1. Stop the Wildcat running game – 2000 Heisman trophy finalist Damien Anderson will miss the game this Saturday, but the Wildcat ground game will still be difficult to control. The Northwestern Offense spreads the field a la Purdue, but they run more and use more backfield misdirection running plays than the Boilermakers. The concept of the Wildcat Offense is to spread the defenders out with their formations, then use the misdirection and ball fakes in the backfield to get defenders even further out of position. It has worked very well over the last two years and their offense is averaging 190 yards a game on the ground this season.
Anderson is an outstanding fit for this offense because he is so fast. Although he runs well between the tackles for his size, his strength as a runner has been his ability to exploit holes that have opened when defenders were out of position. Unlike what Michigan State asks of T.J. Duckett, Anderson gets many opportunities to run in space as part of the Wildcat attack. Much like the backups to Ladell Betts, the backups to Anderson are talented, but not experienced.
Zac Kustok has been a good running QB in his last two seasons as the Wildcat signal caller. Combined with a talented backup at RB, the NU backfield will still be dangerous. The key to success for the Iowa Defense this week is to make the NU Offense one-dimensional. Last week, Wisconsin struggled running the ball early in the game against the Hawks, but Lee Evans and the Badger passing game opened up their running attack. Even though Northwestern WR Sam Simmons is also a good player like Evans, Iowa still needs to focus on stopping the opposition's running game. Although there is no hope of CB Matt Stockdale coming back for the game, it sure would help the Hawk cause if SS Bob Sanders, DT Jerry Montgomery, and DT Derrick Pickens were all playing and healthy.
2. Cover Simmons and make someone else beat you in the passing game? – Northwestern does a lot of play action passing off of their misdirection running game, and Simmons has turned many of those passes into big plays. In a league that features receivers such as Herb Haygood and Charlie Rodgers of MSU; Marquise Walker of Michigan; Kahlil Hill of Iowa; Lee Evans of Wisconsin; Ron Johnson of Minnesota; and Brandon Lloyd of Illinois, Simmons deserves to be mentioned in that class. Johnson, Evans, and Walker are the three that are most likely to receive all-league recognition, but Simmons is talented as well.
More than most teams, the Northwestern Offense requires defenders to play well in space. Besides the obvious premium on speed and quickness that is required to play in space, staying in position and carrying out individual assignments is paramount. The Iowa Defense and MLB R.J. Meyer were able to do this last season in the 27-17 win over the Wildcats, but they are going to be tested all over again on Saturday.
Even without Damien Anderson and the offensive rushing balance that he provides, the Hawks are going to have a tough time stopping the Wildcat passing attack. Zac Kustok is averaging over 250 yards per game in the air. Kustok has a trio of receivers to throw to as Jon Schweighardt and Kunle Patrick have statistics that compare favorably with Simmons. Bennie Sapp and the Iowa Secondary must cover better this week. The Iowa Defense is not going to throw a shutout this week against such an explosive offense, but they need to slow them down and give the Iowa Offense a good chance to win the game.
With all of the recent injuries, the Iowa Defense did not play well last week. At 4-4 overall and 2-4 in Big Ten play, Iowa has no room for error this week. The Hawkeyes need to step it up and get it done – and that has to start with the defense getting their attitude back.
3. Get off to a good start for once! – Iowa has not won a road game since the Penn State game last season, and that game was also the last time that the Iowa Offense got off to a good start on the road. In the three close losses on the road this season, Iowa was either playing even or playing from behind in the first half. Many teams and coaches actually feel more comfortable playing teams level for much of the game on the road. Many teams have won tough road games by playing even for three quarters before pulling the game out late, but that has not worked for the Hawks this season. Wouldn't it be nice if Iowa actually got out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter?
Northwestern has the perfect defense to get out to a big lead against, as they are ranked 87th in the NCAA in total defense by giving up 420.9 yards per game. Their defense was supposed to be better than the 2000 unit that gave up 427 yards per game, but that hasn't turned out to be the case. The Wildcats are especially susceptible to running attacks. Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio State, and Penn State all had huge rushing games against them this year. The first three teams all have good rushing attacks, but Penn State had been an awful running team before their win over NU.
This is the type of game in which the Iowa Offense must establish the run early and must be consistent all game. Brad Banks and Kyle McCann each have different strengths at QB, but both must be able to make plays to continue drives. This game is not the kind of game in which the offense can be content to score 24 points. Northwestern is going to score, so it is up to the Hawkeye Offense to move the ball, eat the clock, and score 35-plus points.
Ladell Betts and the Iowa OL have been much better since the Purdue game, and that needs to continue on Saturday. Betts has always had good rushing games versus NU, and whether or not RG Alonzo Cunningham plays, the OL must dominate the line of scrimmage. The OL can win this game if the rest of the team does their job. Ohio State destroyed Northwestern earlier in the year by running the ball right down their throats even though OSU can not even mount a threat of a passing attack. Iowa has a passing attack and has more overall talent than OSU on their offensive line.
4. Stop committing turnovers and penalties! - It has been harped on all season, but Iowa has only had one game in Big Ten play in which they played mostly turnover and penalty free - Indiana. It is not surprising that the error-free football resulted in one of the best offensive games of the year. It is hard to overcome mistakes at home and still win, but it is almost impossible on the road. If Iowa wants to be playing in a bowl game in December, the team better clean up the mistakes that continue to take place. The question is, after eight games, does this team have the capability to turn it around?