Heartbreak: the only word to describe Northwestern’s loss last weekend against Big Ten opponent Nebraska. Most home losses are accompanied by silence, but as kicker Jeff Budzein’s 53-yard field goal attempt flew just right of the post, an eruption came from the 25,000-plus Nebraska fans in attendance. Maybe this week's matchup will actually seem like a real home game for the ‘Cats.
In week nine, Northwestern faces another Big Ten rival – the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa comes into Ryan Field with an overall record of 4-3, but an impressive 2-1 in the Big Ten.
The hardest part about the Wildcats’ two losses is the blown leads in the fourth quarter. After last week’s loss, Northwestern is a mediocre 2-2 in the Big Ten. Another loss in the conference would almost guarantee exemption from the Big Ten Championship.
Iowa’s D-line vs. Northwestern’s O-line
The offensive line for the ‘Cats has a clear advantage here. Iowa only manages 1.29 sacks per game, which is 98th best in the FBS. The Northwestern offensive line has allowed an insanely low two sacks in the last four weeks. Despite a rough start to the season against Syracuse, the offensive line has been stellar. Seniors Patrick Ward, Brian Mulroe and Neal Deiters lead a fearsome front for the ‘Cats.
Running back Venric Mark is a talented runner, but there is no denying the help the offensive line provides. On Mark's last three touchdowns, he was untouched. Thanks to the offensive line, the Northwestern rushing attack ranks 18th in the FBS in yards per game, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
Northwestern rushing attack vs. Iowa’s run defense
The Northwestern run game averages just over 222 yards per game; the Iowa run defense only allows 131 yards per game.
The only other times the ‘Cats have faced a top 50 run defense (Penn State and Syracuse), Venric Mark has had two of his least productive days. Remarkably, Penn State beat Syracuse because of supreme pass efficiency, but since then, an inability to run the ball against better teams has created problems for Northwestern. Other than an 80-yard run for Mark against Nebraska, the junior barely averaged 2.5 yards per carry.
If Northwestern has a tough time running the ball against Iowa, the ‘Cats' claws could be pinned down.
Iowa QB James Vandenberg vs. Northwestern secondary
Who will play worse?
The senior quarterback has had a forgettable season thus far. After blossoming last year with a 25-7 touchdown to interception ratio, Vandenberg has considerably regressed to a meager three touchdowns and five interceptions on the season thus far. The Hawkeyes rank 115th in the FBS in passing efficiency - that’s five spots away from dead last in all of division one football.
If you don’t know about Northwestern’s secondary, it’s probably a good thing, because the numbers are painful to hear. So far opposing quarterbacks have completed over 60 percent of their passes and throw for 279.75 yards per game. Starting cornerbacks Quinn Evans and Nick VanHoose will most likely be out against Iowa. With a depleted lineup, the secondary might look its worst this year.
Vandenberg isn’t a bad player; he is having a bad season. The senior has plenty of experience, and he might be able to turn it on against the Northwestern secondary.
Pat Fitzgerald vs. Pat Fitzgerald
Nope. Not a typo. For next week’s game and the rest of the year Pat Fitzgerald has two huge decisions to make.
First off, should the coach continue the two-quarterback system?
The dynamic of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian once dazzled the eyes of the Northwestern fandom. Now, the system seems predictable. Siemian has 52 passing attempts on 3rd down, and Colter has 18. Earlier in the season, Fitz was a lot more creative with his use of the two quarterbacks.
For the past five weeks, Colter hasn’t thrown the ball much. During that stretch, he has averaged 4.8 pass attempts per game; in the first three games, he almost threw 19 times each game. During the first three games, Colter completed an impressive 66 percent of his passes. It raises suspicion about possible arm or shoulder issues Colter might have; Fitz resembles New England Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick with the little information he gives in regards to injury reports.
Second, will Fitz keep the hurry-up offense going in the fourth quarter of games?
The defense has looked awful in the fourth quarter in both of Northwestern’s losses. In both games, the ‘Cats allowed over half of their opponents' points to come in the fourth quarter. The hurry-up offense allows for less recuperation time for the defense in between drives.
In the last three weeks, Northwestern’s possession time in the fourth quarter has been about six minutes per game. With little to no breaks, the defense has struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone at the end of the games.
Both Wildcat losses this season came from blown fourth quarter leads.
Game Prediction: Northwestern 22, Iowa 17
Don’t expect the game to be too exciting. The semi-stout Iowa run defense should bottle up the explosiveness of Venric Mark to some degree. Iowa’s star running back is not expected to play, so the 'Cats can lend more support to the secondary. If both teams continue to be ineffective on 3rd down, look for lots of field goals; both teams have excellent field goal kickers.