Northwestern enters this week's game against Iowa as a huge underdog, but I personally don't see why the spread is over two touchdowns.
After all, Iowa has only won two games by two touchdowns or more this season, and one of those was last week against Indiana, where they trailed 24-14 entering the fourth quarter. Northwestern also came away with a victory in Kinnick Stadium last year after shutting them out in the second half.
This game should be closer than the 16-point spread, in my opinion. Here are several reasons why.
Northwestern's Efficient Passing Attack
Iowa has an excellent secondary, but Northwestern has the weapons to move the ball against their stout defense.
Mike Kafka is one of the most accurate passers in college football, and he has the Cats ranked 24th in the country in passing yards per game. Before leaving last week's game with a hamstring injury early in the second quarter, he had racked up 170 yards of total offense against a highly-regarded Penn State defense.
NU has a chance to have a productive day throwing the ball. The Cats have struggled on offense when their pass blocking fails them, especially since they do not have a strong running game. Iowa has a good defense, but they do not put great pressure on the quarterback. They actually have fewer sacks on the year than NU, who I consider to have a fairly mild pass rush.
If the Cats can keep Iowa out of the backfield, Kafka is capable of finding gaps in their coverage. C.J. Bacher threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns against the Hawkeyes last year, and NU's passing game has been more consistently dangerous this year.
Obviously all of this depends on Kafka playing. He is currently listed on the injury report as questionable. However, from everything I have seen and heard, all indications are that he will play. If the Cats have to start Dan Persa, bet the house on Iowa, as NU will struggle to move the ball.
Iowa's Banged-Up Backfield
The Hawkeyes are down to their third string running back after losing Jewel Hampton before the season and Adam Robinson two weeks ago. Considering that Iowa is a run-heavy team, that definitely hurts their offense. They don't exactly have Shonn Greene back toting the rock like he did in last year's matchup with great success.
Brandon Wegher had a big game against Indiana last week, racking up 118 yards and three touchdowns. However, he's still averaging only 3.9 yards per carry on the season.
The Cats might be a middling sixth in rushing defense, but that total is a bit misleading. NU's rush defense has improved greatly since struggling against Syracuse and Minnesota. They shut down the running game entirely against Purdue and Michigan State, and their performance against Indiana and Penn State would look a lot better if not for a long touchdown run in each game (70 and 69 yards, respectively).
If Iowa can't run the ball with regularity, that will put a lot more pressure on Rick Stanzi to make plays. That takes me to my next point.
Rick Stanzi Is Not an Efficient Passer
Iowa has some dangerous receiving options that consistently make big plays. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt are both averaging about 20 yards per reception, and 10 different Hawkeyes have a catch for at least 20 yards.
That said, their passing game is fairly erratic because of their quarterback, Rick Stanzi. His completion percentage hovers in the mid-50s, he's thrown 13 interceptions on the season, and he's only thrown for as many as 225 yards on four occasions, with two of them coming against Northern Iowa and Arkansas State. Stanzi has also only been sacked three times fewer than NU's quarterbacks, despite the fact that the Cats have attempted 78 more passes.
Iowa has the potential to kill you through the air, as evidenced by their several comeback wins. However, if you force Stanzi to make plays in the passing game, there's also a decent chance something good will happen for your team.
Iowa will likely get some big plays on offense against the Cats. Northwestern's defense has struggled with the big play most of the year; anyone that watched the fourth quarter of the Penn State game can attest to that.
However, their defense also has the ability to shut teams down for long stretches. They pitched a shutout in the second half against Purdue and Indiana and kept explosive Michigan State and Penn State offenses in check for most of those games. They can also move the ball effectively through the air, though they can struggle to finish off drives.
I think this game will come down to the effectiveness of Iowa's passing game. Stanzi should have several opportunities to make big plays, but he will have to find those chances and deliver the ball. If he doesn't, their offense could struggle to move the ball, as they have on numerous occasions this year.
As for NU, Kafka has to play a good game and be a factor both through the air and on the ground. They probably won't be able to run the ball with any kind of consistency against this defense. The Cats will also probably need to make a big play or two on offense, as their typical dink-and-dunk approach will be tough to run consistently against a tough Iowa defense.
They will also have to avoid major mistakes, especially with turnovers. Iowa's defense is too good to throw away chances, and they can't afford to make it easier on the Hawkeye offense either. A few mistakes from Iowa would help, too, as they will likely need a couple of short field opportunities to score enough to win.
I'm going to have some faith in my team and say they pull it off. Iowa will get some big plays in the passing game, but NU will be able to stop them often enough to have a chance to win it. Kafka and the offense will move the ball, but likely settle for field goals on most of their drives. I'm also counting on at least one big mistake from Iowa's offense to help out NU.
NU 23, Iowa 21