Iowa traveled to Evanston, Ill. Saturday afternoon to take on Northwestern, looking to put last week's blowout loss in the rearview mirror. Things didn't turn out much better for the Hawkeyes (4-4, 2-2 Big Ten), as the Wildcats (7-2, 3-2) rode a strong rushing attack to hand Iowa a 28-17 defeat. We'll now take a look back and grade the performance.
The struggles of James Vandenberg this season have been well documented, and though he improved from his rough outing last weekend, he still struggled at times against a Northwestern defense that was missing two starters. He was jumpy in the pocket, lacked accuracy on several passes and continued to lock onto his receivers. He also was responsible for three delay of game penalties, two of which stunted Iowa drives. Vandenberg certainly didn't get any help from his receiving corps, either, as the Hawkeyes dropped five passes against the Wildcats. Overall, Vandenberg finished the game 24 of 38 for 214 yards. He also added a couple of rushing touchdowns on two goal line rushes. Grade: C-
It was good news-bad news for the Hawkeyes, as Iowa saw the return of one running back only to see one leave with an injury. Damon Bullock returned to action after missing the past several games and showed little signs of rust in rushing for a team-high 107 yards on 22 carries. His cuts were decisive, he showed good burst and has an element of elusiveness that allows him to extend runs. Bullock also caught five passes for 41 yards.
Bullock's solid performance was a welcome sight for the Hawkeyes, not only because it gives them another weapon on offense, but also because Mark Weisman once again was forced to leave the game early due to injury. Weisman, who was still battling a sprained ankle, rushed nine times for 21 yards and caught two passes for 20 yards but appeared to hurt his hip just before halftime and did not return in the second half.
Overall, it was a good showing by the running backs, but like last week, their effectiveness was limited by Iowa's need to play catch-up in the second half. Grade: B
Wide Receiver/Tight End
It was not a great day for Iowa's receivers on Saturday. Despite going up against a banged up secondary, they never really got much going. While some of that can be placed on quarterback play, the receivers also have to carry their share of the responsibility. There were five dropped passes in the game, none of which were particularly difficult catches. With a quarterback who has clearly struggled for most of the season, those are plays the receivers have to make.
Kevonte Martin-Manley was Vandenberg's favorite target on Saturday and finished with a team-leading seven receptions for 46 yards. Keenan Davis and C.J. Fiedorowicz had three receptions apiece for 30 and 23 yards, respectively. Jordan Cotton caught two passes for 23 yards, while Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer each caught their first career pass, with Smith picking up 16 yards and Hillyer 15. Grade: D
Facing the loss of two starters to season-ending injuries, the Iowa offensive line played relatively well against the Wildcats. There were some missed assignments and sketchy blocking at times, but for the most part, they were able to open holes for the running game and allow Vandenberg enough time to find his target, though they did allow three sacks. It's tough for any offensive line to lose two starters, especially two who have been playing as well as Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal were, but Jordan Walsh and Nolan MacMillan played well in their stead. Grade: C
Overall Offensive Grade: D
As has been the case for much of the season, the offense was unable to get much going. Iowa was unable to take advantage of a weakened Northwestern defense, putting up just 336 yards of total offense with several of those yards coming late in the game when Iowa was down by 25 points.
After the breakdown in last week's blowout, Iowa needed a strong performance from its defense against Northwestern, and it had to start up front. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, the defensive line struggled to stop a run-happy offense. The Iowa front was unable to slow down the Northwestern rushing attack, as the Wildcats picked up 349 yards on the ground. Iowa was constantly handled and bottled up at the point of attack, allowing the offensive line to open plenty of running lanes for both quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, both of whom finished with over 160 yards rushing.
Louis Trinca-Pasat led the defensive line with four tackles, while Darian Cooper, Dominic Alvis and Steve Bigach added three each. Joe Gaglione rounded out the group with two stops. Grade: F
Like the defensive line, the linebackers simply couldn't contain the Northwestern ground game. The Hawkeyes were often eaten up by blockers and failed to plug the open running lanes, allowing the Wildcats to run roughshod through the defense. Christian Kirksey paced the defense with nine tackles. Anthony Hitchens and James Morris each added six stops. Grade: F
Iowa's defensive backs had the best day of all the defensive units, but still had trouble against the Wildcats, particularly against the run. The safeties both struggled in run support, often taking poor angles or simply being out of position, allowing Northwestern to pick up large chunks of additional yardage. Even though the Hawkeyes only allowed 84 yards passing, they really didn't fare much better against the pass. The Wildcats didn't need to throw very often, but when they did, they were able to complete 7 of 10 passes for 84 yards, including a 47-yard TD pass early in the third quarter.
Micah Hyde turned in the best performance of the defense, as he recovered a fumble and had three tackles, including when he tracked down Mark from behind, saving Iowa from allowing an embarrassing 99-yard TD run. B.J. Lowery also had three stops and added an interception. Tanner Miller and Tom Donatell led the defensive backs with seven and four tackles, respectively, while Greg Castillo finished with two. Grade: D
Overall Defensive Grade: F
Last week, Iowa struggled against the passing game. This week, it was the running game. Northwestern racked up 349 yards rushing against the Hawkeyes, including 197 yards in the first half. With an offense that has struggled to score for most of the season, Iowa cannot afford to have the defense breakdown as quickly and as easily as it has the past couple of games.
This was one of those games that really reminds you of how good Iowa's special teams used to be. Other than a 40-yard field goal by Mike Meyer, the Hawkeye special teams had problems against Northwestern. True freshman Connor Kornbrath continues to work through his struggles, punting three times for 96 yards, an average of 32.0 per punt. Punt coverage wasn't any better, as Iowa allowed a blocked punt and a 23-yard return. The Hawkeye return game also struggled to get much of anything going. Grade: F
Overall Grade: F
Like the loss against Penn State, Iowa came out flat against Northwestern and paid the price. The offense continued to struggle, while the defense seems to have regressed from its strong start. The Hawkeyes are going to have to regroup quickly if they hope to turn the season around. At this point, bowl eligibility is in serious jeopardy.
Stat of the Game: 7.3
Though Iowa won the time of possession battle, that didn't seem to phase Northwestern. The Wildcats were able to pick up an average of 7.3-yards per play against the Hawkeye defense, essentially negating Iowa's game plan of controlling the tempo of the game.
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