By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There isn’t anything unusual about calling a Big Ten football game in late October a must win for a team.
So that’s what I’m doing in calling Saturday’s game against Northwestern a must-win for the Iowa football team.
It doesn’t matter that Iowa has only played one game because this shortened season is being played during a global pandemic where uncertainty is the only certainty.
Every win and loss has more importance because the season only consists of nine games, assuming the season makes it that far, and assuming there are no other cancellations due to COVID-19, besides Saturday’s game between Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Iowa blew a golden opportunity at Purdue last Saturday, losing 24-20 to a team that was without star receiver and return specialist Rondale Moore, and without nearly half of its coaching staff, including head coach Jeff Brohm after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Iowa had 460 yards against Purdue, but just couldn’t overcome two costly fumbles, including one in the fourth quarter, and 10 penalties.
“The bottom line is we have to play cleaner football, and if we don’t do that, we’re not going to have a chance to be successful,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “And if we do that, we give ourselves an opportunity maybe to be a little bit more successful and a little bit more turned out.”
An 0-2 start isn’t good under circumstance, but it would even be worse during this strange and surreal season.
Northwestern is coming off a 3-9 season in 2019 in which its offense performed woefully, especially with regard to passing.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald knew he had to address his situation at quarterback, and he certainly did by landing Indiana graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey.
The addition of Ramsey, coupled with a new offensive coordinator, has provided a spark to the Northwestern offense, and with that, hope and optimism.
Ramsey completed 23-of-30 passes for 212 yards and one touchdown during last Saturday’s 43-3 drubbing of Maryland.
“When you watch the film you almost know what to expect and that is what you see,” Kirk Ferentz said. “You see a well-coached team, a team that plays extremely hard. They don’t give you anything easy, they make you work for everything you’re going to get, and then if you open the door at all they’re going to jump right in there.
“They’re a really good football team. The obvious thing if you looked at them last year, they had some trouble at the quarterback position, just never got settled there and a lot of those same faces from last year are back, so they’re a very veteran football team. You look at their linebackers, a lot of positions on the team, they have a lot of really not only veteran players, but veteran players that have played a couple years, not just one year. They have good personnel.”
Ferentz feels fortunate to be playing at home for the first time in nearly a year, but it’ll be different with hardly any fans in Kinnick Stadium.
The Iowa players will enter the field in their traditional swarm, and then players and coaches from both teams will perform the Wave after the first quarter.
“We’re certainly looking forward to being in Kinnick Stadium,’ Ferentz said. “It won’t be the same, obviously, just like being on the road was a little bit different, but that might even be a bigger thing at home when you expect your home crowd to be there and be part of the action. We’ll have to get used to that. We are looking forward to the wave, having an opportunity to do that.
“That’s a good thing certainly and that won’t change, but all in all it’s a big challenge. We’re looking forward to kickoff, and we know we’ve got a tall order on our hands. We’ve got really a lot of work to do this week to get ready for a very tough Northwestern football team.”
Sophomore Spencer Petras will make his second career start at quarterback for Iowa after passing for 265 yards against Purdue.
“We need to be more consistent,” Petras said when asked to access his first start. “But all my focus is on Northwestern right now. We’ve kind of put Purdue to bed on Sunday and now we’re just focused on beating Northwestern.”
Look for Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to get senior receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette more involved in the passing attack after the speedy New Jersey native failed to catch a pass against Purdue. Smith-Marsette is too explosive to not have any catches in a game.
“When guys — skill players typically if they don’t get the ball enough, they’re going to be frustrated and that’s fine because they want to help the team and what have you,” Kirk Ferentz said. “But the ball is going to go where it’s going to go typically. You can scheme some stuff up and try to do some things. We had him on a run, obviously; did a good job on that. Those were easier to do than in the passing game probably.”
Iowa will also try to establish the run because that’s what Iowa always tries to do. It worked against Purdue as the Hawkeyes finished with 195 yards on the ground and averaged 5.4 yards per attempt.
Iowa blanked Northwestern 20-0 last season, but a lot has changed since then, namely Northwestern’s situation at quarterback.
Saturday’s game, which starts at 2:30 and will be televised by ESPN, should be more competitive, but the Hawkeyes will be playing at home and are desperate for a win after a tumultuous offseason.
The feeling here is that should be enough to get Iowa over the hump.
Prediction: Iowa 28, Northwestern 27