Football: Northwestern’s defensive line to face challenge against Iowa


Evan Robinson-Johnson

The defense lines up against Maryland. The front seven will face a tough challenge against Iowa on Saturday.

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


In Northwestern’s season opener, almost everything went right. The offense was cruising down the field each possession like a 1963 Cadillac Eldorado. The defense held its ground throughout the game. And Charlie Kuhbander looked as confident as he ever has in four years.

The only major concern was on the defensive line where starting defensive tackle Jason Gold Jr. left the game with an injury and did not return.

Gold and junior Trevor Kent — who was supposed to be Gold’s starting partner in the interior — were both left off the two-deep for this week. While the two-deep is not always accurate, especially with injuries, it is unlikely that both will be able to play this week.

Now, the unit is down three starters from last season to graduation and opt-outs and its only returning starter in Kent to injury. And there is no time to ease in the young players as NU is set to battle one of the best offensive lines in the country in Iowa.

Despite the lack of starting experience, the projected defensive line for Saturday features three seniors with over 70 combined games of experience. At the top of that list is defensive end Earnest Brown IV, who has taken on a leadership role for the season.

“I got to help these young guys out,” Brown said before the season started. “I feel like we have good enough depth to where we know everything, physical enough to get off the ball and do what we have to do.”

Opposite Brown is sophomore Adetomiwa Adebawore, who started three games at the end of last season following injuries to Brown and Samdup Miller. Adebawore continued his strong finish to 2019 with a solid start to 2020, highlighted by an impressive sack on Taulia Tagovailoa.

And the entire line can say the same thing. Holding any Big Ten opponent to only 207 yards is a big accomplishment for any defense. But the Hawkeyes are a different animal.

Iowa is going to look to establish the run and the line of scrimmage from the jump. It is going to be imperative for both first and second units to hold their group. While the starters have played in almost 90 Division I games, the backups have much less.

Sophomore Eku Leota has the most experience of the group at 11 games. The North Carolina native had a great start to the 2020 season as he has taken over Brown’s old role as the third DE and member of the top pass rush group.

But other than Leota, the backups are a lot of question marks. Sophomores Wyatt Blake and Devin O’Rourke were four-star recruits but have been quiet since arriving on campus, and Jordan Butler is a true freshman.

With the defensive line having the most rotation of any group other than maybe the wide receiver core, these players will be “thrown into the fire,” as coach Pat Fitzgerald says, against Iowa.

For over half a decade, NU’s defensive line has been its strongest and deepest unit on both sides of the ball. Four former lineman are now on NFL rosters, the most of any positional group.

The depth and the talent is still there, but not the experience. And whether they are ready for it or not, the line will be getting that competitive Big Ten experience on Saturday.

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Twitter: @thepeterwarren