The matchup between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats comes at a pivotal time for both programs.
Both teams hold a 4-3 record, have a tough slate of games ahead of them and are trying to make a bowl game.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has taken the Hawkeyes to the postseason for 10 of the last 12 years, while Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has gone bowling with the Wildcats for the past five seasons.
Despite the Hawkeyes having a 47-24-3 edge in the series and a 21-game winning streak at one point, it's the Wildcats who have won 10 of the last 16 and six of the last eight.
Fitzgerald has had Ferentz's number no matter where the game is played.
However, Northwestern has lost their last three Big Ten contests and looked flat in their home loss to Minnesota.
Iowa doesn't have the home-field advantage like they used to in the early 2000s, but the Hawkeyes appear to be much improved over last year's 4-8 squad.
Date: Saturday, October 26
Time: 11:00 a.m. CT
Location: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa
Spread: Iowa -4 (per Bovada)
When Iowa Has the Ball
The Hawkeyes have one huge advantage in this game—the running attack.
Northwestern, ranked 72nd in rushing defense with 168.9 yards allowed, has struggled during the last two weeks against teams that line up under center and run it between the tackles.
The Wildcats gave up a combined 462 yards on the ground versus Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Other than against Michigan State, Iowa has had no difficulty getting a push from the offensive line.
Mark Weisman and LeShun Daniels are powerful backs who get yards after contact. Damon Bullock has more shiftiness while catching the ball out of the backfield. And Jordan Canzeri has tremendous speed.
Assuming Iowa has success running the ball, that makes life on quarterback Jake Rudock a lot easier.
Rudock, who has completed just under 60 percent of his passes this season, has done a solid job as a first-year starter.
The Hawkeyes are converting 50 percent of their third-down opportunities. Essentially, the Iowa rushing game has made third down very manageable for Rudock.
Along with his mobility, Iowa's rising quarterback is doing a great job distributing the ball, as 14 different Hawkeyes have caught passes this season.
So, while the Hawkeye offense isn't explosive, it's balanced.
But you can count on Iowa trying to run it right at Northwestern.
The trend, stats and depth all line up for the Hawkeyes to run it successfully behind their big offensive line.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
The list of Northwestern quarterbacks who have given Iowa a massive headache over the last eight years is staggering: Kain Colter, Dan Persa, Mike Kafka, C.J. Bacher and Brett Basanez.
The main reason? Their ability to run.
The Iowa defense has given up at least 50 yards rushing to the Northwestern quarterbacks each of the past four seasons, including Colter's 166 yards and three touchdowns last year.
It sounds similar to Iowa's problem last week in stopping Ohio State's Braxton Miller, who rushed for 102 yards and scrambled multiple times on third down to move the chains.
Luckily for the Wildcats, even if Colter isn't 100 percent and doesn't have the wheels to run around, they have been using two quarterbacks all season and can turn to Trevor Siemian.
Colter is the dual-threat option, but Siemian has the better arm and has thrown for 1,313 yards and seven touchdowns.
Furthermore, while Iowa's defensive line is better than the one in 2012, it still isn't getting the pressure with its four-man front like we are accustomed to seeing from previous Hawkeye teams.
Therefore, it's up to the Wildcats to use their quarterback speed but also buy time and test the poor Iowa secondary.
Sure, the Hawkeyes are 26th in the nation in pass defense, but considering that every touchdown the Iowa defense allowed came on pass plays of 17 yards or more before the Ohio State contest, there's great reason for Northwestern to throw the ball deep.
The good news for Iowa is that according to Tom Fornelli of CBSSports.com, Fitzgerald says Venric Mark is out for Saturday.
That should help Iowa's tough front seven force Northwestern into some third-and-long situations and allow defensive coordinator Phil Parker to dial up some blitzes.
Since both defenses don't match up well against the opposing offenses, this game will produce a fair amount of points.
Iowa will rush for over 200 yards, and Northwestern will have two touchdown passes from outside the red zone.
However, the trend of the Wildcats is troubling.
A let down at Wisconsin makes sense after the tough loss to Ohio State, but the effort they gave against Minnesota was concerning, to say the least.
Even with Colter not playing, holding the ball under 25 minutes and turning it over three times against a struggling Gophers team doesn't look like a team that knows how to pick itself back up.
For the Hawkeyes, they were in this situation last year.
It looked like things were going their way in Big Ten action, but as injuries piled up against Penn State, they were embarrassed at home. Then, after losing 28-17 at Northwestern, the losing streak accelerated.
Injuries are now on Northwestern's side, and Iowa is showing a lot more promise this time around.
The Hawkeyes have led every contest at halftime this season, and I expect that to continue on Saturday.
Still, the Wildcats will keep it within one score.
Then, look for Iowa's offensive line to wear down Northwestern's defensive line in the second half and for the Hawkeyes pull away in the fourth quarter.
Iowa 34, Northwestern 20
(All statistics are from NCAA.com)
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