Iowa football seeks revenge on Northwestern

Two lagging offenses and two strong defenses have Iowa and Northwestern set up for a gritty battle at Ryan Field.


David Harmantas

Iowa defensive back Michael Ojemudia #11 tackles Northwestern wide receiver Riley Lees #19 along the sidelines during a game against Northwestern University on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes 14-10. (David Harmantas/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Mills, Sports Reporter

In last season’s meeting between Northwestern and Iowa, Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson launched a 32-yard touchdown pass to a diving Bennett Skowronek in the fourth quarter, posting the go-ahead touchdown for the visiting team in Kinnick Stadium.

Dejected Hawkeye fans averted their eyes from the Northwestern sideline as the Wildcats secured a Big Ten West division title and a third-straight victory over the Hawkeyes. The 14-10 final score was typical of a game between the defensive stalwarts.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz still says that Saturday’s matchup with Northwestern in Evanston is a fresh game with a different team, making last year’s results — and the results of the last three seasons — largely irrelevant.

“You have to look at this year because every team is a new team, has a different personality,” he said. “You start factoring injuries in, position changes, things like that. There’s always plenty of work to do.”

Hardly anything is a given in the West this year, but it’s apparent Northwestern will not be representing the division in the Big Ten Championship this time around. The Wildcats have had their fair share of struggles and are 1-5 on the year, having only taken down UNLV in Week 2.

Northwestern has failed to score at least 20 points in each of its last four games, largely due to a lackluster passing attack that ranks last in the Big Ten in yards per game. Quarterback Hunter Johnson has only thrown one touchdown on the year, paired with seven interceptions. Aidan Smith has also only thrown one touchdown while tossing five picks.

The only true productivity on the Wildcat offense has come from running back Drake Anderson, who averages 4.7 yards per carry and has taken nearly half of all the team’s carries in 2019.

Northwestern most recently gave up 52 points to Ohio State — its worst defensive performance of the season by far. Paired with its poor offense, head coach Pat Fitzgerald says a reset is in order. Usually critical of technology, Fitzgerald — who has the most wins over Ferentz out of any coach in the Big Ten — used computers to illustrate his point to his team this time around.

“It’s the three magic buttons of getting things fixed, but they all have to be pressed at the same time,” he said. “And that’s control, alt, delete. You know what that does? It restarts it. That’s what [the team] talked about.”

The slow Wildcat offense has a similar counterpart this weekend. Iowa has only put up over 20 points once in its last three games, although it is the clear favorite on Saturday.

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A flurry of injuries to the already-struggling Hawkeye offense presents a perfect storm for Northwestern to make an upset happen at Ryan Field. Brandon Smith — who leads Iowa with 33 receptions — left last week’s game against Purdue with a leg injury. But quarterback Nate Stanley has had a fairly stead receiving corps this year, even though it has had trouble finishing off drives.

“Unfortunately, injuries happen, but I think a lot of guys have been putting in the time to make sure they’re ready to play,” Stanley said.

The Iowa offense has certainly found ways to move the ball — Stanley leads the Big Ten in passing yards for a reason — but drives stall in the red zone, making it hard for the team to win any closely-contested game. Smith’s absence only makes this more difficult. But any sort of attention to detail, Stanley said, will help the team finally finish drives.

“Most of it is just from us hurting ourselves, whether it be sacks or penalties,” he said. “We unfortunately haven’t capitalized on opportunities we’ve had.”