How do you expect Northwestern to defend the Hawkeyes?
Rob: Lots and lots of guys in the box. Michigan State tried to do it after Iowa found some success with the rushing attack last week, but the Spartan defenders got themselves out of position and did a poor job of tackling when they were there. The Hawkeyes also blocked well and Albert Young ran like his life depended on it. I still expect Iowa to force the run, but as Kirk Ferentz said on Tuesday, a defense can take anything away if they commit to it. Jake Christensen and his receivers will have to keep the Wildcats honest. The young Hawkeyes have struggled with that mightily on the road. It's time to mature or watch the bowls from home for the first time since 2001.
Jon: The one way they are going to win is to absolutely sell out to take away Iowa's running game. And I am talking a Syracuse-like selling out. The Cuse stacked the box against Iowa unlike any team this year. Some might say they were far too stubborn in doing that, as Tony Moeaki and Andy Brodell combined for 15 receptions and over 150 receiving yards and three touchdowns. But those two guys are on the sideline for the rest of the year. So stack it, and see if the Iowa offense can beat you through the air.
Brian: It looks to be pretty obvious, especially considering Albert Young's last trip to to Evanston, that he's the man you have to take away. Like Rob and Jon have said, you do that by loading up the box. 7, 8 9 guys will be in there all day. Last time Albert ran out onto Ryan field, he gained 203 yards on 28 carries for two touchdowns. The blocking that day was amazing, helped immensely, especially on the opening drive, by Tony Moeaki. He's not there this week, so someone will have to step up and help pick up that 8th or 9th man in the box, hoping to give Albert 4 or 5 yards on a regular basis.
Who is your pick to click?
Rob: I went with Klinkenborg last week and he broke his hand. Beware the player whom I cast my lot at this week. I'll go with defense again. Iowa needs to pressure the quarterback and that leads me to Mitch King. He's been quieted a bit in recent weeks, but he's been getting rest and that should make him more effective. I'll go with multiple sacks and a forced fumble.
Jon: Mitch King is the right call here. Northwestern doesn't sit back in the pocket a lot, but I think King can be a disruptive force and alter the Cats running game as well as their passing game. This is the kind of game that Iowa has to have from Mitch if they are going to win. I think they will.
Brian: After last week, I can't see myself picking anyone other than Albert Young. I can't imagine Albert letting this team lose. If Albert gets the touches he should be getting, he'll be the player of the week. This game needs to be won on the offensive side, with Iowa putting up at least 21 points. Albert is the way to make that happen.
Is this one of the most crucial games in the Kirk Ferentz era? Why or why not?
Jon: I think that it is. We'll be able to better judge that at the end of this season or maybe a year or more down the road, but I think it's a pivotal game. If Iowa wins, they should win their final two regular season games and go bowling in Orlando or Pheonix with a chance to get to eight wins. If you lose it, it means a 6-6 regular season finish is the best you can do, and that might not mean any bowl game this year.
Rob: It certainly is an important game, but I think there were many games in from 2000--04 that were pretty critical. Iowa still can make a bowl if they miss this one, and if it does, that's the most important thing. It certainly would look better in the eyes of outsiders if Iowa won out and finished 7-5 instead of 6-6, but this team still will have many questions heading into next season no matter what happens from here on out. I didn't think the ills of this season would pop up after the Alamo Bowl prep and game against Texas, but it did. Nothing is guaranteed next year no matter how this thing ends up. Yes, it's a big game, but I think there have been quite a few of these through the Ferentz Era.
Brian: In one sense, yes. It's important in the same way that Wisconsin in 2005 was important. The season is winding down, and Iowa's fighting to stay in the bowl picture. Kirk won't ever admit to any game being a must-win, but this is one of them. I can't say I believe it's the most important, as I can think of at least a few others that carried more weight (2004 Wisconsin comes to mind, particularly in the last hour or so before kickoff...)
Do you think this game is more about how Iowa's defense holds down Northwestern, or how Iowa's offense takes advantage of a Northwestern defense that has been exploited in its five Big Ten games?
Jon: Iowa's offense. Northwestern's defense has been so poor in Big Ten games. They are allowing over 40 points per game, over 210 rushing yards per game, they can't punt it all that well…they just don't do many things well. Iowa has to score 24 points, at least, to win this. That is my thought, so the focus is on the Iowa offense. Unless defense and special teams turn in a score for Iowa, and they might be able to do that.
Rob: I know what the Iowa defense can do when it's not asked to do too much. Therefore, this one still lies in the lap of Iowa's inconsistent offense. And the Wildcats will do everything in their power to take away the Iowa running game, so Jake Christensen and company will need to find some success in the passing game. Northwestern will score, even against Iowa's tough defense. The Hawkeyes will need three touchdowns to win this one.
Brian: Like I said earlier, it's in the offense's hands. For 65-70 plays a game, the defense is tremendous. It's when you get into the 80-90 range that you run into trouble. Purdue had 91 offense snaps, Penn State had 82, Indiana had 79. Illinois, 72. Keep the snaps below 75, and you're money. The only way to do that is to keep the offense out on the field. Iowa did that in the second half against Michigan State. In the first half, Iowa ran 20 plays. In the second half, Iowa put up 31 plays. Keep the offense on the field, score points, and Iowa will win this game.
If Iowa loses this game, but wins out to 6-6, should they go to a bowl game? (Not will, should they?)
Jon: I don't have a problem with it. Someone will go to a bowl game at 6-6, it might as well be Iowa. People that think they don't ‘deserve' to go to a bowl at 6-6, your argument isn't against Iowa being worthy or not, it's with the bowl system, as in ‘are there too many bowl games?'. That answer is yes, unless you ask a coach. Those 15 extra practices are too important to not want to go to a bowl even at 6-6. And Kirk Ferentz believes it's a reward for the players.
Rob: If someone wants them, yes. Those are the rules. Six wins makes you bowl eligible. I understand people's upset with .500 teams making bowls, but that's the system. The problem lies more with there be so many bowls that 6-6 teams can get in them. That's not the fault of the schools. It's not about being deserving or not. It's about filling the available bowl spots.
Brian: Of course. Not over a 7-5 team, but what makes a 6-6 Iowa team less deserving than a 6-6 team from some other conference? Neither team is the cream of the crop, but both have satisfied the requirements set forth to become 'bowl eligible.' I understand why some may have a distaste for the bowl system, but the idea that Iowa somehow is less deserving than other 6-6 teams is a bit much for me to understand.
Jon: I think that Fletcher brings a different dimension, but it's hard to replace Shada's experience in a game like this that might be more about assignment football than many other games on the schedule this year. Perhaps Iowa feels better with Fletcher in man to man situations, which might mean more blitzes. But I think Shada has gotten a bad rap in his career. He plays in an Iowa defense that gives you certain things.
Rob: Shada will be missed because he and Fletcher both would have played against Northwestern's spread in nickel and dime alignments. Fletcher will do fine in the base sets, but it will be a matter of how guys like Drew Gardner and Jordan Bernstine do in the extra DB packages that will determine how much Shada is missed.
Brian:This week, Harold Dalton broke down the differences between Shada and Fletcher. Shada is a 'smarter' player, he's more about reading the play and reacting. Fletcher is a bigger guy, more physical, maybe a bit faster. If Iowa wants to limit Northwestern's passing game, they're going to need to be physical. If crossing routes are open all day without someone putting a lick on a wideout, Iowa's got no chance. If a bigger DB (cue Bradley Fletcher) can make a play or two early on, I don't see Shada being missed that much. I have confidence in guys like Bernstine and Morrow, as they're more likely to make agressive mistakes, as opposed to conservative ones that Shada can be prone to.