Iowa Football: 10 Key Matchups When the Hawkeyes Play Northwestern

David Fidler Correspondent IOctober 12, 2011

Iowa Football: 10 Key Matchups When the Hawkeyes Play Northwestern

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    Last year, Northwestern running back Adonis Smith put aside any pretensions of decorum, and said that his head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, "hates Iowa...I know that for a fact."

    Of course, the Cats wound up winning the game last year, and they even did it without injuring Iowa's best offensive player.

    All whining aside, it is difficult to deny the emphasis Fitzgerald places on the Iowa game. His teams always come out pumped, and for some odd reason, Iowa usually comes out flat.

    Going back to 2005, the Hawkeyes are 1-5 against Northwestern.

    The only regular opponent that Iowa has a worse record against over that time period is Ohio State.

    Iowa has a better recent record against Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin than it does against Northwestern.

    Maybe this is the year Iowa snaps the streak. After all, it's been an odd year. Penn State got the Iowa monkey off its back. Iowa has the fourth-most passing attempts in the conference. The Hawkeye defense is bendable and breakable. Kirk Ferentz has flirted with a no-huddle offense.

    Currently, the Vegas oddsmakers have Iowa as seven-point favorites, though Iowa has been the favorites for each of the last three years as well.

    But in this year of anomalies, maybe the Hawks will finally show up and beat the Cats.

Iowa's Receivers vs. Northwestern's Secondary

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    Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins torched the Cats two weeks ago. He had 12 receptions for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

    Last week, NU played Michigan, which had its biggest game of the season through the air. The Wolverines totaled 362 yards passing on 19 receptions. Furthermore, receiver Junior Hemingway totaled five catches for 124 yards.

    Finally, Boston College, which has one of the worst offenses, and specifically one of the worst passing offenses in the country, had, by far, its best game through the air against Northwestern. The Eagles totaled 375 yards passing on 24 receptions.

    The Cats' other two opponents were Army, who is a triple-option team that passed once against NU, and FCS Eastern Illinois.

    Despite the mess against Penn State, Iowa has one of the more potent passing attacks in the Big Ten. Furthermore, Marvin McNutt may be the best receiver Northwestern has faced this season, and he is the best NFL-caliber receiver that Northwestern has faced or will face.

    In short, Iowa has the receivers and the passing game to burn NU, provided Kirk Ferentz allows it to happen.

Iowa vs. Dan Persa vs. Dan Persa's Health

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    In 2010, Dan Persa was the Cats' leading rusher until an Achilles' tendon tear ended his season early.

    He finished the season with 164 carries for 519 yards and nine touchdowns. That is even more impressive when you consider that in college ball, sack yardage is subtracted from the quarterback's rushing total.

    As Northwestern let up the most sacks in the conference in 2010—40—you can imagine what Persa's pre-sack rushing numbers looked like.

    This season, coming off his injury, he is nowhere near the same rusher. In three games, he has negative-eight yards on 18 carries.

    That said, he is still the same passer as he was in 2010. He has completed 72.4 percent of his passes to go along with a 157.48 efficiency rating and a touchdown:interception ratio of 4:1.

    Equally as important, he is just as elusive in the pocket as he was last season.

    In closing, Persa does not have the explosiveness he formerly had, so he is not much of a rush threat. But he is a great passer, and this is especially true if he can get out of the pocket.

    Complicating this, backup quarterback Kain Colter is a dangerous runner. He leads the Cats with 294 yards for 5.25 YPC and five touchdowns.

    Since Persa's return, Fitzgerald has regularly subbed Colter in as a running threat. In effect, the Hawks will have to be aware of whether No. 7, Persa, or No. 2, Colter, is receiving the snaps.

Northwestern Defense vs. The Red Zone vs. Kirk Ferentz's Conservatism

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    The NU defense is average in the red zone, letting up a score 80 percent of the time, which is tied for seventh in the Big Ten.

    On the other hand, it is the worst in letting up touchdowns in the red zone, ranking last in the conference by allowing a success rate of 75 percent.

    This is not surprising given that the Cats have a suspect rush D and a very suspect defensive line. Basically, this D-line is not getting a push. If its opponent needs one yard for the first down (or touchdown), they'll probably get it.

    Not surprisingly, the Cats are tied for eighth in the conference in TFL (our friends in black-and-gold are dead last). They've also surrendered the most rushing touchdowns.

    Meanwhile, Iowa has converted 94.74 percent of its red zone opportunities, which puts them at second in the conference. The Hawks are seventh in red-zone opportunities converted into touchdowns.

    Finally, Iowa is tied for ninth in the conference in red-zone opportunities. As the teams below and accompanying them—Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State—comprise the worst offenses in the league, the Hawks are in some pretty lousy company.

    In short, Northwestern is vulnerable in the red zone, and Iowa has to take the points when it can get them. I'm not saying Mike Meyer, the place kicker, should only kick extra points against NU.

    I am saying that when in the red zone, Kirk Ferentz should think long and hard before sending him out there to attempt a field goal.

Iowa vs. Turnovers

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    The Northwestern defense depends on two things and only two things.

    The first element of the NU defense is their offense. It has to stay on the field. 

    For an example of this, look at 2010. While Dan Persa was healthy, the Wildcat defense let up 21.4 points per game. After Persa was injured, they let up 54.3 points per game. The quality of their opponents played a part, but that is an egregious difference of over 30 PPG.

    The defensive personnel was the same. The only difference between those two stretches was the absence of Persa (and later, the loss of starting running back Mike Trumpy).

    Point is, when the offense was shorthanded and couldn't maintain possession, the defense collapsed.

    The second key element of the Northwestern offense is forcing turnovers.

    The Wildcats, under current defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, are willing to give up yardage provided they get turnovers. In all three of Hankwitz's years in Evanston, the Cats have ranked in the top half of the conference in turnovers created.

    In 2008, Iowa gave away the game via turnovers. They cannot fall into the trap of the NU D. Take care of the ball, and you will beat the Wildcat defense..

    Of note, NU is currently No. 1 in conference in turnover margin at a whopping plus-1.40, though they are No. 5 in turnovers gained.

The Iowa Defense vs. Third Down

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    This is where the Hawks got destroyed last season—overall but specifically against NU. The Cats converted 9-of-16 third downs against Iowa last season. By contrast, UI converted 2-of-14. If you want the key stat for last year's loss, that is it.

    The Hawkeye defense is not doing great this season, either. They currently rank ninth in the conference and 96th nationally in opponents' third-down conversions.

    To put that in perspective, Iowa's FBS opponents this season have a combined third-down success rate of 44.3 percent against the Hawks. They have converted just above 39 percent against all of their other opponents.

    Converting just over 44 percent would put them at about 40th nationally. Converting 39 percent would put them at 70th, which, incidentally, is exactly where Penn State—Iowa's most recent opponent—is.

    As previously mentioned, the Northwestern defense depends on the offense to keep them off the field. In effect, third down conversions are a key statistic for the Wildcat team dynamic.

    Due to the nature of the NU offense, converting third-and-short is fairly standard for them.

    Therefore, the Iowa defense has to force them into third-and-long situations and then hold them. If they don't, the Hawkeyes' only hope will be to outscore the Wildcats, and I don't like Kirk Ferentz in an offensive shootout.

Iowa's Secondary vs. Jeremy Ebert

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    Ebert has been fairly quiet this season, mostly because Persa has been out and Fitz doesn't trust backup quarterback Kain Colter's arm yet.

    In five games, Ebert has 26 receptions for 316 yards, 12.15 YPC and five touchdowns. That is not bad, but last season, he led the conference in yards per game and was fifth in receptions per game.

    That's the tough thing about being a receiver—you're only as good as the throws that come your way.

    Nonetheless, Ebert is still dangerous, and has continued to be murder in the red zone. He is currently third in the conference in receiving touchdowns.

    Meanwhile, the Iowa pass defense ranks ninth in the Big Ten with an opponent quarterback efficiency rating of 132.52.

    The pass defense has gotten progressively better. However, it will require some tweaks as Persa is, by far, the best quarterback it has faced this season.

    Ebert, along with PSU's Derek Moye, is the best receiver they've faced and if he is given time, he will get open 100 percent of the time.

Venric Mark vs. Iowa Kick Coverage

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    True sophomore Venric Mark ranks seventh in the Big Ten in kickoff returns. He has managed a meh 23.42 YPR in 12 returns.

    Nevertheless, he is dangerous as he proved last season. In 2010, he was the fourth-best return man in the conference, averaging 26.19 YPR with one touchdown.

    Meanwhile, Iowa has had inconsistent kickoff coverage for two years. Thus far this season, they rank ninth in the conference, allowing 23.15 YPR.

    That number is made uglier when one considers their FBS opponents have a national ranking of 93 (Penn State), 57 (Louisiana-Monroe), 80 (Pitt) and 44 (Iowa State) in kick return average.

    Regardless how good Mark is, this will be an issue until Iowa proves that it has solved the problem.

Northwestern vs. the Northwestern Field-Goal Kicker

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    NU is not doing so hot in the field-goal department.

    Sophomore Jeff Budzien has gone 2-for-4 this season—his first as a starter. He hit a 20- and a 43-yarder and missed a 26- and a 45-yarder.

    That could be a big deal in a matchup that has been decided by a touchdown or less in each of the last three seasons and four of the last seven.

Kinnick Stadium vs. Iowa vs. Northwestern

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    It will be a night game. The fans will alternate black and gold sections the way they did against Penn State last year. Kinnick will be electric.

    How will that work for the Hawks?

    Northwestern is weird. Ryan Field is such a dump that coming into a stadium that is on fire, even against them, might very well get them pumped. It would certainly get me pumped if I were a Wildcat.

    This is especially true with a healthy Persa. There is a lot of experience on the Northwestern offense. They won't get rattled by the crowd.

    I'm not saying there isn't a home-field advantage for the Hawks. I'm just saying it is not what one would think.

Kirk Ferentz, the Old Stick in the Mud vs. Pat Fitzgerald, the Evil Wizard

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    In 2005, Randy Walker's Cats were down by two touchdowns with just over three minutes to go. They proceeded to drive the length of the field and score, recover an onside kick, drive 50 yards and score, and then they prevented Iowa from getting into field goal range.

    They won the game 28-27. Fitzgerald was not yet the head coach, but he was the linebacker coach, and I'm sure he used his evil wizardry to help out his old boss.

    The 2006 Iowa-Northwestern game—the first of which Fitzgerald was the head man—featured the low point of the Kirk Ferentz era—the "fat cats" game. The end result was a 21-7 Northwestern win, of which the score doesn't do justice to just how hapless Iowa was.

    In 2007, a terrible Hawkeye offense somehow managed to tack 28 points onto the Cats. Fitz's evil powers must have been blocked by the alignment of the planets.

    In 2008, Northwestern concussed Shonn Greene en route to a 22-17 win.

    In 2009, Northwestern tore Ricky Stanzi's leg off en route to a 17-10 win.

    In 2010, down by two scores in the fourth quarter, Northwestern put up 14 unanswered points against a top 10 defense to win 21-17. Dan Persa tore his Achilles tendon on the last pass of his season—a touchdown pass to seal the win.

    Evil Wizardry or great coaching?

    Meanwhile, Kirk Ferentz is the guy who has already sat on his offense twice this season—once against ISU and once against Penn State—rather than trying to put points on the board with well over a minute on the clock.

    Kirk Ferentz is also the guy who regularly sends his running back into eight- and nine-man defensive fronts.

    He is the guy who punted from the opposing team's 33-yard line last week.

    In short, Kirk Ferentz occasionally leaves fans wondering if he has any faith in his offense and if he has too much faith in his defense.

    Conservatism is one thing, but Kirk Ferentz has gotten to a point where he would more appropriately be called a pathologically risk-averse stick-in-the-mud than a conservative, old school coach.

Bonus Slide: Five Keys to an Iowa Victory

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    1. Contain Persa.

    This season, he won't snap off any 22 yard runs on 3rd-and-4, as he did on his final drive against Iowa last season. But he will buy time for himself if he needs to. If Persa is stuck in the pocket, he is vulnerable. Iowa has to make sure he stays in the pocket.


    2. Do not turn the ball over.

    This is always a theme for Iowa, but especially against Northwestern, whose defense preys on the turnover.


    3. Take advantage of offensive opportunities.

    Northwestern is currently ranked 11th in the conference in scoring defense, 12th in total defense, eighth in rushing defense (YPC) and 11th in passing defense (opponents' quarterback efficiency rating). There is no reason that Iowa shouldn't move the ball or score on this team.

    In effect, leaving points on the field will be deadly against NU. I'm not saying Iowa should refuse to settle for field goals. I am saying they have to get seven out of red zone visits and take advantage of every possession they have, including the ones with 100 seconds to go in the half.


    4. Do not let the Wildcats convert third downs, especially third-and-longs.

    The dynamic of NU is that the offense holds on to the ball. If they don't, the defense will be vulnerable. For proof of this, look at the Northwestern defense last season after Persa was injured.


    5. Play with urgency, establish dominance and put them away early.

    Do not let this turn into a one-possession game. The Wildcats under Pat Fitzgerald have proven they will usually win those contests.