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Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Daviyon Nixon's 'raw strength,' Seth Benson's return, Wisconsin's QB situation

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

One of the most encouraging stories to emerge from Iowa’s 24-20 loss at Purdue on Saturday was the impressive play of defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon.

He brought both quality (seven tackles, including 2½ for lost yardage) and quantity (playing 71 snaps out of Iowa’s 82) to Ross-Ade Stadium.

That’s a heavier workload than Iowa would probably like for a 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive lineman. But with co-starter Austin Schulte out in the opener, Nixon became essentially an every-down defensive tackle alongside either Jack Heflin (61 snaps) or Noah Shannon (28).

He was admittedly tiring in the second half, but continued to get put on the field for defensive line coach Kelvin Bell.

Nixon’s previous career-high snap count was 36; he averaged 27.3 plays a game last season as part of a four-man rotation at defensive tackle. Although he had two sacks at Northwestern last season, this was Nixon's best game as a Hawkeye.

“When you're in the game, your blood’s rushing and your adrenaline’s running,” Nixon said Tuesday. “You’ve got to keep going, whether you’re tired or not, and catch a second gear.”

Aidan O'Connell (16) is pressured by Iowa's Chauncey Golston (57) and Daviyon Nixon (54) in the second half at Purdue. Nixon logged a career-high 71 snaps from his defensive-tackle spot.

Nixon graded out as Iowa’s top defensive player against Purdue, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s no wonder that former teammate James Daniels (now with the Chicago Bears) tweeted during the game that this would be Nixon’s last season at Iowa, even though he’s just a redshirt junior.

It was easy to see why Nixon was courted by Alabama while he spent one season at Iowa Western Community College. Iowa right tackle Coy Cronk, who sees Nixon across from him every day in practice, was not surprised by what transpired Saturday.

“I think the biggest underrated part to him is just his raw strength,” Cronk said. “The kid’s just really strong and he plays with great leverage, so it's tough to root him out of there in the run game. And then he also has a nimbleness in the pass game to work an edge, to get upfield and disrupt the quarterback.”

PETRAS: New quarterback already puts starting debut in rear-view mirror

Seth Benson is back at linebacker for Iowa’s defense and should start Saturday.

The Hawkeyes were without their top two middle linebackers at Purdue. Starter Jack Campbell (mononucleosis) remains out for another few weeks, but Benson will play in Saturday’s home game against Northwestern (2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN).

Hawkeye safety Jack Koerner loves the energy Benson brings to the field; to date, we’ve mostly seen him as one of Iowa’s kick-coverage stars, but he hasn’t been an every-down player. Benson, a redshirt sophomore, is expected to get his first career start this week as Iowa's middle linebacker. That'll allow Nick Niemann to slide to weak-side linebacker, his best position. Barrington Wade can play outside linebacker if Iowa goes with a 4-3 alignment, although the Hawkeyes went exclusively with a 4-2-5 last year at Northwestern.

“He’s going to help us out on defense a ton this week,” Koerner said of Benson. who is listed at 6 feet tall and 231 pounds. “He’s someone who brings great communication. He wants to be great. I couldn’t be more excited that he’s back. I think that’s going to help us out a lot.”

Sophomore Seth Benson (6-0, 231) can give Iowa's linebackers unit a lift Saturday against Northwestern.

Was Northwestern that good or Maryland that bad?

Northwestern scored more points in Saturday’s opener (a 43-3 rout of the Terrapins) than it did in its first six Big Ten Conference games a year ago (41). That anemic 2019 stretch included a 20-0 loss to the Hawkeyes.

As if Iowa (0-1) needed any additional motivation for Saturday’s home opener, the Wildcats (1-0) rushed for 325 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry against Maryland. Iowa’s rush defense left plenty to be desired in the second half against the Boilermakers.

Maryland couldn’t have played much worse against Northwestern. After leading the Terrapins to a 3-0 lead on their opening drive, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was intercepted on back-to-back possessions and the game spiraled out of control. Northwestern led 30-3 by halftime. Four different Wildcats rushed for touchdowns, including Isaiah Bowser — who tormented the Hawkeyes for 165 rushing yards on 31 carries in a 14-10 win at Kinnick Stadium in 2018.

“Bowser, he’s a good back. When they get the defense really bunched up, when they get into those tight gang formations, that's where they can really start to cause some problems for people," Koerner said. "They come out in similar formations about eight, nine times in a row but run a different play. That's something that the defense, we’ve really got to adjust."

Northwestern has a first-year offensive coordinator in Mike Bajakian, who has been an OC for the NFL's Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals and held that role last year at Boston College.

"The thing that was most impressive to me is just how clean and how polished they played the other night," Ferentz said. "To me, it almost was flawless offensively, And for a new system in a year like this year has been, to do that (is) really impressive. And that's with a new quarterback, too."

Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey (12) throws a pass against Maryland during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Speaking of the new QB ... one Hawkeye is very familiar with Northwestern's Peyton Ramsey.

Cronk lived with Ramsey for a few years when they were at Indiana and couldn't say enough nice things about him. But he said the friends wouldn't be speaking to each other this week.

Ramsey left Indiana after losing the starting job to Michael Penix Jr., but has found a welcoming home in Northwestern. In his first start for the Wildcats, Ramsey went 23-for-30 for 212 yards passing and rushed seven times for 47 yards.

"The toughness he possesses, he’s going to bring that to the Northwestern offense and probably the entire team, because that’s the type of leader he is," Cronk said. "I’ve got nothing but love for that kid, but you know, he’s our enemy on Saturday. We’ve got to get after him."

Iowa is 1-0 against Ramsey, who went 31-for-42 for 263 yards for the Hoosiers in a 42-16 loss to the Hawkeyes in 2018.

In major Big Ten West news, Wisconsin might be down to its fourth-string quarterback ... if it's even able to play Saturday at Nebraska.

The USA TODAY Sports Network reported Monday that Badgers quarterbacks Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend. If those reported positive tests were to be confirmed by a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, Wisconsin would be without both quarterbacks for at least 21 days and would turn to redshirt junior Danny Vandeboom, who has thrown one career pass. Reigning starter Jack Coan remains out after foot surgery but is hopeful to return sometime this season.

That’s a good reminder that the 2020 season can turn on a dime from week to week. Iowa can’t waste time sulking over the Purdue loss; it has an opportunity to thrust itself  back into the Big Ten West picture with consecutive home games against the Wildcats and Michigan State (0-1 after an opening loss to Rutgers).

“Coach Ferentz talks about it all the time … to respect the virus," quarterback Spencer Petras said. "Always make sure we’re aware of it. I know all of us quarterbacks, realizing that we have such a small room, it is important that we all are doing what we can off the field to make sure we keep our circles extremely small."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.