Hawkeye mailbag: Why is Iowa a double-digit favorite against Northwestern?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The betting line for Iowa’s Saturday home game against Northwestern certainly raised eyebrows.

The Hawkeyes, favored by 10½ points against the front-runners of the Big Ten West?

That question was a prominent topic on Wednesday’s edition of Hawk Central Facebook Live.

Northwestern players celebrate during the Wildcats' 17-10 overtime win in Evanston, Illinois, last season. Pat Fitzgerald's boys have won two in a row against the Hawkeyes.

It’s surely a mistake by the guys in the desert, right?

Update: Vegas rarely makes mistakes. If this was a mistake, the line would have adjusted considerably. It's been a steady 10 or 10½ all week.

I’m no gambling insider, but this line seems to be screaming for money on Northwestern. It tells me that the sharp guys think Iowa is going to win comfortably in Saturday’s 2:42 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium.

On the surface, it seems like a perplexing line. Iowa (6-3 overall, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) is coming off back-to-back losses in which it looked shaky at best. Meanwhile, Northwestern (5-4, 5-1) has won 12 of its past 13 Big Ten games — and has beaten the Hawkeyes by a touchdown in the past two meetings.

But dig deeper into the numbers, and it’s easier to understand some of what Vegas sees.

Northwestern’s 2.59 yards per rushing attempt ranks 128th out of 130 FBS teams. Its 4.55 yards per play ranks 125th. Those are putrid key metrics.

The Wildcats have a middle-of-the-road defense (51st nationally). Their 12 sacks is the lowest total in the league. Despite last week’s 38-36 loss to Purdue, Iowa is still ranked eighth nationally in total defense.

But surely Northwestern finds a way on the scoreboard, right? Not really. The Wildcats have outscored opponents by two points for the season (222-220) compared to plus-107 for Iowa (274-167).

The Hawkeyes even have a better turnover margin (plus-4, compared with Northwestern’s minus-1).

The metrics overwhelmingly favor Iowa.

If the line holds, it’ll be the first time all year that Iowa is favored by double digits against an FBS team. According to Covers.com, the Hawkeyes closed as single-digit favorites against Northern Illinois (9½ points), Iowa State (3½), Minnesota (7), Indiana (3½) and Maryland (9½) — and covered the number each time.

Vegas, man.

TOPIC: So how does Northwestern win games?

Just because metrics like their team this week, Hawkeye fans can’t feel too comfortable. Northwestern won straight-up in Iowa City in 2016 as an 11-point underdog.

Two words: Pat Fitzgerald.

The guy’s a gritty, great coach. He doesn’t care about stats.

And here’s a sign that his 2018 Wildcats are fundamentally sound: They are the least-penalized team in the country, at 26 total flags and a per-game average of 27.2 penalty yards. By contrast, Northwestern’s opponents have drawn more penalty yards than any team in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats have found a way to win their past six road games. They'll frustrate you; they rarely hurt themselves; and they’ll play a full 60 minutes.

TOPIC: Can all three running backs top 600 yards this season?

The balance is striking with Iowa’s trio of sophomores: Toren Young has 466 yards (on 98 carries), Mekhi Sargent has 451 (on 99) and Ivory Kelly-Martin has 332 (on 89).

It would seem Kelly-Martin is the least likely to get there, but don’t forget he missed three games — and remains Iowa’s No. 1 running back. If he cranks things up against the Big Ten’s two worst defenses down the stretch (Illinois and Nebraska), 600 is within reach.

I’ll say two of the three top 600. More notably, Iowa still doesn’t have a 100-yard rusher in a game this season. Maybe this is the week.

TOPIC: Is the defense poised to bounce back?

After giving up a combined 68 points in consecutive road losses, a return to the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium — where the Hawkeyes have yielded a paltry 10.4 points per game — is a relief.

And given a very cold forecast (temperatures in the high 20s), Saturday will be made for defense.

Northwestern’s best assets are quarterback Clayton Thorson (who needs 239 passing yards to reach 10,000 for his career) and wide receiver Flynn Nagel (who ranks 10th nationally with seven receptions per game). I expect the Hawkeyes’ defensive line to put constant pressure on Thorson; the Wildcats have surrendered more sacks (24) than any team in the Big Ten.

TOPIC: Realistic expectations for Joe Wieskamp?

Ah, a basketball question! Good timing, with Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes opening their 2018-19 season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Missouri-Kansas City.

I'm very optimistic. Given the freshman's expected heavy load of minutes and ability to shoot, hit the offensive glass and get to the foul line, I think 13 points per game is within reach.