By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Northwestern has struggled to sustain success for an extended period under Pat Fitzgerald, and this season is the latest example.
The Wildcats are 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten and have allowed at least 30 points in all five losses, including a 56-7 loss at Nebraska and a 41-14 loss to Minnesota this past Saturday at home.
It’s a drastic change from last season when Northwestern won the Big Ten West Division for the second time in three years and finished 10-3 overall. One of those wins was a 21-20 come-from-behind victory at Iowa in which the Wildcats trailed 17-0 in the first quarter.
Northwestern was hit hard by graduation, though, with two of the biggest losses being quarterback Peyton Ramsey and linebacker Paddie Fisher.
Saturday’s game will kick-off at the unusual time of 6 p.m., thanks to the power and influence of television, so maybe that’ll light a fire under Northwestern fans to show up, but don’t count on it.
Iowa fans, on the other hand, always have a strong showing at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, partly because it’s convenient in terms of travel and location, and because it’s a reason to spend a day, a night or a weekend in the Chicago area.
Iowa having lost its past two games against Purdue and Wisconsin by scores of 24-7 and 27-7, respectively, might keep a few Iowa fans from attending Saturday’s game.
But there still should be a very noticeable Hawkeye presence in the stands.
So while this is a road game, it’s one of the least imposing road environments in the Big Ten, especially when Northwestern is struggling as it is right now.
Quarterback: I have too much respect and admiration for Spencer Petras to say this is like picking the lesser of two evils, or picking a winner by default.
But it’s fair to say that both teams have had serious issues at quarterback. Iowa had just been better at overcoming Petras’ issues until the last two games.
Petras has thrown nine touchdown passes and six interception, including four against Purdue. He is completing 58.4 percent of his passes and averaging 178.3 passing yards per game.
All of those numbers are average at best.
Compared to Northwestern, however, Petras doesn’t look so bad.
Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson started the first three games, but was benched after having as many interceptions in three games (4) as touchdown passes.
Ryan Hilinski has started the last five games and has been average on his good days, with just three touchdown passes.
Andrew Marty is another option for Northwestern, and he’s a threat to run or throw.
Northwestern certainly has more depth from an experience standpoint, but its passing attack is very much like Iowa’s in that yards, and explosive plays, have been hard to come by.
So, that made this a difficult choice.
Running back: Somewhat lost in Northwestern’s struggles this season has been the performance of running back Evan Hull. Opposing defenses often know he’s getting the ball, and he doesn’t always have much running room, but the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Hull just keeps producing. He’s averaging 93.8 rushing yards per game and an impressive 6.5 yards per carry. He had a 90-yard touchdown run against Ohio State.
Hull also has a decent supporting cast with Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III having rushed for 244 and 205 yards, respectively, in games.
Junior Tyler Goodson leads Iowa with 613 rushing yards in eight games, which is an average 76.6 yards per game. But his per-game average has been on the decline, along with his yards-per-carry average, which is currently 4.1 yards per attempt.
Fifth-year senior backup Ivory Kelly-Martin will also miss the game due to a foot injury, and will be replaced in the rotation by redshirt freshman Gavin Williams, who has 10 carries for 40 yards.
Receiver: Northwestern’s top three receivers have combined for 77 receptions, 979 receiving yards and four touchdowns, while Iowa’s top five receivers have combine for 65 catches for 784 yards and six touchdowns.
Northwestern has the two most productive receivers in Stephon Robinson and Malik Washington, who have 425 and 351 receiving yards, respectively. That’s more than any receiver has for Iowa.
Robinson and Washington also have 30 and 28 catches, respectively, while Nico Ragaini leads the Iowa receivers with 20 catches for 269 yards.
Freshman Keagan Johnson ranks second among the Iowa receivers with 214 receiving yards, but he’s gained those yards on just eight catches.
Johnson’s role has expanded in recent games and his ability to make catches down field is what Iowa so desperately needs.
Tight end: No disrespect to Northwestern tight end Charlie Mangieri, but this isn’t close.
This is Sam LaPorta by a landslide, and it’s easy to explain why.
LaPorta leads Iowa in receptions (31) and receiving yards (376) and is without question Spencer Petras’ favorite target, almost a security blanket.
Mangieri, on the other hand, has eight catches for 50 yards and zero touchdowns. He’s averaging 7.1 receiving yards per game, while LaPorta is averaging 47.0 receiving yards per game.
Offensive line: Iowa has allowed 10 sacks in the last two games and is ranked next to last in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging just 105.0 yards per game.
A lot of that falls on these guys.
Northwestern’s offensive line is far from being a strength, but it’s helping the offense average 158.88 rushing yards per game.
Iowa has arguably the top center in college football in junior Tyler Linderbaum, while Northwestern has one of the top offensive tackles in college football in sophomore Peter Skoronski. So they sort of cancel each other out.
This mostly came down to Iowa’s inability to sustain a running game and protect the quarterback.
Defensive line: The fact that Northwestern is allowing a whooping 229.5 rushing yards per game speaks volumes about the deficiencies on its defensive line. No other team in the conference is allowing more than 161.0 rushing yards per game, and Iowa is ranked third in the conference in rushing defense, allowing just 99.25 per-game average.
Neither team has a player ranked in the top 10 in the conference in tackles for loss or sacks.
But Northwestern’s inability to stop the run is just too glaring in this case.
Linebacker: Iowa junior Jack Campbell is ranked fifth in the conference with an average of 9.5 tackles per game, while his sidekick at linebacker, junior Seth Benson is averaging 7.13 tackles per game.
Campbell also has five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown in the win over Iowa State.
Sophomore Jestin Jacobs also has performed well in Iowa’s 4-3 alignment with 37 tackles despite only playing part time since Iowa often uses five defensive backs and two linebackers. Jacobs forced the fumble against Iowa State that Campbell returned for a touchdown.
Bryce Gallagher leads Northwestern, and ranks 10th in the Big Ten, with an average of 8.00 tackles per game. Peter McIntyre also has 48 tackles in eight games.
Defensive back: Iowa has the edge in depth and productivity, but Northwestern has the best defensive back in sophomore safety Brandon Joseph. He earned All-America honors as a redshirt freshman last season and is performing at an exceptionally high level this season with 60 tackles, including 40 solo stops, two interceptions and three pass breakups.
Iowa will be without starting cornerback Riley Moss, and his backup Terry Roberts due to injuries, so this choice was a harder than you might think.
But the Hawkeyes still have four experienced defensive backs in senior cornerback Matt Hankins, senior safety Jack Koerner and junior safeties Dane Belton and Kaevon Merriweather.
Sophomore Jamari Harris also held his own against Wisconsin last Saturday in his first career start at cornerback.
Special teams: Iowa has a statistical edge at kicker, at punter and in the return game. Enough said.