Leistikow's Iowa vs. Northwestern prediction: Hawkeyes must solve a problem nobody's talking about

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — The opening minutes of Iowa’s football season couldn’t have gone any better. On the offense’s fourth snap against then-No. 17 Indiana, Tyler Goodson raced around right end for a 56-yard touchdown. On the defense’s third snap, Riley Moss collected a deflected pass and scored on a 30-yard interception return.

The Hawkeyes were leading the Hoosiers, 14-0, in a matter of 135 seconds.

But since that season-opening blur, the Hawkeyes have been ice cold in the opening stages of games. They’ve only scored 15 first-quarter points against their last seven opponents, a pitiful 2.1-point average. (Opponents have scored 48 first-quarter points in that span.)

Two of Iowa's 15 points came on a safety against Kent State. Three came on a minus-8 yard "drive" against Penn State after a red-zone interception. The stats are even more depressing when you consider Iowa has received the opening kickoff in six of eight games this season. (Maybe it's time to rethink that take-the-ball strategy?)

There are plenty of legitimate qualms with Iowa’s 124th-ranked offense — the line, the scheme, the play-calling, the quarterback — but there’s a team-wide reality that needs to change this Saturday at Northwestern: Brutally slow starts.

In Saturday’s 27-7 loss at Wisconsin, as the offense reached a new low, Iowa went three-and-out on all three first-quarter possessions with net progress of (sigh) 3, 7 and minus-3 yards.

But, folks, there is potentially some good news.

Iowa’s next opponent has been even more abysmal, particularly on defense, to start games. Here are three Northwestern examples in Big Ten Conference losses:

  • The Wildcats gave up a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of their season and dug a fast 21-0 hole against Michigan State in a 38-21 defeat.
  • They allowed Nebraska to march 75 yards in the first 50 seconds of what would become a 21-0 early deficit and 56-7 loss.
  • And in Saturday’s 41-14 loss to Minnesota, Northwestern was in a 10-0 hole after running just one offensive play — a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

Savvy readers may recall that Iowa jumped out to a 17-0 lead against Northwestern last year at Kinnick Stadium … but lost, 21-20. An early lead isn’t always safe against Pat Fitzgerald's pesky Wildcats. But it sure helps. There should be a good Hawkeye contingent at Ryan Field on Saturday night.

More:Iowa needs a win in a bad way. The Hawkeyes are relying on its team leaders to make it happen.

Hawkeye offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum stressed in interviews this week that faster starts are key to unlock Iowa's winning formula. Smart guy.

"Keeping our foot on the gas is going to be an emphasis,” Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said this week.

When Iowa beats Northwestern, it’s often by knockout. The Hawkeyes’ last three wins in the series have come by scores of 48-7 (in 2014), 40-10 (in 2015) and 20-0 (in 2019). Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ four wins in the last five matchups have been by a combined 19 points. The 2017 game was settled in overtime.

The Hawkeyes are simply a much better team when they can play with the lead. That allows the defense to start sinking its teeth into opposing quarterbacks. Turnovers typically follow.

“We’ve got to have a better start to help our defense,” Linderbaum said, “(and) help our game plan and get to what we want to do: Run the ball.”

As has been a talking point all week, Northwestern has the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Getting Iowa’s run game activated is on the offensive line, sure, but also on the quarterback. Spencer Petras explained this week that when he gets to the line of scrimmage he knows which run calls should work and which ones won't, based on the defensive alignment.

“There are certain game-plan things where we have certain runs we want to get to against certain looks,” Petras said. “… Especially like a (4-3 alignment) team like Northwestern that does look a lot like … the (Iowa) defense we go against in camp and spring ball.

“Being able to tell which runs are good, leverage-wise, is not difficult. It comes down to execution. That’s what we are working on.”

More:Leistikow: Iowa football following Ted Lasso’s advice to ‘be a goldfish,’ with goal of beating Northwestern

In the last seven games, Iowa has produced one touchdown on 20 first-quarter possessions. Those drives have averaged 4½ plays and 14 yards. Not good.

If the Hawkeyes want to win for the first time in 28 days, they need to attack the first quarter … and change the narrative.

Iowa wins if …

Needless to say, minus-6 turnover margin has been a major factor in Iowa's two-game losing streak. The Hawkeyes need to get back to their ball-protecting ways on offense — no more than one turnover. And on defense, they've been stuck on 16 interceptions since Oct. 9. Two or more would go a long way to securing a victory Saturday. 

More:Iowa football's defense isn't meeting 'the standard.' A return to the norm could spark the entire team.

Northwestern wins if …

Fitzgerald knows his team struggles against the run, and he knows Petras doesn't move well. A stack-the-box defensive strategy can pay off, considering Iowa has taken 66 negative-yardage plays in eight games. Another key for Northwestern is to simply hang around and win with grit. Dating to Fitzgerald's first year as head coach in 2006, Northwestern has 48 one-possession victories, third-most in the country (behind Navy and Northern Illinois).

More:How to watch and stream Iowa vs. Northwestern

No. 16 Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) at Northwestern (3-5, 1-4)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 6:10 p.m. Saturday, BTN, Iowa by 11½ points

Prediction: Iowa 30, Northwestern 14 … The last time Iowa visited Ryan Field, Tyrone Tracy Jr. made an electric 50-yard touchdown catch. Tracy will snap his stats slump with a long score and Goodson flirts with his career-high rushing day (153 yards) in a feel-better offensive performance.

Saturday's other Big Ten games

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

No. 5 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) at Nebraska (3-6, 1-5)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., Fox, Ohio State by 14½

Prediction: The Omaha World-Herald published an enlightening piece this week that outlined the Huskers have the fifth-best yards-per-play differential in the country, even better than Alabama's … but the worst "luck" in the country, statistically. Still, Ohio State has owned Nebraska with wins of 62-3, 56-14, 36-31, 48-7 and 52-17 during the first five years of their crossover partnership. Ohio State 45, Nebraska 28

Illinois (3-6, 2-4) at Minnesota (6-2, 4-1)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., ESPN2, Minnesota by 14½

Prediction: We saw Illinois stun Penn State two weeks ago. The Gophers, who just lost a third running back for the season, are down to two freshmen at that crucial position in their ball-control attack. With a gigantic game on deck at Iowa and on the heels of P.J. Fleck signing an extension through the 2028 season, perhaps the Gophers will be a little flat. Minnesota 24, Illinois 20  

No. 23 Penn State (5-3, 2-3) at Maryland (5-3, 2-3)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1, Penn State by 10½

Prediction: Much like Iowa, the Nittany Lions — losers of three straight — simply need to get back into the win column with Michigan on deck. Plus, this is a major revenge spot after the Terrapins won last year's matchup convincingly. Penn State 35, Maryland 21

No. 6 Michigan State (8-0, 5-0) at Purdue (5-3, 3-2)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., ABC, Michigan State by 3

Prediction: The Spartans are the best story in the country and freshly minted the No. 3 team in the first playoff rankings after a dramatic win against rival Michigan. Are they emotionally spent? We know how hard it can be to come back the next week after a huge win (see Iowa vs. Purdue on Oct. 16). And the Boilermakers won't play scared. Purdue 31, Michigan State 27

Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2) at Rutgers (4-4, 1-4)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Wisconsin by 13

Prediction: The Badgers' strategy of obsessively running the ball and relying on their stingy defense should work again vs. a plodding Rutgers offense that ranks 119th in yards per play at 4.70. (Iowa, by the way, is 125th at 4.43.) Wisconsin 23, Rutgers 3

Indiana (2-6, 0-5) at No. 10 Michigan (7-1, 4-1)

Time, TV, line: 6:30 p.m., Fox, Michigan by 20

Prediction: Twice in the Jim Harbaugh era, Indiana has pushed the Wolverines to overtime. Not this year as Michigan buckles down with Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State on deck. Michigan 37, Indiana 13

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.