Northwestern looks to upset budding nemesis Iowa for the second straight season this Saturday at Ryan Field. The Wildcats start the season’s final trio of games with a number of subplots and questions, none greater than whether or not Northwestern can eke out any more wins against the toughest portion of this season’s schedule.
Northwestern Offense vs. Iowa Defense
Against a juggernaut like Iowa, seldom are there any major cracks in the armor. Iowa boasts the nation’s No. 5 run defense and is talented on all three levels of defense. Starting with defensive end Adrian Clayborn up to defensive backs Tyler Sash and Shaun Prater, the entire defensive unit executes as a top-tiered team should. Operating in their Cover 2 scheme, however, does leave short passes and slant routes for the taking.
Eschewing the run game for more aerial strategy won’t be too uncomfortable for the Wildcats: Offensive coordinator Mick McCall has equated a short pass to short yardage gained on the ground, so while Northwestern won’t likely go Air Raid on Iowa’s secondary, there may be enough playcalling to wear down the Hawkeyes little by little. This leaves quarterback Dan Persa in the favorable position of picking out his targets and using his accuracy to his advantage. Last week’s performance against Penn State might also have reawakened superback Drake Dunsmore, another weapon to go along with wide receiver Jeremy Ebert.
Line play will be crucial: Northwestern’s offensive line has exceeded its margin of error in weeks past and must now look to protect Persa and stimulate the run game. Perhaps no unit faces more pressure than the big logs up front, but for the offense to steamroll reminiscent of the first half against Penn State, we must hope that they studied the second half tape to a fault.
Northwestern Defense vs. Iowa Offense
Short of another miraculous blow to quarterback Ricky Stanzi, it’s unlikely Northwestern will be able to capitalize on backup quarterback James Vandenberg again. Northwestern will face a grind the entire game. To put it succinctly, the Wildcats’ defensive units look like Iowa-lite, while quarterback Ricky Stanzi enjoys two deadly targets in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt.
Early sentiments of Northwestern’s “bend-not-break” defense have all but been thrown into the fire, and every man in the field must look to play for a complete sixty minutes. The defensive line must break through with pressure and the linebackers must contain the run game and short passes.
The secondary will be under the most intense scrutiny; after Penn State tore the defensive backs to shreds en route to a 35-21 romp, no one questions that the departures of Brendan Smith, Brad Phillips and Sherrick McManis have severely decimated confidence in Northwestern’s pass defense. With Stanzi looking for vengeance from last year, and Johnson-Koulianos and McNutt each another year experienced, odds are against the ‘Cats to contain them this year.
Northwestern inexplicably managed to pull out the win last season, but early sentiment back then was the defense was not living up to its preceding 2008 resume, until it came alive against Iowa. There are no such heady expectations for this season, and no greater body of work from the offense to make up for the loss. Northwestern will fall to Iowa, 33-17.