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Old School Big Ten Football, Iowa and Northwestern

Iowa Northwestern

In the last eight seasons, the Hawkeyes and the Wildcats have combined for half of the Big Ten West’s appearances in the conference championship game. They have two each and traded division titles in the last two seasons. As it stands, Iowa and Northwestern are currently tied for last in the West Division. Although a seven-way tie scenario leading to a 4-8 Northwestern divisional title is still mathematically on the table, it’s virtually certain that neither of these teams will be defending their title this year. Rather, Iowa’s Homecoming matchup inside Kinnick Stadium on Saturday will further push one of these programs into a potential last place season with a loss.

It Starts Up Front

Northwestern has a guy up front who will be a top selection in next year’s NFL Draft. Peter Skoronski at left tackle has given up just one sack this season on 554 snaps. At 6’-4” and 315 pounds, Skoronski has made it tough for the opposition to get to the quarterback all season. Just four quarterback pressures have been allowed on his watch. His matchup with the Iowa defensive front will be representative of typical Northwestern Iowa football games – physicality at the point of attack. Skoronski will line up against Iowa’s edge rushers Lukas Van Ness and Joe Evans. In pass rush situations, the two have combined for six sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Last week against the Buckeyes, Iowa’s defensive front was able to disrupt the backfield in the first half. They recorded five tackles for loss and a strip sack in the game.

Northwestern’s run game has been a critical piece to getting their offense moving. The win column doesn’t show much success. However, when their offense establishes the run the Wildcats have been productive. Their two best games this season came against Nebraska in Dublin and against Maryland in College Park. Northwestern rushed for 214 and 215 yards in each game, respectively. Running back Evan Hull had 119 of those yards in each contest.

Hull of the Offense

Hull leads the team with 545 rushing yards and is the team’s second-leading receiver with 426 yards on the year. In games where he gets going, the offensive production has followed. Hull has topped 100 yards receiving or rushing in four games this season. In three of the four games, Northwestern averaged north of 5.1 yards per play. The outlier came in a loss to Southern Illinois where the offense gained 4.4 yards per play. However, Hull hit five yards per attempt in that contest. In Hull’s four 100-plus yard games, Northwestern had one win and three one-possession losses. In the remaining three games where Hull didn’t eclipse 100 yards rushing or receiving, they lost by an average of 16 points. 

Last week, Pat Fitzgerald’s team played Maryland close and lost on a late, 75-yard touchdown pass. Quarterback Brendan Sullivan was given the nod in their trip to College Park. He finished with a touchdown, two interceptions, and a 75% completion percentage. It was the sophomore’s second collegiate appearance and first start. He appeared in their game against Wisconsin, completing 11 of 17 passes for 114 yards and a score.

It is sounding like Sullivan will get the start again this week, the second of his career. He’ll have one of the toughest tasks of the season against one of the nation’s top defenses. Iowa has recorded seven interceptions this year, and 20 pass breakups. Last week against Ohio State, they held the country’s top offense to four field goals on their first six drives. That came despite four of those drives beginning inside the Iowa 35-yard line. Ohio State was forced to take two timeouts in the first 10 minutes of the game inside the red zone due to the confusing looks the Hawkeye defense presented. The young quarterback for the Wildcats will face similar situations on the road this week. For Northwestern to put together successful possessions against Iowa, it will begin with getting the ball to Hull.

A Fair Assessment of the Quarterback

On the home side of the ball, it’s likely there will not be a tangible improvement this week. There may be more offensive yards gained, and slightly better stats for the skill position players because of the opponent. But at this point, nothing can actually improve. That’s because the scheme that is implemented on a weekly basis will not be altered. The Iowa offense is what it is at this point, and the last seven weeks of football have not proven otherwise.

Kirk Ferentz has continually pointed to not being able to make a fair assessment of their quarterback situation throughout the season. Whether that be the strength of the opponent, the game situation, or the lack of pass protection, it’s been mentioned consistently to the media. When questioned about who will start under center and how the quarterback decision is progressing, his answers stem back to the inability to have made a fair assessment. After the loss to Ohio State, Ferentz again said, “it’s a tough situation for either quarterback for an assessment.”

“Or” Padilla

It is fair to say, however, that the coaching staff is not making it a priority to create a situation where a fair assessment of their quarterbacks can be made. That continues into Iowa’s matchup with Northwestern. This week’s depth chart had a unique change at quarterback. The one and two positions were separated by the word “OR”. Meaning, the starter for the Homecoming game could be either Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla. Ferentz confirmed this at his Tuesday press conference. He made sure to point out that there was no timetable for making that decision prior to the game, and that both guys are getting reps with the one’s.

If making a fair assessment of the quarterback situation is the goal, why not give Padilla a shot at earning a fair assessment? For three seasons, Petras has been the unquestioned starter. He has been number one on the depth chart every week he hasn’t been injured. He has been able to enter each game with the mindset that this is his team. While it was most productive in 2020 and 2021, it has not been this year. At this point, Padilla deserves that same treatment. 

Throwing Padilla in to begin the second half at Ohio Stadium in a close football game for his first snaps in 10 months was not an ideal way to assess his capability. His previous game action was in a similar spot. He was thrown into the conference championship game in the second half down three scores. 

Now, the coaching staff continues to make it difficult for Padilla to get a true feel as the team’s starter. That’s because he is still trading reps at practice. He is still not given the opportunity to be the sole leader. This will continue to make Padilla’s evaluation “difficult” for the coaching staff, and continue to run the offense downhill. The quarterback position is not the root cause of the problems offensively. However, if the coaching staff truly wants to make a fair assessment on their quarterbacks, it could begin with giving them that opportunity.

Old School Big Ten Football, Iowa and Northwestern

No matter the quarterback, Iowa typically plays Northwestern in a low-scoring, tight game. In the last five meetings, not counting Iowa’s 2019 shutout, the winning margin in this game has been an average of 4.8 points. Northwestern has been victorious in four of the last six.

The Wildcats have had the upper hand inside Kinnick Stadium as well. They have won the last three in Iowa City dating back to 2016 with Iowa’s last home win in the matchup coming in 2014. The points total for this one is fringing on historic lows. It opened at 31.5, the lowest in college football history, and is teetering around 37.5 currently. This week, the model makes Iowa a 7.7-point favorite and is slightly lower with a points total at 35.4. The under in this matchup has hit in each of the last five meetings. 

Ferentz and Fitzgerald are the two longest-tenured coaches in the Big Ten. They will meet for the 17th time as head coaches at their respective universities. They would have hoped it would be for another division-deciding battle. Instead, a win for either team keeps them out of last place with only slim hopes for chaos at the top of the division.

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