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Iowa Hawkeyes vs Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview

Will one of college football’s more intriguing hexes continue this weekend? A very uncertain atmosphere pervades one of the Big Ten battles that has not favored the program with more pedigree and stature over the long march of time.

The Northwestern Wildcats and Iowa Hawkeyes will face off Saturday night in a pivotal Big Ten clash at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Despite owning a proud football history, the Iowa program – which made the Rose Bowl three times in a decade (1981 through 1990) and won the 2010 Orange Bowl over Georgia Tech – has lost each of its last two games to Northwestern, inexplicably lacking energy and inspiration against the flawed and limited but decidedly plucky athletes from Evanston, Illinois. Some matchups exist beyond any feel or flow, but other conference collisions acquire a certain vibe over time. There’s no question that in the present moment, Northwestern owns the voodoo and juju while Iowa is simply spellbound. The Hawkeyes will try to shed their psychological baggage against the Wildcats this weekend, in a contest that means a lot for both teams’ pursuit of a bowl bid.

Iowa (3-2) lost a 13-3 defensive struggle at Penn State last week. Northwestern (2-3), for its part, blew a second-half lead for the second straight game in a 41-24 loss at home against Michigan. Northwestern was outscored 28-0 in the second half. As a result, both schools are in need of a win to shore up their postseason chances.

For Iowa, the main key this week is to deliver a solid if not spectacular offensive performance. Iowa's usually-potent passing attack was shut down by Penn State. Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg, who has thrown for 1,264 yards and ten touchdowns this season, should have an easier time against a Northwestern defense that gave up 337 yards to Michigan's Denard Robinson last week. Yet, in the same breath, Robinson’s mobility and his constant threat as a runner are attributes Vandenberg lacks, so the calculus of the chess match between Iowa’s offense and Northwestern’s defense will be different.

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Before facing the Nittany Lions, Iowa had put up at least 31 points in each of its first four games. In Happy Valley, the Hawkeyes managed just three points, on a second quarter field goal. The Hawkeyes were competitive deep into last week's game, trailing just 6-3 in the fourth quarter before being pummeled by the Penn State defense and running game. Safe to say, if Iowa has only three points on the board in the fourth quarter of THIS game, it’s going to get drilled by an even larger margin than it was last week in the Keystone State.

For Northwestern, this game comes down to consistency and halftime adjustments. Northwestern blew an 18-point second-half lead against Illinois on Oct. 1 and then squandered a 10-point halftime lead against Michigan. NU coach Pat Fitzgerald is not getting his team to stay focused, and he’s not making the tactical moves to keep his players ahead of the competition when the third quarter begins. Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa, in his second game since returning from an Achilles tendon injury suffered against the Hawkeyes last season, threw for 331 yards last week. Jeremy Ebert caught 11 passes for 86 yards. Northwestern proved it could move the ball, but the second-half shutout against a less-than-overwhelming Michigan defense shows that the Wildcats are a feast-or-famine club with wild mood swings and a lack of an even keel. Northwestern has to flourish in the fourth quarter if its mojo against Iowa is to have its way once again.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer