Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern travels west to face defensive powerhouse Iowa


Alyce Brown/Daily Senior Staffer

The Hawkeyes and Wildcats set up along the line of scrimmage in their 2021 matchup. Both teams have struggled on offense so far this season.

John Riker, Sports Editor

With its losing streak now at six games, Northwestern is heading west this weekend for a pivotal matchup against Iowa. The two teams will enter Saturday afternoon’s contest tied at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. 

The Wildcats (1-6, 1-3 in Big Ten) appeared poised to snap their six-game skid after a dynamic first-half performance against Maryland, but surrendered a double-digit lead in a 31-24 loss. NU will look to continue its success rushing the ball against an Iowa defense (3-4, 1-3) that has established itself as one of the best units in the conference.

Though points may be difficult to come by, here are three intriguing storylines to keep an eye on for the action in Iowa City.

  1. Can Brendan Sullivan improve for a third straight game?

In his first college start versus Maryland, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan showed marked improvement from his relief appearance against Wisconsin. By ESPN’s QBR and expected points added metrics, the sophomore had the best performance by a Cats quarterback since NU’s second game of the season and third-best performance of any Big Ten quarterback in Week 8 — even ahead of Ohio State superstar C.J. Stroud. 

Sullivan was more efficient as a passer, completing 18 of 24 passes for 143 yards, and contributed 53 yards and a score to a revitalized rushing attack. Still, his two second-half turnovers helped Maryland erase a 10-point deficit and hand the Cats yet another loss. 

“He can make plays, he can stay composed,” senior receiver Malik Washington said of Sullivan. “We need to be prepared to make him feel comfortable and get open for him, so he can make those plays.” 

The NU offense has a more difficult test against the Hawkeyes’ talented defense, and Sullivan’s production and decision-making will be a major factor in Saturday’s result.

  1. NU defense looks for bounce-back performance against anemic Iowa offense

The only team in the Big Ten that has scored fewer points than the Cats is NU’s upcoming opponent. The Hawkeyes are dismal by every metric: the team currently holds a yards-per-game total that is 100 yards fewer than the next-closest Big Ten team, a total of two passing touchdowns and a streak of three straight games scoring 14 points or fewer.  

That should be a welcome matchup for NU, which surrendered 31 points to a Maryland offense led by a backup quarterback last week and is prone to giving up big plays. Junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher and senior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore are coming off standout performances, while the secondary welcomed back A.J. Hampton Jr. 

“We’re very close to breaking through,” junior defensive back Rod Heard II said. “We have these one-play breakdowns and these few plays a game that we need to find a way to win on. Speaking for the team, the energy is still there.”

  1. Close rivalry could lead to another wild finish

As unappealing as this matchup might seem, don’t forget that these are the two most recent winners of the Big Ten West, and their recent history suggests that this game might go down to the final moments. The Cats’ 17-12 loss to Iowa on its home turf last season was its closest against any Big Ten West opponent last season, and close NU wins in 2018 and 2020 paved the way for the Cats’ Big Ten Championship appearances. 

Graduate kicker Adam Stage is looking to continue his momentum after making all four of his kicks against Maryland. In a defensive battle like this, Stage knows that any edge the Cats can muster will make a big difference.

“Special teams is always a battle, especially in a Big Ten football game, because field position always is the ultimate factor in a lot of games,” Stage said. “Especially in this game, with such strong defenses and the defensive pressure they can put on an offense, special teams is going to be huge, and it might come down to a couple plays.”

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Twitter: @jhnriker

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