IOWA CITY – Ah, yes, the Northwestern Wildcats. The ever-present purple thorn that always seems to be stuck in the side of Iowa Hawkeye football.
While the all-time series is in favor of the Hawkeyes, the Wildcats hold a 11-9 advantage on the gridiron since their win in 1995 that snapped an Iowa 21-game winning-streak in the series. Regardless of rankings and records, this game has never been an easy one for Iowa in the Kirk Ferentz era.
The Wildcats currently sit at 3-3 with a 1-2 mark in the conference. Their two Big Ten losses have been at the hands of Wisconsin and Penn State, two undefeated teams currently ranked in the top five of the AP poll. Pat Fitzgerald has a good – but certainly not great – team yet again, making this week no cakewalk for Iowa.
Here are a few players and keys to watch this Saturday at 11:00am at Ryan Field:
Another star running back poses the biggest threat to Hawkeye defense in game seven of the season.
Senior Justin Jackson has rushed his way to the top of the Northwestern record books. Jackson holds the record for most career rushing yards with 4,639, good enough for ninth in Big Ten history. Jackson also holds the top spot for all-purpose yards with 5,350 and ranks second in program history with 36 rushing touchdowns and 37 total touchdowns.
Last week in the Wildcats’ 37-21 win at Maryland, Jackson rushed for a season-high 171 yards and found the end zone twice. The game marks his 23rd career 100+ yard game and his 10th multi-touchdown game.
Jackson’s best game against Iowa came last season in the Wildcats’ 38-31 win at Kinnick Stadium. Jackson carried 26 times for 171 yards and a touchdown run of 58 yards.
A combination of quickness and power makes Jackson a unique threat to defenses in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have to contain the edges and wrap Jackson up to prevent him from hitting the edges, where he does most of his damage.
You Get a Catch! You Get a Catch!
While Jackson owns the ground game, Wildcats do a great job of spreading the wealth through the air.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson has no shortage of valuable targets. So far this season, six different players have double-digit receptions, while nine different players caught at least one pass last week in the Wildcat’s win over Maryland.
Flynn Nagel leads the way with 22 receptions. He’s followed by Jackson, Bennett Skowronek, and Garrett Dickerson, who each have 21 catches on the year. Skowronek has racked up the most yards with 304 and averages nearly 50 yards per game.
Skowronek, a sophomore, is tied for the team lead with Riley Lees, each of whom has hauled in two touchdowns. The 6’4 wide out likely represents the biggest challenge for the Iowa secondary.
The Wildcats don’t hit many “home runs” through the air, but the balanced attack allows Thorson and company to chip away at defenses. While Michael Ojemudia is still listed as the starting cornerback over Manny Rugamba, staying disciplined is going to be the key for him.
Safeties Brandon Snyder, Miles Taylor, and Amani Hooker aren’t going to be able to cheat one way or another. Thorson could go anywhere with the football, and the Hawkeyes have to be ready for multiple different pass catchers.
Head’s Up Samdup
Iowa fans have been raving about freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa since his commitment to Iowa, but the Wildcats have a gem of a young pass rusher as well.
Samdup Miller is slowly emerging as an impact defensive end for the Wildcats. With at least two tackles in every game this season, Miller is beginning to get more and more opportunities to help the team.
Last week, Miller recorded a sack versus Maryland, giving him a sack in three straight games. He is the first rookie Wildcat to accomplish the feat since 2013. All three sacks have been solo, placing him in a tie for second in the Big Ten in solo sacks, the most ever by a first-year player.
Nate Stanley has been sacked nine times on the year for a loss of 53 yards. The offensive line has had to go through some rough patches, but it looks as though they are closer to finally nailing down their best front five.
Miller will likely line up against freshman left tackle Alaric Jackson, setting up an exciting matchup of young talent on Saturday. Jackson has to keep his quarterback up right to give the Iowa passing offense a chance to get going.
It’s Iowa-Northwestern. Records and ranking don’t matter in this series. Northwestern hasn’t won a conference game at home yet, while the Hawkeyes are still searching for their first conference road victory. Something’s gotta give.