By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Given how difficult it has been for Iowa to score points this season, and last season for that matter, it seems only fitting that Saturday’s game against Northwestern will be played in a legendary baseball stadium.
The last time Iowa played a Big Ten opponent on a baseball field was on Nov. 24, 1904, in a Thanksgiving game against Minnesota at Athletic Park in Cedar Rapids. The Gophers won 11-0.
The last time Iowa played in a baseball stadium was the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl when the Hawkeyes defeated Boston College 27-20 at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
Saturday’s game, which starts at 2:30 p.m. and will be televised on Peacock, will be Iowa’s first since news broke this past Monday that Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz would be relieved of his duties after the 2023 season.
Iowa (6-2, 3-2) is 8-11 coming off a bye week under head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Iowa is also coming off a devastating 12-10 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 21 at Kinnick Stadium.
Cooper DeJean had a potential-game winning punt return for a touchdown erased on an invalid fair catch signal late in the fourth quarter.
Northwestern, meanwhile, has exceeded expectations with a 4-4 overall record under interim head coach David Braun.
He inherited a brutal situation as the replacement for long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was fired prior to the season as part of the fallout from a hazing investigation.
“They’re gaining momentum and playing with confidence,” Kirk Ferentz said of the Wildcats.
Iowa has won the last two games in the series, but the Wildcats have won four of the last seven games in the series that dates back to 1897.
The position matchups will go a long way in determining the outcome of Saturday’s game and here is a look at which team has the advantage at each position.
Quarterback: Both teams have lost their starting quarterback due to an injury, but the Wildcats have handled it much better than Iowa has so far this season.
Sophomore Brendan Sullivan, who began the season as the backup to Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant, is coming off arguably his best game as a Wildcats quarterback as he threw two touchdown passes, passed for 265 yards, and added 56 yards on the ground in Northwestern’s 33-27 victory over Maryland last Saturday.
Sullivan has completed 51-80 passing attempts this season for 633 yards and five touchdowns.
He is also a threat to run and has 136 net rushing yards in seven games.
Bryant, meanwhile, has started five games this season and has 926 passing yards and six touchdown passes.
Sophomore Deacon Hill has started the last three games for the injured Cade McNamara, but it has mostly been a struggle for Hill.
He lost two fumbles and threw an interception in the 12-10 loss to Minnesota on Oct. 21, and is completing just 37.8 percent of his passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns.
Running back: Cam Porter leads Northwestern with 363 rushing yards, while Leshon Williams leads Iowa with 472 rushing yards.
Iowa is only averaging 115.9 rushing yards per game, but the Wildcats have been worse, averaging just 99.8 yards per game.
Iowa is also now mostly healthy at running back with the recent returns of Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson, who have rushed for 278 and 106 yards despite each having missed three games.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has shown a willingness to use all three running backs in a rotation this season.
Williams, Johnson, and Patterson each have also led Iowa in rushing in at least one game this season.
Joseph Himon only has 70 rushing yards this season for Northwestern, but he has 11 catches for 203 receiving yards, including an 85-yard touchdown catch.
Iowa will have to be aware of Himon as a receiving threat coming out of the backfield.
Anthony Tyus has 127 rushing yards for the Wildcats.
Wide receiver: Northwestern’s top two receivers from a statistical standpoint – Bryce Kirtz and Cam Johnson – have combined for 61 receptions, 895 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Iowa’s top three wide receivers – Nico Ragaini, Diante Vines and Seth Anderson – have combined for 31 catches, 330 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Kirtz leads Northwestern with 474 receiving yards and four touchdown catches, while Johnson leads Northwestern in catches with 31 catches for 385 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Ragaini leads the Iowa receivers with 14 receptions, while Vines leads the team with 125 receiving yards.
Michigan transfer A.J. Henning has provided a boost for Northwestern at this position as he has 25 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns.
Statistically speaking, this isn’t close.
Tight end: Iowa had a clear advantage at this position before Luke Lachey and Erick All both suffered season-ending injuries in the third and seventh games, respectively.
Senior Steve Stilianos leads the healthy Iowa tight ends with five catches for 54 yards, while Addison Ostrenga has three catches for 30 yards. Ostrenga is now healthy again after having missed two game earlier in the season due to an injury.
Sophomore walk-on Johnny Pascuzzi has moved into the No. 3 tight end spot for Iowa and has one catch for one yard.
Northwestern tight ends Thomas Gordon and Marshall Lang have nine and five catches, respectively. Gordon has 96 receiving yards and one touchdown catch, while Lang has 55 receiving yards and zero touchdowns.
This was a tough choice due to Iowa’s injury situation and because the Northwestern tight ends haven’t been very productive. The decision ultimately came down to picking somebody almost by default.
Offensive line: The fact that Northwestern is averaging fewer than 100 rushing yards per game doesn’t speak well for its offensive line.
Northwestern’s offensive line was hit hard by graduation, with the biggest loss being former All-America left tackle Peter Skoronski, who now plays in the NFL.
Iowa’s five starting offensive linemen have combined for 129 career starts, but even with all that experience, it’s been a struggle this season as evidenced by the mediocre rushing statistics.
The Iowa offensive line has performed well at times this season, most notably in the 15-6 victory at Wisconsin when the Hawkeyes rushed for 200 yards.
Defensive line: Iowa’s four starters on the defensive line have combined for 72 starts, and with junior defensive end Ethan Hurkett and sophomore tackle Aaron Graves providing quality depth, this is a position of strength for the Hawkeyes.
All four of Iowa’s starters have at least 27 tackles this season, led by 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior tackle Yahya Black with 37.
Sixth-year senior defensive end Joe Evans leads the Iowa defensive linemen with 7.5 tackles for loss and with eight quarterback hurries.
Northwestern’s defensive line is led by Richie Hagerty, junior defensive end Sean McLaughlin, senior defensive end Jaylen Pate and sophomore tackle Carmine Bastone.
Hagarty leads the Northwestern defensive linemen with 25 tackles, while sophomore defensive end Aidan Hubbard leads the Northwestern defensive linemen with four sacks.
Linebacker: Both teams have a productive tandem at linebacker.
Juniors Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller lead Northwestern with 70 and 55 tackles respectively, while seniors Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson lead Iowa with 101 and 65, tackles, respectively.
Higgins also leads the Big Ten, and ranks second nationally, with an average of 12.6 tackles per game. He has had at least 15 tackles in two games and six games with at least 10 tackles. He had a career-high 18 tackles against Penn State.
Jackson, a graduate transfer from Virginia where he finished with 429 career tackles, also has 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.
Iowa’s third linebacker is senior Kyler Fisher, who has 22 tackles this season and has played in 41 games overall.
Mueller leads Northwestern with 4.5 sacks.
Northwestern’s third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh leading tacklers are defensive backs, led by junior Coco Azema with 43 stops.
He also has one interception and one pass breakup.
Junior Devin Turner had a season-high nine tackles against Duke, and he leads the team with four pass breakups.
Iowa’s five starters in the secondary have combined for 78 career starts, led by junior cornerback Cooper DeJean and senior free safety Quinn Schulte with 21 starts apiece.
Schulte leads the Iowa defensive backs with 46 tackles, while Dejean has 38 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions.
Senior safety Sebastian Castro, who plays the cash position, has 37 tackles, six tackles for loss three interceptions and four pass breakups.
Sophomore strong safety Xavier Nwankpa, a former five-star recruit from Southeast Polk, has 31 tackles, while junior cornerback and Chicago native Jermari Harris has 19 tackles, one interception, and one pass breakup this season. Harris missd the first two games this season under susspension and the entire 2-22 seacon due to an injury.
He will be making his 13th career start on Saturday, and will be playing in his hometown.
Special teams: Iowa has arguably the best punter in college football in 26-year-old Australia native Tory Taylor, who is averaging 48.5 on 54 punts. His 54 punts are the most in the nation.
Taylor has had 23 punts travel beyond 50 yards and 21 downed inside the 20.
His ability to flip field position has been a key factor in Iowa winning six of eight games despite the problems on offense.
Iowa also has reliable kicker in sophomore Drew Stevens, who has made 13-of-16 field-goal attempts this season and 29-of-34 in his career. Stevens has also made all 35 of his point0afer kicks and 27 of his 38 kicks have resulted in touchbacks.
Cooper DeJean also gives Iowa a dangerous punt returner as he leads the Big Ten with a 13.0 punt return average.
Northwestern also ha s reliable kicker in Jack Olsen, who hs made 11-of-12 field-goal attempts this season with a long from 47 yards.
Hunter Renner has punted 43 times, but is averaging just 38.53 yards per attempt, which is 10 fewer yards than what Taylor averages.
Prediction: Iowa 6, Northwestern 5