The Northwestern Wildcats (5-4, 2-3) will try to play spoiler and secure bowl eligibility as they travel to take on BCS No. 4 Iowa (9-0, 5-0) on Saturday. The Hawkeyes should be taking this game seriously since NU owns an active two-game winning streak at Kinnick Stadium, with the two teams splitting the last 10 in the series.
The Wildcats are coming off a hard-fought game against highly-ranked Penn State in Evanston that saw NU hold a 13-10 halftime edge and take a tie game into the fourth quarter before surrendering touchdowns on three consecutive PSU plays from scrimmage.
Iowa, meanwhile, escaped with a win over Indiana, who had the Hawkeyes on the ropes with a 21-7 halftime lead, only to watch Iowa come roaring back with a 28-point fourth quarter.
Iowa will be looking to run their 2009 win total into double digits and, coupled with a PSU win over Ohio State later in the day, all but secure a conference title. The Hawkeyes control their own destiny, as they face OSU in Columbus next week, which means Northwestern can play spoiler in its second consecutive potential opponent trap game.
Don't expect any of this to overtly affect Iowa, though, who have come from behind in every game but one in the 2009 season (the exception was against Arkansas State, who had the ball down by three with a chance to win at the end of the game).
The Hawkeyes feature the nation's 13th-best scoring defense and the nation's third-best pass efficiency defense, aided by a nation-leading 18 interceptions (which comes out to, of course, two per game).
Northwestern will be hoping to have QB Mike Kafka available to start the game after he came out in the second quarter of the PSU game with a leg injury. This season, Kafka has accounted for 70 percent of NU's total offense and 62 percent of the 'Cats' offensive touchdowns.
The Wildcats have had injury problems across the board, having started 20 different players on defense (just four have started every game of the year), and seeing three members of the running back by committee go down at various points of the year.
This has directly led to NU's 5-4 record, despite the fact that the Wildcats have had a second half lead in every game of the 2009 season (and have entered the fourth quarter trailing just one time).
Although Iowa's offense is nothing to write home about, they're tied for 74th nationally in scoring offense.
QB Ricky Stanzi has found a way to come up with the big play when it matters most, like his last-second fourth down touchdown pass at Michigan State two weeks ago to secure the come-from-behind victory.
Even as they see running back after running back go down with injuries, they continue to find ways to win games.
If Northwestern can put together a "complete game" by extending what they did against Penn State early in the game to the entire contest, the 'Cats have a good chance of playing spoiler for Iowa since the Hawkeyes haven't exactly been impressive so far this season.
The Wildcats cannot afford any major gaffes, though, and need Kafka in the game to provide some kind of offensive threat.
Iowa by 16.5.
Who Should Win
Iowa. They're fourth in the BCS rankings, are off to the best start in school history, and currently stand alone atop the Big Ten conference standings.
They have a suffocating defense and find ways to win games despite being down (even by large margins).
And they find ways to overcome their own mistakes, like they did in their 18-point win over Indiana last week despite yielding six turnovers.
They seem destined to roll to the Rose Bowl, with the national championship game still in the picture if a team above them slips.
For the second straight week, NU is hoping that its opponent is looking forward to a bout with Ohio State as the 'Cats look to catch their opponent in a trap game.
NU showed it could move the ball against a stout defense with Kafka at the helm and could more than hold its own, at least for three quarters.
Iowa's offense isn't nearly as dangerous as Penn State's, and they make their share of errors, so if NU can move the ball well at all (meaning Kafka needs to play) and can capitalize on any Iowa errors, they could run their Iowa City winning streak to three.
What to Look for
Northwestern Offense/Iowa Defense
As mentioned earlier, NU's offense is seemingly tied to the health of QB Mike Kafka, as he's accounted for 70 percent of the 'Cats offensive output this year.
The offense's struggles after he came out last week were well documented: Dan Persa couldn't complete any downfield passes and was being chased by pass rushers early and often. Now NU must turn around and face a second consecutive formidable defense.
The offensive line looked great against Indiana and was holding up well versus PSU, thanks to Kafka's feet and quick passing, but those good feelings were quickly pushed aside in the second half against PSU, as they ended up yielding six sacks, five QB hurries, and a third quarter wherein NU yielded 17 total yards of offense.
The running backs were once again quiet, with QBs Kafka and Persa easily outgaining the rest of the backs combined.
It's fairly clear that the 2009 Wildcats' rushing attack comes primarily from the quarterback position thanks to an OL that hasn't been effective in run blocking and a running back by committee that hasn't gained much ground.
The one thing the 'Cats do have going for them is the nation's 24th-ranked passing attack (268.3 yards per game) with the nation's 10th-best passer in terms of completions per game (Kafka) who is also 14th in terms of completion percentage (66.8 percent).
Again, if he can play, Kafka can do damage with his arms and his legs (4.2 yards per carry with sacks removed, and six rushing touchdowns on the year).
Northwestern will be facing the wall that is the Iowa defense, which leads the nation in interceptions, is fourth in turnovers gained, 19th in total defense, and, most importantly, 13th in scoring defense, yielding just 15.8 points per game.
Aptly-named LB Pat Angerer leads the team in tackles with 89 while also contributing stats in five other statistical categories.
Safety Tyler Sash is tied for second nationally with six interceptions on the year, with one highlight coming last week as he grabbed a ball that bounced off four other players before he took it 86 yards for a TD.
Up front, DT Karl Klug has 10.0 TFLs, surpassed only by DE Adrian Clayborn, who has 11.0 along with a team-leading 6.5 sacks. Clayborn also had the infamous blocked punt that he returned for a TD against PSU that helped Iowa take the lead in that important game.
Iowa has more weapons than I can name here, much like PSU did last week, and to be successful, the 'Cats will need to execute their quick passing attack as efficiently as they did early in the game last week while getting whatever rushing production they can primarily from the QB position.
The success on this side of the ball seemingly hinges on Kafka's health unless NU can find a way to utilize Persa more effectively.
Northwestern Defense/Iowa Offense
The 'Cats' D contained the Big Ten's best offense for three quarters last week (despite having to resort to second and third string cornerbacks throughout the season and facing injuries at the vast majority of the defensive positions) until it was gashed for TDs on three consecutive plays from scrimmage in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats are in the middle of the pack nationally in most defensive categories and have done a decent job at stopping the run, yielding only 122.9 yards per game on the ground (which would set a school record, eclipsing last year's mark of 126.4 yards per game).
The problem is that a dinged-up secondary has been giving up explosion plays early and often, like the two 50+ yard plays to Penn State last week and a 70-yard run to Indiana to open the previous week's game.
Up front, the DL has been doing a good job containing the run after a poor start to the year in that category, and it has been getting modest pressure on opposing QBs (2.3 sacks per game, although most of those sacks came against weaker competition).
Corey Wootton has yet to really look like his pre-injury self, and if he can turn in a 2008-like performance, it would be a huge boost for the 'Cats.
Northwestern has had many statistical contributors on defense, but the key to their success is getting pressure up front and getting solid coverage from the secondary; when NU has failed in either or both of these areas, they have been burned by long plays.
The Wildcats have made a concerted effort to stop the run by bringing additional men into the box, which leaves some or all members of the secondary responsible for man-to-man coverage.
Unfortunately for NU, that type of long play is what Iowa has been feeding on all year long.
QB Ricky Stanzi is averaging 13.7 yards per completion (for comparison, Kafka is averaging 10.3 yards per completion) and has 17 passes of 30 yards or more on the year (four of those coming last week against Indiana, including a 66- and a 92-yarder, with both of those coming in the fourth quarter of the game).
The team's active leading rusher is true freshman Brandon Wegher (after Adam Robinson went down a few weeks ago), who is averaging 3.9 yards per carry. At this point, he's the Hawkeyes' most viable rushing threat; junior Paki O'Meara has just 12 carries on the year and is theoretically the second option, but has clearly been passed over and will rarely be used barring injury.
The real threat is in Iowa's passing game. Both Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt are averaging over 19 yards per reception (McNutt is averaging 21.7 yards per catch), while Tony Moeaki provides a viable receiving threat from the TE position and is tied for the team lead with four receiving TDs (McNutt shares the lead).
QB Stanzi is coming off arguably his worst three quarters of the season followed by his best quarter of the season. In quarters one through three against Indiana, he went 10-of-23 for 160 yards and five interceptions.
In the fourth period, he went 3-of-3 for 177 yards and two TDs with no turnovers.
That's pretty much how Iowa's season has gone on offense, with Stanzi sporting a 14-to-13 TD-to-INT ratio.
They've made plenty of mistakes (they rank 80th nationally with 17 turnovers lost), but they can hit the big plays when needed and have explosive play potential.
The key for NU is to get to Stanzi early and often with up front pressure and to cover up as much of the downfield receivers as possible.
Last year, NU racked up five turnovers on their way to a 22-17 win in Iowa City, and a repeat of that performance would definitely help the 'Cats' cause.
Northwestern's special teams woes continued against Penn State with a dropped punt snap and three muffed kickoffs.
Thankfully, none of those plays turned into a big negative for NU (in fact, two of them turned into positives with P Stefan Demos passing for a first down and Stephen Simmons returning a kickoff 44 yards after a bounce), but the 'Cats can't continue making such errors.
The 'Cats rank below 100th in two special teams categories: net punting (108th) and kickoff returns (106th).
With the Wildcats ranking in the middle of the pack nationally on kick and punt coverage, basically the only bright spot is Demos' field goal kicking, where he is 13-of-15 with his only two misses being blocks.
Iowa's PK Daniel Murray is 14-of-19 on FGs and has proven to be clutch (see his game-winner over PSU last year), and they play disciplined special teams despite losing multiple key returners.
The Hawkeyes rank 23rd nationally in net punting, which is a significant reason behind their success: They make teams drive the length of the field to score.
In terms of coverage, they are 17th nationally in kick return yardage and are 13th in punt return defense. As an extension of the defense, they don't give up many big plays on special teams.
And, of course, that's not to mention their punt/kick blocking, where they had the aforementioned punt block along with kick blocks on consecutive plays to secure their first win of the season over Northern Iowa.
The biggest objective for Northwestern in special teams should be to avoid momentum-changing mistakes. Anything else will be gravy, like last year's two recovered fumbles on special teams against Iowa.
Second Half Scoring
This year, Iowa has come up big when the game is on the line while NU has faltered. Iowa has outscored opponents 148-54 in the second halves of 2009 games (+10.4 points per game), while NU has been outscored 79-116 (-4.1 points per game).
Third Down Conversions
Everyone's favorite category, third down conversions. NU ranks ninth nationally, converting 49.3 percent of its chances (75 total to lead the nation), while Iowa is yielding just 34.9 percent of the time, good for 31st nationally.
NU is 3-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle and is just 2-4 when losing.
Iowa is, of course, undefeated at 9-0, and they have won the turnover battle four times, tied three times, and lost twice. Interestingly, they have lost at least one turnover in all but one game this season (and had a season high of six last week).
Neither team is protecting its QB very well: NU ranks 94th nationally, yielding 2.7 sacks per game, while Iowa ranks 74th, allowing 2.2 per game.
NU and Iowa are tied for 74th nationally, averaging exactly 25.67 points per game through nine games.
RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), OL Mike Boyle (back, doubtful), DT Jack DiNardo (shoulder, questionable), LB Bryce McNaul (leg, doubtful), CB Sherrick McManis (leg, questionable), QB Mike Kafka (leg, questionable).
In terms of numbers, NU's injury situation improved by leaps and bounds last week with safeties Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips both starting and playing much of the game, running backs Jacob Schmidt and Stephen Simmons both playing significant time, and CB Justan Vaughn even playing for the first time in weeks.
Unfortunately, NU was without arguably their most important players on offense (Kafka) and defense (McManis), both of whom have lingering leg issues.
Kafka came out in the second quarter with what looked like a hamstring pull, and he said on Monday that he plans on playing and that his leg is feeling "pretty good."
McManis is still hampered with some leg issues and was a game-time scratch.
The fact is that the 'Cats need both of these guys on the field to compete with the Big Ten's top team, and hopefully they will be available to play.
RB Jewel Hampton (knee, out for season), RB Adam Robinson (ankle, out for season), RB Jeff Brinson (foot, out for season), WR Colin Sandeman (concussion, questionable), OL Dace Richardson (leg, out for season), WR Paul Chaney (knee, out for season).
The Hawkeyes have sustained massive injuries at both running back and punt returner (both Chaney and Sandeman returned punts this year), but have seemingly weathered the storm. Despite going to third and fourth options at these positions, they have managed to remain productive enough to win.
With so many key yard producers out, this provides NU a chance to contain Iowa's attack, albeit a small one.
Prediction: Northwestern 26, Iowa 27
Despite the line for this game and Iowa's undefeated record, I believe the Wildcats have a good chance to not just be competitive in the game, but to potentially pull the gigantic upset.
The Hawkeyes has been living off good fortune this season, and it almost seems a given that their luck will end at some point (although they will still likely win the conference).
Unfortunately, I don't think Northwestern will be the team to end their run (or, I don't have the guts to call it), but I expect a very close game that Iowa will win by a slim margin.
The Wildcats will need an all-around effort for a full 60 minutes to stay in this game, and will need Kafka to play and continue putting up great numbers.
The key for NU will be to prevent any explosion plays on defense, something that they haven't been able to contain in their losses this year.
It's more than likely that this game will go to the winner of the turnover battle, so generating turnovers will be vital for NU's chances. In fact, NU hasn't generated a turnover since the second quarter of the MSU game.
Expect this to be one of the most exciting games of the season and for NU to give Iowa a run for its money at the very least.