Northwestern will hit the road on Saturday for the first time this season against an Iowa team that hammered the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) each of the last two meetings.
The Hawkeyes throttled NU 48-7 in Iowa City in 2014 before spoiling Evanston’s 2015 homecoming with a 40-10 win last year en route to an undefeated regular season.
Iowa (3-1, 1-0) has shown more signs of weakness this fall, however, falling to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State 23-21 two weeks ago — the Hawkeyes’ first home loss since November 2014 — before narrowly edging Big Ten bottom-dweller Rutgers 14-7 last week.
The running game on both sides of the ball generally tends to determine the course of Iowa’s games, and this week’s matchup against the Cats — despite offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s newfound affinity for passing plays — is likely to be more of the game.
Iowa’s biggest strength: Iowa running back Akrum Wadley always comes to play against Northwestern.
Wadley rumbled for 106 yards and a touchdown in his first 15 career touches against NU in 2014, then replaced star rusher Jordan Canzeri, who was injured early on in the 2015 meeting, and ripped off 26 carries for 204 yards and four touchdowns.
Wadley is still working in a time-share with fellow running back LeShun Daniels this season — Daniels has 52 carries to Wadley’s 37 to date — but Wadley is more involved in the passing game, has been more efficient with his touches (7.4 vs. 5.8 yards per carry) and was the team’s leading rusher on Saturday against Rutgers.
If history is any indication, the junior from New Jersey could pose a massive threat to the Cats this weekend.
Iowa’s biggest weakness: The rushing defense has struggled almost as much as the rushing offense has excelled for the Hawkeyes.
North Dakota State relied almost exclusively on the run in their upset win, rushing 49 times to 19 pass attempts and racking up 239 yards on the ground, before Rutgers pounded out an additional 193 yards on the ground the following week. Iowa now ranks 86th in the nation in rush defense.
The onus to fix those problems falls most squarely on star linebacker Josey Jewell, whose tackling production has stayed about even with last year, and defensive end Parker Hesse, who has been very quiet. Keeping Jewell and Hesse blocked consistently will be crucial for NU.
Biggest question: Which team will have more success on critical third downs?
Neither the Cats nor the Hawkeyes have done well in third-down situations this season: Iowa ranks 83rd with a 37.2 percent efficiency rate, while NU is just behind in 89th at 36.1 percent.
The two foes’ similar struggles in that regard have led, as would be expected, to issues in controlling the ball: both teams have recorded over 30 minutes of possession just once in four games each.
Whichever offense can keep drives moving and control the clock seems likely to prevail come Saturday.