The road to the Big Ten West division title runs through Evanston on Saturday, as head coach Kirk Ferentz' unbeaten No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes take their show on the road against Pat Fitzgerald's No. 20-ranked Northwestern Wildcats.
The two teams arrive at Ryan Field from very different outings last Saturday, as Iowa was thrown into a buzz-saw but survived 29-20 on the strength of their defense against a much-improved Illinois team, while the Wildcats saw their team absolutely dismantled 38-0 against the newest Big Ten East power in the Michigan Wolverines.
Iowa leads the all-time series against Northwestern 49-24-3 dating back to 1897, including winning three of the last four meetings.
College Football Podcast: Week 7 Preview
Iowa at Northwestern
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Iowa -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Impact of “Next Man In”
The Hawkeyes have been reeling the last couple of weeks from injuries to key players, but finding a way to win. Each week has brought new injuries, and new faces to the lineup. This week will see five key players out or playing with injuries. Those five have a total of 87 career starts on their resumes. In their place will be a redshirt freshman with one start, two true freshmen, including one making his first start as a Hawkeye, and a junior making just his third start. Making matters worse, three of the new faces are along the offensive line, which could spell trouble for Iowa's passing game again this week.
2. The battle of the lines
Hawkeye QB C.J. Beathard and RB Jordan Canzeri have each already been named Big Ten Offensive Player of the week this season. But Iowa's offense hasn't looked as pretty on some days, and this unit certainly has had its issues. While Canzeri spent last Saturday rewriting Hawkeye rushing records, Beathard spent much of the day hurrying just to get the ball out of his hands before being thrown to the turf by a much-improved Illini defense. And the Northwestern defense, currently ranked among the top 10 in FBS in every major category but rushing defense, doesn't look to make life much easier, and will undoubtedly exploit the injuries along the Hawkeyes' offensive line to slow down or stop Canzeri and Beathard altogether.
3. Who commits the fewest errors
The Wildcats are nothing if not disciplined. They currently rank first in the Big Ten, and fifth nationally in fewest penalty yards per game. The Hawkeyes can be found much farther down that list, coming in sixth in the Big Ten and 48th overall. But it didn't get much worse than against the Illini, where the Hawkeyes committed seven penalties for a whooping 95 yards. The week prior, against Wisconsin, Iowa also found itself walking backward far more than one would expect of the 17th-ranked team in the nation.
The good news for the Hawkeyes is that, in spite of all the prior bad news regarding injuries, the Wildcats have been idling in neutral when it comes to offensive output. They currently rank 110th in scoring offense, 117th in passing offense and 98th in total offense. Their saving grace has so far been the running game. But the only team better than Iowa in rushing defense in the Big Ten just got done handing a defensive pounding and goose-egg to the Wildcats in Ann Arbor last weekend. So in the “something's gotta give” category, don't look for it to be the Hawkeye defense changing too much.
Iowa's big problems will likely come from a willingness to lean on the legs of Canzeri if the Wildcat passing defense finds itself in Beathard's face too often in the opening minutes. At the end of the day, Iowa has excelled at finding ways to get the job done and changing up their offensive schemes just enough to wear down the opposing defenses.
Look for the Hawkeyes and Wildcats to duke it out defensively throughout much of the first three quarters, but for Iowa to put it away when it counts with a balanced offensive attack down the line.
Prediction: Iowa 17, Northwestern 14
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network and a native Iowan currently based in Southern California. Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and is a former contributing writer for The Daily Iowan and a die-hard Hawkeye. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.