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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Iowa Hawkeyes Preview and Prediction

Kirk Ferentz

Kirk Ferentz

Iowa City will be the site of a critical Big Ten West battle on Saturday, as Northwestern tries to avoid starting conference play 0-2 while defending division champion Iowa looks to move to 2-0.

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The Hawkeyes have won three straight against the Wildcats, including back-to-back blowouts in 2014 and ‘15. Iowa's performance over the last two weeks, however, makes it difficult to envision a similar result Saturday. The Hawkeye offense hasn't looked like itself during that two-game stretch, and much of that is due to C.J. Beathard's health. The senior signal caller injured his left shoulder against North Dakota State. Subsequently, both he and the Iowa offense haven't been the same since. To make matters worse, the Hawkeyes just lost their top pass catcher in wide receiver Matt VandeBerg to a foot injury for the season.

Northwestern at Iowa

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 12 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPNU

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Spread: Iowa -13

Three Things to Watch

1. Iowa's Ability to Limit the Big Play
The Hawkeyes gave up double-digit chunks of yardage a dozen times against Rutgers last week. One of those plays should have led to a touchdown, but the Iowa defense was able to make a stand near the goal line. Northwestern has the ability to play the same type of game against Iowa that Rutgers did. The Wildcats also have the ability to rip off big plays of their own — both through the pass and on the ground via QB Clayton Thorson or RB Justin Jackson. Forget the spread in this one. With Iowa's offense as banged up as it is, this is likely to be a low-scoring affair with one big play being the difference.

2. Special Teams
In keeping with the "one big play" theme, special teams is a spot were both teams can make that play the seals a win. Desmond King is one of the better return men in the country. Even if he doesn't take one to the house on Saturday, a return good enough to flip field position could be all that is needed. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern is getting into field goal position but struggling mightily to convert attempts into points. Jack Mitchell and Matt Micucci are still competing for the kicking job. The results of that competition could coincide with the end result of this game.

3. The Health of C.J. Beathard and Anthony Walker Jr.
Each team is extremely dependent on their stars — as you might expect — and needs them to function at high levels to come out on top. Beathard is probably going to need to make a play or two to pull this one out — whether it is with his arm or his legs. Any reluctance on his part due to do just that because of his shoulder injury will severely hinder Iowa's offense, especially given the absence of Matt VandeBerg. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern needs both Walker's skills and leadership to stay in this game. The Wildcats’ top linebacker and anchor limped off the field during the latter part of the game against Nebraska. As of right now, his status is up in the air. If he is unable to go or even function at a semi-competitive level, it will be a long day for the visiting team.

Final Analysis

This has the makings of a low-scoring slugfest between two teams fighting through injury and searching for an identity. You'll see the game dominated by both teams' running backs between the 20s. After that, it will be C.J. Beathard and Clayton Thorson's ability to convert red zone trips into points at every opportunity that will be the difference. I give Iowa the advantage on that front, largely due to the receiving ability of its running backs and tight ends, combined with Northwestern's woes in the kicking game. Additionally, I like Iowa's defense to come up with more stops than Northwestern — potentially a game-changing turnover — and secure victory in this classic, blue-collar Big Ten battle.

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Prediction: Iowa 23, Northwestern 14

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.