Much like Iowa football is to Penn State, so is Northwestern to Iowa. At least, that's how it's seemed the last several years. When the Hawkeyes and Wildcats get together, you can just about throw out the stat sheets and take a stab in the dark.
The picture above is a "vintage" photo of Matt Sherman back in 1995 facing down the Wildcats. Funny how far ahead of their time the Hawkeyes were with those uniforms. They'd be in style now (just look at Oregon's unis). At the time, I couldn't stand them.
But I digress...
A year ago, RB Adonis Smith was quoted as saying coach Fitzgerald "hates Iowa." I think "hate" might have been a harsh word, and Fitzgerald somewhat confirmed that. Still, there's no love lost on the part of the Northwestern head man and the Hawkeyes.
Iowa was his hurdle to cross, and he's crossed it the last three times consecutively.
This year, both teams have struggled mightily. Iowa is 3-2 with losses to Iowa State and Penn State. They struggled defensively against the Cyclones and offensively against the Nittany Lions.
Northwestern is 2-3 and have lost the last three in a row. Their offense has looked flashy at times, but has been inconsistent. Their defense has been downright unimpressive.
For one team, this may be the opportunity to get their season back on track. For the other, there will be hard questions ahead.
What will it take for Iowa to break the "Northwestern Jinx" and snag their first Big Ten win of the 2011 season?
Last week against Penn State, Iowa receivers had a tough time hauling in the ball. Each receiver was guilty of at least one drop and most were guilty of multiple tips or drops.
Northwestern brings in the worst passing defense in the conference. They can certainly be beat. There's definitely opportunity to be had.
Iowa's offense is typically a run-first squad that strives to set the tone of the game with a grinding, bruising ground battle. This year, that hasn't worked. Instead, Iowa has found better success going with an up-tempo pass attack.
This is potentially a situation of strength on weakness. If James Vandenberg can keep the tempo quick and get rid of the ball in a hurry, Iowa's receivers may have career days. Northwestern's defense is ill-suited to handle McNutt, Davis and Martin-Manley.
If the offensive line can provide enough protection, there may even be some opportunities to chuck the long ball and put the Wildcats back on their heels and in a hole.
None of that will happen though, if Iowa's receivers can't do a better job than they did last weekend of seeing the ball into their hands and making sure they make the catch before worrying about anything else.
Fundamentals are still king.
As exciting a prospect as it may be to simply drop Vandenberg into the pocket and let him burn down the Wildcats with his arm, it's not wise to rely solely on that aspect of the game alone. Obviously, Kirk Ferentz and Ken O'Keefe know this already.
Still, it needs to be said that Iowa needs to find balance. It's not just important for this weekend's game, but for every game thereafter.
Should Iowa's pass game find early success, it will becoming increasingly attractive for Pat Fitzgerald to blitz the bejesus out of Vandenberg and try to force him into turnovers.
Northwestern is fifth in the conference in interceptions, with six on the season—just one behind Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois, and two behind Penn State.
While blitzing leaves the secondary vulnerable, if it's getting picked apart anyway, he may as well gamble a little and try to create opportunities for his team—particularly if those opportunities force Iowa to abandon the pass game in favor of a slower-paced run attack.
Luckily for Iowa, the Wildcats aren't that great against the run either. Oh, they're not the worst in the conference this time. No, they're next to worst.
It could be easily argued that the Hawkeyes could return to "Iowa football" and set the tone with the run and then turn to the pass to soften the defense even further.
That's a possibility, though I think they'd be remiss to abandon what has worked more often than not and potentially confuse themselves and the players as to what and who they are this year.
Still, the run game has to be a big part of the equation. Using Marcus Coker to keep the defense honest will help ensure that the receivers have an opportunity to face fair coverage.
Against this defense, Coker could have a great day, but it's more than just getting him carries and numbers. The Hawkeyes need to re-establish their ability to run the football and create the kind of balance that will complete this offense going forward.
Dan Persa is back under center. The good news is, Dan Persa isn't quite Dan Persa.
Sacks included, Persa is averaging -0.44 yards per carry this year in limited play. Last year, he averaged a little over three yards per carry, picked up over 500 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns on the ground.
He's had a long time to recover from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and those injuries aren't easy to come back from at all. No doubt, he's still not at 100 percent.
On the other hand, Persa has completed 72.4 percent of his passes for over 450 yards and four touchdowns in just three games. He burned Michigan's defense for over 300 yards in his first start of the season.
Iowa's pass defense hasn't been much better than Northwestern's. As good as Micah Hyde is, and as potentially good as Jordan Bernstein and Shaun Prater are, they have yet to come together and solidify the Hawkeye pass defense.
A big part of the reason for this is that Iowa has been largely unable to get pressure into the backfield. Offenses with any kind of line at all have allowed their quarterbacks to stand in the pocket all day waiting for receivers to eventually get open. Even the best cover corners can't contain a receiver forever.
The Hawkeyes have recorded seven sacks on the year—three of them against Pitt. They recorded just one each against Tennessee Tech and Iowa State, and were unable to get to either of Penn State's quarterbacks.
If the Hawkeyes can't get pressure on Persa (or Kain Kolter, in Persa's absence), he's more than capable of burning down Iowa's secondary and putting additional pressure on Iowa's offense to produce flawlessly.
On the other hand, if Iowa's front seven can get into the backfield and force Persa to ditch the ball sooner than wanted, there will be opportunity for Iowa's talented corners and safeties to create turnovers.
I've already discussed how talented and dangerous Dan Persa is as a passer. He likely won't be as dangerous running the ball as he'd been just last year, but there's nothing wrong with his arm.
Persa corralled all four of his touchdowns against Illinois. The Illini pass defense is only slightly better than Iowa's, but that's little reason for hope. They are better than Iowa's—at least statistically speaking.
It's not wise to make the assumption that the defensive line will generate any more pressure on Persa than they have managed against anyone else, or to assume that they'll generate any more than they did against Penn State.
Northwestern has several capable runners, but at the top of the heap is Kain Kolter. Unless they plan on using him as a running back rather than quarterback, Iowa won't have to worry much about him.
There's little question that the Wildcats will challenge Iowa's run defense. There's also little question that they'll find at least moderate success. Everyone else has.
However, the real strength of the Wildcat offense is the pass game and they won't hesitate to unveil it.
If Iowa's going to keep this game from getting out of hand, they've got to start becoming far more opportunistic in the secondary. They need to take away the pass attack and force Northwestern to gain their yards and points the slow way—on the ground.
I wasn't unimpressed with Iowa's coaching in the Penn State loss. Kirk Ferentz didn't hesitate to come out throwing the ball—attempting to capitalize on an area that has been successful thus far.
When that didn't work, he wisely turned to the ground game, which has been a staple of Iowa football and hasn't been entirely unsuccessful, aside from the turnovers. When that didn't work either, he didn't hesitate to start pushing the edges of the field, looking for daylight anywhere it might be found.
That's what good coaches do. They adapt to the situation at hand.
Unfortunately for Iowa, Penn State's defense was too strong for the Hawkeyes to crack their armor.
This week shouldn't be nearly as difficult. Northwestern's defense is nowhere near as tough as Penn State's.
Still, Iowa will have their hands full. Coach Ferentz is well aware of the history between these two programs. It won't be a walk in the park.
Playing it safe won't get it done. Pat Fitzgerald won't blink at the idea of throwing everything under the sun at Iowa. He'll pull out every weapon he has if needed and will dig to the bottom of the barrel to find more.
In a tight contest, Northwestern's offense has to be respected. Iowa can't sit on the ball at the end of a half or as regulation draws to a close. That is to say, they can't unless they have a comfortable lead.
The Wildcats will strike quickly and ferociously if given the chance. The Hawkeyes need to keep their feet on the gas from beginning to bitter end and keep the ball away from Pat Fitzgerald's offense.
This won't be a chess match like Iowa used to play. The league has changed. There are more mobile quarterbacks than there are pocket passers. There are more up-tempo offenses than there are ground pounders.
The Hawkeyes have changed too. They don't have the suffocating defense they've enjoyed the last few years. They can't sit on the ball and let the defense hand it right back to them a few plays later. They can't expect that a touchdown in overtime will automatically secure the game.
At one point last year, I asserted that Iowa needed to find their killer instinct. I suggest the same again this year. If Iowa is going to win, they're going to have to go for the jugular immediately and keep digging at it until the final buzzer sounds.