This is going to be a massive test for . . . well, several folks involved in Iowa's O-line. First-year OL coach Brian Ferentz had it rolling. The Hawkeyes went up to Michigan State and went toe-to-toe with one of the better run defenses in the Big Ten. Last week, with left tackle Brandon Scherff and right guard Andrew Donnal out and running back Mark Weisman limited, Iowa was held in check with 20 yards, its worst rushing performance since 2005. This week, there will be a new offensive tackle, either guard Matt Tobin slides outside or junior Nolan MacMillan makes his first start in 27 games. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said this week that he expects Weisman and sophomore running back Damon Bullock, who's missed 4 1/2 games with a concussion, to play. Northwestern (fourth in the league in rush defense with 121.25 a game) was lit up with a speed attack on the edges for 201 yards against Nebraska last week. The Wildcats were stronger straight up, which is what Iowa will bring. NU's linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo, Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi are playmakers. Advantage: Even
As a junior last season, QB James Vandenberg completed 47 passes for 20 yards or more. Through seven games this season, Iowa has had just 17 completions of 20-plus yards. This week, Ferentz was asked if Marvin McNutt, who set a multitude of receiving records last season at Iowa, made that much of a difference. He said no. Iowa passing offense under first-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis has drifted toward short routes. Does this play to Vandenberg's strength? Right now, you'd have to say no. Iowa's empty set and its big running formation (running back, full back and two tight ends) haven't advanced the passing game. The Cats will be down corners Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans. VanHoose, NU's best cover corner, suffered a shoulder injury. NU plays a lot of zone, so the injuries can be eased, but Nebraska built its fourth-quarter comeback (trailing 28-16) on the pass. Huskers QB Taylor Martinez was a threat to run, widening NU's safeties and opening the middle of the field, where Iowa has rarely attacked this season. CB Daniel Jones had an especially rough fourth quarter. Advantage: Northwestern
The Cats have a trio who can hurt you in different ways. Running back Venric Mark is a bullet. Against the Huskers, he burst for an 80-yard untouched TD when Husker linebackers blew an assignment against option QB Kain Colter. Mark is only 5-8, 180, but you have to catch him to tackle him. He averages a ridiculous 6.1 yards on 150 carries with nine TDs. After taking a shot to the head in the third quarter, Mark looked dazed and didn't return, but he's expected to play today. Colter is a confident, patient runner between the tackles who likes to cut against the grain. He averages 5.2 yards a carry and has eight TDs. Then there's Mike Trumpy, a 6-1, 210-pounder who averages 4.3 yards a carry on the inside. Colter and Venric are deadly in the zone read. Iowa will need to be sound in its assignments. Northwestern won't overpower the Hawkeyes, like Penn State did to the tune of 215 rushing yards last week. The Cats will stretch and slice. The Cats did, however, show some power in the fourth quarter against Nebraska, running on six straight plays to set up a score. The Cats have run in the red zone all season, ranking sixth in the nation in efficiency inside the 20 (19 TDs on 31 trips). Advantage: Northwestern
Northwestern doesn't look like Northwestern in the passing game this season. A couple of things there, 1) coach Pat Fitzgerald has gone to sophomore Trevor Siemian as the team's primary passer. He's a drop-back QB, who, against Nebraska last week, tried six fade routes, completing one for a 26-yard TD and drawing a pass interference on another. 2) Colter isn't the passer that Dan Persa was. Thus, the Cats tip their hand when Siemian (pass) and Colter (run) enter the game. NU hasn't stuck with anything and some of that has splashed on offensive coordinator Mick McCall. "We've just got to come up with better solutions and better answers in-game when some things aren't working. That's on us as coaches, obviously," Fitzgerald said. There has been a rumble for more Colter, and that is likely where the Cats are headed this week. Iowa's match-up zone coverage had its weaknesses exposed last week. Iowa got lost with "turner" routes last week, with receivers running into the flat after linebackers and safeties had been occupied. NU likes to get its athletes in space, so this has to be tightened. Corner B.J. Lowery probably gets the call this week after returning from a high-ankle sprain. Advantage: Iowa
Mark leads the nation in punt returns with 25.10 yards on 10 returns, including two TDs. That's insane, especially considering how the NCAA rule differs from the NFL. In college, all defenders are allowed to chase the punt returner. In the NFL, defenders can take off until the ball is punted. Mark did let one punt against Nebraska go over his head where it was downed at NU's 4. The Cats forced two turnovers against the Huskers with aggressive punt coverage. NU kicker Jeff Budzien has missed one of his last five kicks, and that was a chance for the game-winner in last week's 29-28 loss to Nebraska. The 53-yarder just tailed wide right at the end. Iowa's Mike Meyer missed two field goals against Penn State after hitting 13 in a row. Jordan Cotton doesn't have enough returns (six) to rank among Big Ten leaders, but after last week's 92-yard TD return, it's only a matter of time. He has averaged 37.0 yards on six returns. Advantage: Iowa
1) Championship elimination — The Wildcats have two losses in the Big Ten and have back-to-back November road games with Michigan and Michigan State. A loss today effectively ends championship football for '11 at Northwestern. Iowa is 2-1 in the Big Ten. A loss wouldn't eliminate the Hawkeyes, but a win would allow them to carry their destiny into November (at Indiana, Purdue, at Michigan and Nebraska). 2) The ennui of Ryan Field — Last week, Nebraska turned Ryan Field into a home game. When Colter lined up for the Cats' last-gasp drive, he had to resort to hand signals because the crowd noise -- from Nebraska -- wouldn't settle. Iowa has turned Ryan Field into a "home away from home" in the past, but how much energy was sapped from the fan base after last week's dud at Kinnick? Ryan Field can be a sleepy, energy-sucker of a homefield. 3) On the bus — This also makes the Northwestern trip a little offbeat for the Hawkeyes. It'll be their only bus ride in 2012. "I think in a lot of ways getting on a bus is almost therapeutic," Ferentz said. "It gives you four hours where you’re not totally out of touch -- nobody’s out of touch anymore with technology -- but at least you’re here. It’s four hours where everybody can relax and enjoy the ride." At least one way, the ride is enjoyable. No guarantees on the return trip. Advantage: Iowa
It can establish a running game and plug in the passing game. Defensively, the Hawkeyes need to lean on contain and make NU go through, and not around, them for yards.
Colter settles in and dictates pace. Last week, the Hawkeyes knew about Penn State's "NASCAR" hurry-up offense, but they didn't expect a whole game of it. They got it and they never got their hands off their knees. This week, Iowa knows the hurry-up is coming, but will it be able to stop it?
PREDICTION: Northwestern 31, Iowa 20