career.

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-The first sophomore captain in the Fitzgerald era, linebacker Paddy Fisher is one of just seven sophomore captains in FBS entering the regular season. Fisher is one of just four Power 5 sophomore captains, including Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass, Virginia Tech quarterback Joshua Jackson and Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland.

-The Hawkeyes rank second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (18.6), rushing defense (86.2), and total defense (283.7). Iowa’s rushing defense ranks fifth in the country. Its total defense ranks eighth.

-Iowa leads the Big Ten and ranks second in the country averaging 27.6 yards per kickoff return. WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette ranks No. 2 in the country, averaging 31.5 yards on 12 returns.

-The Hawkeyes rank fourth in the Big Ten with 26 sacks. DE A.J. Epensesa leads the team and ties for second in the Big Ten with 7.0 sacks. DE Anthony Nelson is tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks.

-Senior center Keegan Render leads an offensive line that has allowed 10 quarterback sacks, fewest in the Big Ten. The next closest teams have surrendered 12 sacks.

-Iowa had a different running back rush for a career high in yards in Weeks 6-8. RB Mekhi Sargent set career bests in carries (16) and yards (91) Week 8 at Penn State. RB Ivory Kelly-Martin rushed for a career-high 98 yards Week 7 against Maryland, and RB Toren Young rushed for a career-best 96 yards Week 6 at Indiana.

NOTABLE ALUMNI

Northwestern – Cloris Leachman

Iowa –  Archie Alexander

HOWE I SEE IT: Despite a 6-3 record, it’s been a frustrating campaign for Iowa. The Hawkeyes were positioned to win the three games they dropped if they could have finished.

Iowa changes from West Division contender to spoiler against the Wildcats. That can be challenging.

If the Hawkeyes are focused, they boast more firepower than Northwestern. They’re more well-rounded on both sides of the ball.

The Wildcats will try to muck it up like they did during last year’s 17-10 overtime win in Evanston. Iowa failed to get down and dirty with them.

The Hawkeyes would benefit from this being an up-tempo game because they feature the more potent offense. It’s up to them to push the pace, which they didn’t do last season in this matchup.

I think they control the pace in this one and feed off an energized home crowd.

PREDICTION: IOWA 24, Northwestern 17

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