Football: Wildcats look to fix little details ahead of Iowa matchup

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


The last time Northwestern traveled to Kinnick Stadium to face Iowa in 2018, it left with a new piece of hardware. This year’s trip won’t have as high stakes, but it will give the Wildcats a chance to carry their momentum from last week’s 43-3 blowout into the rest of the season, as they pursue another Big Ten West title.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said the team was explosive on both sides of the ball on Saturday, but hopes to see a lot of improvements on the fundamentals when the team travels to Iowa City.

“We’ve got to play a lot better,” Fitzgerald said. “As a squad, you make your largest improvement typically weeks 1 to 2 if you put the work in during the week… we’ve got to have great urgency in our preparation and get ready to go.”

Fitzgerald stressed the little things the team didn’t do well against Maryland. Despite how well it played, the offensive line abandoned some of the techniques it had done well in practice. Even though NU (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) held the Terrapins to just 207 yards of total offense, he felt the front seven didn’t start fast enough early on.

The Cats’ and the Hawkeyes’ team identities mirror each other — both have strong 4-3 defenses anchored by their front sevens, and they typically don’t make mistakes to beat themselves. Since 2016, the two teams have both ranked in the top eight in the conference in scoring defense, thanks in part to physical, veteran defensive lines.

The Wildcats have six seniors in their starting front seven this week, with sophomore defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore being the lone underclassman. Iowa’s starting front seven, a group Fitzgerald called “outstanding,” boasts six upperclassmen in 2020, including five seniors and one redshirt freshman linebacker Jestin Jacobs.

Even true freshman tackle Peter Skoronski, who played his first college game last week, knows the reputation of the Hawkeye defense well.

“Up front, they’re a big, physical, fundamentally-sound group,” Skoronksi said. “They play really hard and they have a ton of experience coming back, which is going to be a challenge for us. They’re going to be a typical Iowa defense.”

So it’s clear both teams will have to bring their A-games. The Hawkeyes didn’t last week in a 24-20 loss to Purdue, uncharacteristically committing 10 penalties for 100 yards. Both NU and Iowa have been two of the most disciplined teams in the conference, finishing in the top half of the league in fewest penalties committed each of the last four seasons.

The two division foes are still looking to develop an identity on the offensive side of the ball with new quarterbacks. Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey looked great as the Cats’ new quarterback in his first outing, completing 76.7 percent of his passes and finishing with a quarterback rating of 147.03. Ramsey looked comfortable throwing to all the weapons in offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s new offense, and the running backs combining for 252 yards on the ground didn’t hurt.

“We can throw the ball to the receivers, we have (graduate transfer) John Raine at tight end,” sophomore Drake Anderson said. “Everybody’s a threat at all times.”

The Hawkeyes don’t have the same level of experience at quarterback that Ramsey brought from Indiana. Iowa benefited from having a steady veteran in Nate Stanley for the past three seasons. Now, the team has put its trust in sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras, who had his first college start last week. But Petras will benefit from having senior wideouts Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette on his side.

The Hawkeyes and Cats have had some great battles over the years at Kinnick Stadium, but they’ll be missing a crucial aspect of the game on Saturday — the fans. Fitzgerald said the hostile environment in Iowa is one of the best in college sports and that he’ll miss the hecklers. Or, as he sees it, his fans.

“It’s always seemed to me, every year I’ve been to Iowa City, that people really like me,” Fitzgerald said jokingly. “It’ll be disappointing just because I think the Hawkeye fanbase is one of the most high-level football IQ fan bases that there is in the country. They’re passionate about their team, they’re passionate about their school and they’re passionate about the game.”

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Twitter: @andrewcgolden

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