Iowa clear Big Ten West favorite
After a 40-10 dismantling of Northwestern on the road, the 7-0 Iowa Hawkeyes are the clear favorite to win the Big Ten West.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Hawkeyes’ success has been the play of their defense, which is cumulatively one of the 10-highest graded units in the FBS. Iowa held Northwestern starter Clayton Thorson to 125 passing yards, while pressuring him on more than a quarter of his dropbacks. Thorson also frequently left clean pockets on his own, spooked by the threat of a rush that sacked him three times.
Iowa’s defense was similarly effective against the run, with Northwestern’s Justin Jackson held to just 3.0 yards per carry, while 25 of his 30 yards came after contact. Linemen Jaleel Johnson (+5.1) and Nate Meier (+2.7) have been particularly good this season, and both graded well on Saturday after combining for eight defensive stops and eight pressures.
Offensively, Iowa has relied on their strong rushing attack. On Saturday, their primary rushers Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell combed for six forced missed tackles and 283 yards, with 142 coming before contact. They were particularly strong gashing Northwestern through the right side A- and B-gaps, with an average of more than 10 yards per carry on those plays. That was, in large part, due to the play of center Austin Blythe, who compiled a dominant +5.7 overall grade, with much of his success coming against Northwestern tackle Jordan Thompson. Entering the game, Blythe was the sixth-ranked FBS center in terms of overall grade, and third-ranked in run blocking.
Quarterback is one position that could hold the team back, as C.J. Beathard finished with his third straight negative overall grade at -2.5. He played a very risk-averse game for the most part, with just two completions on passes that travelled more than 10 yards downfield (six attempts), but a bad force in the second quarter that resulted in an interception, as well as poor ball security in the pocket, lowered his grade substantially. His pocket presence wasn’t great, either, as he left a clean pocket at times, perceiving pressure that wasn’t there, though Northwestern did get to him on more than 40 percent of his dropbacks.
Beathard has shown he can play at a high level in games against North Texas and Iowa State, but his passing has mostly been lackluster in Iowa’s other five games. He’ll have to turn it around for Iowa to be serious contenders against the best of the Big Ten East.
At 7-0, Iowa should have little trouble making it to the Big Ten Championship, with a favorable remaining schedule. Three of their next five games are at home, and their remaining opponents have just two combined wins in Big Ten play (one from each Nebraska and Minnesota).