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Iowa-Northwestern football matchup will hinge on who has more muscle up front

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s often a fine line between winning and losing a football game.

Saturday’s Northwestern-Iowa contest will hinge on who has the finer lines this year.

It sets up as an old-fashioned Big Ten Conference brawl, a series of scrums in which both teams will try to prove that their collection of 300-pounders are the immovable objects.

“They have a lot of size. They’re big and they’re strong,” Iowa senior right offensive tackle Coy Cronk said of the Wildcats’ front four, three of them seniors with an average weight of 291 pounds. “They play the run game really well. They use their hands well. You don’t really see them out of their gaps or out of position. If you step too far, they’ll go up and under you and make a tackle for loss pretty easily. We’ve just got to somehow displace these guys.”

Last Saturday, the Hawkeye offensive line went to work on the Purdue defense, opening up running lanes that produced 195 yards on the ground. Iowa’s undoing was four false-start penalties and two lost fumbles in that 24-20 season-opening loss. Cronk was encouraged by what he saw: A group of linemen that got stronger as the game wore on and consistently finished blocks.

It won’t be so easy against Northwestern, however. The Wildcats held Maryland to 64 yards rushing, made six tackles behind the line of scrimmage, forced four turnovers and walked away with a 43-3 win.

“They make you work every play. I mean, nothing is easy and nothing is clean. You just don't get clean plays against them,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of trying to run the ball against Northwestern.

“On top of it, they've got three veteran linebackers who do a great job of being where they're supposed to be. They've got a couple of safeties who are really involved in the run game, too. … We're going to have to really work and dig.”

Iowa defensive linemen Daviyon Nixon (57) and Chauncey Golston know they must win the battle up front and put pressure on Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey on Saturday. The Hawkeyes had only two sacks in a 24-20 loss at Purdue last week.

Iowa’s offensive line is anchored by three players who believe they can play in the NFL next year – Cronk, left tackle Alaric Jackson and center Tyler Linderbaum. This is a great chance for them to prove it.

The Hawkeye defensive line, which doesn’t have as much depth or experience, will face its own massive challenge. It will be without starting tackle Austin Schulte again. And it will be tangling with a Wildcat offense that put up 325 yards rushing against Maryland and held the ball for 37 minutes, 21 seconds.

Iowa’s defensive front was stung by how easily the Boilermakers ran in the second half, when second-string running back Zander Horvath gouged the Hawkeyes for 93 of his 129 yards. Iowa will get sophomore middle linebacker Seth Benson back this week, but starter Jack Campbell remains out with mononucleosis.

More:Iowa defense burned by Purdue's Bell and a surprise rushing performance; Northwestern looms

Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon, who made seven tackles while playing nearly every snap against Purdue, said the Hawkeye front four simply cannot afford to get knocked backwards by Northwestern’s blockers.

“Those guys are really big, and they like to turn out people,” Nixon said.

Earlier:After two drama-filled years, Daviyon Nixon eager to make his Hawkeye debut

Anyone who thought Northwestern’s offensive line would take a step backward after star tackle Rashawn Slater chose to skip this season and prepare for the NFL Draft had to have been impressed by the performance against Maryland. Peter Skoronski, a 6-foot-4, 294-pound freshman that Iowa was also recruiting, stepped in for Slater at left tackle and immediately showed his value. He is responsible for protecting the blind side of Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer quarterback from Indiana who gives the Wildcats a gritty playmaker at that position that was lacking a year ago.

That was when Iowa snapped a three-game losing streak against Northwestern. The Hawkeye defense barely broke a sweat while earning a 20-0 victory against an offense so anemic that there was no suspense left in the game once the Hawkeyes took the lead on a first-quarter Tyrone Tracy Jr. touchdown reception.

That’s not the case this year. Mike Bajakian left Boston College to become the Wildcats’ new offensive coordinator in the offseason, bringing a completely new playbook to a team in need of a transfusion.

Drake Anderson ran for 103 yards on just 10 carries against Maryland. Isaiah Bowser, who was a handful for Iowa’s defense two years ago in a Northwestern win at Kinnick, added 75 yards. Ramsey passed for 212 yards and ran for another 47, avoiding any turnovers or sacks.

Yes, this was against Maryland, which will struggle to win a game this season. But Ferentz saw a new vigor in the Northwestern attack when he watched the replay of last Saturday’s win.

“The thing that was most impressive to me is just how clean and how polished they played,” Ferentz said. “It almost was flawless.”

And it was played at a tempo not normally associated with Northwestern. On more than 20 occasions, the Wildcats snapped the football with 20 seconds left on the play clock, putting pressure on the Maryland defense to try to keep up.

Anderson, a redshirt sophomore who led Northwestern with 634 rushing yards last year in a 3-9 slog of a season, said there’s an obvious change in the mood of his offense.

“Last year was tough. Some of us were checking out,” he said. “But this was like a rebirthing of our offense. Everybody was smiling. Everybody was flying around, having fun.”

Iowa wants to make sure the fun stops here for the Wildcats. In an eight-game regular season, an 0-2 start against Big Ten West opponents could be impossible to overcome. A Hawkeye team that likes to flex its muscle cannot get pushed around in its own building.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is certain his team will be facing a rejuvenated Iowa squad. He called last week’s performance a rare misstep for a Ferentz-coached team.

“Some really uncharacteristic things happened for Iowa in that game, especially the turnovers and the pre-snap penalties. They had a self-inflicted wound with the ball getting punched out by a teammate. That’s an anomaly. They just missed a screen play when they were about to score at the end,” Fitzgerald said.

“We’ll see a different Iowa team on Saturday. They’ll get those things fixed. (I was) really impressed by their O-line and their physicality.”

Physicality will win the day. Both teams have reason to believe they have the advantage in that area. One will be sorely disappointed to learn otherwise.

A closer look:Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern are coaches with staying power

NORTHWESTERN (1-0) at IOWA (0-1)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN (Bob Wischusen, Dan Orlovsky, Allison Williams)

LINE: Hawkeyes by 2 ½

WEATHER: 58 degrees and sunny, but winds will gust to 20 mph from the south-southwest

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.