Northwestern (3-7, 1-5) at Iowa (9-1, 6-0): Iowa, the Co-Big Ten leader, hosts Northwestern in the Hawkeyes final home game this season. Iowa is coming off a 20-3 win over Wisconsin and is currently number six in the nation and eighth in the Bowl Championship Series. Northwestern posted its first league victory a week ago defeating Indiana, 41-37 in a game in which both teams made mistakes down the stretch.
Football (sort of), Wildcat style - It was only two seasons ago that Northwestern finished atop the Big Ten standings for the third time in seven years. The Wildcats tied Purdue and Michigan for the championship with a 6-2 league mark. There have been some average or poor offensive teams historically that have claimed part of a Big Ten championship as a result of having a dominant defense and special teams (the 1981 Big Ten champion Iowa Hawkeyes being an example). However, very few Big Ten champion teams have had average or poor defensive units. The 2000 Northwestern Defense was, perhaps, the worst Big Ten co-champion defense ever as the Wildcats gave up tremendous amounts of yardage on the ground. Some defenses are weak between the 20s but stiffen after the opponents get inside the 20-yardline. The Wildcats, more times than not, broke on defense, but they forced enough turnovers and the NU Offense behind QB Zak Kustok and RB Damien Anderson was explosive enough to win shootouts seemingly every week.
Kustok and Anderson ran the spread offense as well as anyone in the country that year, as the Wildcats had a true ESPN Instant Classic against Michigan in 2000 in a game that neither defense truly stopped the opponent. The duo also won other improbable games in situations where they were behind by supposed insurmountable leads. However, the Michigan win was the high point of the NU 2000 season as the late season win put them into the lead (5-1) for the Rose Bowl. All the Wildcats had to do was win over a 2-4 Iowa team in Iowa City and a Illinois team that had already quit for the season, and the Wildcats would make it to Pasadena for the second time in five years.
Little did anyone know that as Northwestern was celebrating after tearing up Michigan worse than a Michigan Defense has ever been hammered that Iowa was developing the game plan that many teams used to stop the spread. Instead of playing man-to-man in the secondary and blitzing on every play like Michigan did, Hawkeye Defensive Coordinator Norm Parker sat the Hawks in a basic zone. The team spent all week working on tackling in space and playing physical, and working on and playing the basics paid off as Iowa shocked the country with a 27-17 win. They did not completely shut down the Wildcat Offense, but LB R.J. Meyer and LB LeVar Woods spearheaded the Hawkeye Defense in containing Anderson and making Northwestern throw the ball. The biggest difference in the 2000 game versus other Northwestern games was that the Hawks tackled well and punished NU backs in open space while the Iowa Offense and special teams did not make mistakes and give NU a short field to work with.
Football (sort of), Wildcat style (Part II) - The offensive schemes haven't changed much for Northwestern Coach Randy Walker, but his talent and how the opposition defends them has. The Wildcats are still dangerous on offense as they still use spread formations to open up the running game, but have not scored with the consistency that they did in 2000. Before winning a 41-37 shootout over Indiana last week, the Wildcats had lost ten straight Big Ten conference games dating back to last season. They also scored a lot of points in a 45-42 loss at Minnesota earlier in the season, but were shut down in losses to Air Force, Penn State, and Purdue where they combined for sixteen points.
Part of the inconsistency is due to the health at the quarterback position. Although Northwestern continues to be a dangerous as a running team (163.8 rushing yards per game), they have achieved good offensive balance when QB Brett Basanez is in the game. Basanez has missed two games due to injury, and has a soft cast on his lower left leg to protect a broken bone, but the redshirt freshman has played well during his eight appearances. He has completed 139-246 passes for 1,647 yards, and has compiled 107 rushing yards.
Basanez played last week against the Hoosiers, and his addition allowed junior RB Jason Wright to have his best game in a Wildcat uniform. Wright ran for 219 yards against IU, and also added 59 receiving yards. The center of the offense, Wright surpassed 1,000 yards for the season (1,106) and has totaled six 100-yard games in his last eight outings. RB Noah Herron has also been productive in his playing time.
Although the offense is not as explosive as a couple of years ago, the defense is the main reason for the lack of Big Ten success this year. As good as Northwestern is at running the ball, Indiana is the first team all season that Northwestern has outrun, and the Hoosiers (last in the league in running offense) still gained 232 yards on the ground. The Wildcats are dead last in the league in scoring defense (40.0 points per game), total defense (506.2 yards per game), and rushing defense (330.9 yards per game). As alarming as each of those statistics are, the rushing statistic is the most glaring as NU is 119 yards per game higher than the next lowest rated team (Indiana). Besides the inability to stop the run, the Wildcat pass rush is also anemic as six players are tied for the team lead in sacks with one. To put that in perspective, Iowa leads the Big Ten with 31 sacks, and DT Colin Cole (7), DE Howard Hodges (7), DE Matt Roth (7), and DE Jonathan Babineaux (6) all have as many or more sacks than the Northwestern team.
Strengths on paper - Besides the Northwestern Defense and their poor statistics, Iowa matches up very well in many areas in this game. Norm Parker and his defenses have found success against most spread offenses over the last few years, and Iowa is ranked first in the Big Ten and the nation in rushing defense (63.9 yards per game). Northwestern should be a good test for the Iowa front seven, but the Hawks have shut down good running games over the last two weeks (Michigan and Wisconsin). In fact, the only team that has had any success against Iowa this year on the ground was Indiana, and the Hawks were more worried about the Hoosier passing game and only gave up eight points. Iowa tackled very poorly in that game, but has tackled very well in the games before and after.
Iowa is still last in the league in pass defense (284.7 yards per game), but the average has improved greatly in recent weeks. Iowa is now fifth in the league in total defense (348.6 yards per game) third in the league in scoring defense (18.7 points per game), and is either first or second in opposition third down conversion percentage, sacks, and red zone defense. The pass defense has also improved in ball hawking as the defense now has twelve interceptions. FS Derek Pagel leads the team and is tied for second in the conference with four.
The Hawks should find success early and often on offense if they protect the ball. Combined with Northwestern's last place statistics in most defensive categories, and that Iowa is third in the league in rushing (205.5 yards per game), first in passing efficiency (146-249 for 2,200 yards, 20 TDs, 4 INTs), third in total offense (425.5 yards per game), and most importantly, first in scoring (36.0 points per game), the Iowa Offense should be productive. In recent weeks, Iowa has not run the ball as well as they were early in the season, but QB Brad Banks, TE Dallas Clark, and the Iowa receivers and offensive linemen have picked up the slack. Teams continue to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the running game even though RB Fred Russell has not been healthy for some time, but the OL has continued to protect Banks as the Hawks have given up the least sacks (11) in the conference. Banks also plays a part in the success of the OL as he avoid sacks very well and his ability to scramble causes opposing defenses to rush differently than they would otherwise.
Russell is closer to healthy this week, and is planning on playing. Combined with RB Jermelle Lewis, there is no reason why the Hawks should not be able to thrive by running the ball this week. As long as both of them are able to protect the ball, the holes will be there. These last two games against Northwestern and Minnesota are both games that Iowa needs to run with success if the team is going to finish what it started. The health of Russell is a big part of that equation. Hopefully his hand is adequate this week.
History is on the side of Iowa - The Hawks hold a 44-18-3 advantage in the series that began with a 12-6 victory in 1897. At one point, Iowa won 21 straight from 1974-1994 before losing to Gary Barnett's Rose Bowl team in 1995. The series has been back and forth in recent years, but the only Wildcat win in Iowa City since 1971 was in 1996. The Hawkeyes have won three of the last four meeting, including last year's 59-16 win in Evanston. That game was very representative of many of the games played between the two teams in the 1980s and 1990s as Iowa rolled up 602 yards of total offense. The Hawkeyes' defense held Northwestern to 256 yards of total offense and forced three turnovers.
Last Home Game for the Seniors - The last home game is always an emotional thing for players and fans, but the seniors are usually the most emotional. This will be the last game in Kinnick for guys like C Bruce Nelson, LG Eric Steinbach, RG Andy Lightfoot, RT David Porter, QB Brad Banks, LB Fred Barr, DT Colin Cole, and FS Derek Pagel. Since his career has been marred by injuries and he was only able to regularly play in 1997, 1998, and this season, Saturday will mark the last home game in the six-year career of RG Ben Sobieski. These players either came to Iowa City at the end of Coach Fry's reign, or in the case of Barr and Cole, were some of the first key recruits under Coach Ferentz. No matter when they came to Iowa City, everyone but Banks and C.J. Jones had to go through some of the worst seasons of Iowa Football in the last thirty years.
Most of the guys listed above were regulars and played a major role on the teams in 1999 and 2000, and have taken the lumps and worked hard to turn this program back to what it was. The success was slow at first, but these seniors should be proud of their efforts as the program has improved each year: 1-10 in 1999, 3-9 in 2000, 7-5 last year, and 9-1 so far this year. They have a chance to be only the fourth Iowa team ever to win ten games if they win this week, and can go out in style if they win this week and next week against Minnesota. If they can complete the task, they will be the first team to ever win eleven games in school history, and will be the first Iowa team to go undefeated in league play since 1922. Although the Wildcats have struggled, no Iowa senior wants their dreams of what may be to come crashing down with a loss to NU.