IOWA CITY, Ia. - A College Football Hall of Fame member, Pat Fitzgerald knows a bit about defense. The former Northwestern linebacker and now head coach at the school respects what he sees from Iowa on that side of the ball.
"Fundamentally, they are outstanding," Fitzgerald said of the Hawkeyes. "They make little subtle tweaks and adjustments up front to take away what you do best, they do the same thing in the secondary. They have change-ups, but they're just outstanding at what they do and they've been that way for 12 years."
Fitzgerald's admiration for Iowa doesn't end with his opinion of the defense.
"The same thing I said about their defense applies to their offense and kicking game," he said. "They don't do a lot with smoke and mirrors, they just punch you in the face and continue to do it. It forces you to execute that much better because they know exactly what they're doing on every play."
Perhaps it's easier to compliment an opponent that you've owned for much of the last five years. The Wildcats have won four of the last five meetings with Iowa. The last two seasons, they've left Kinnick Stadium with victories.
"We go back and look at everything in the offseason and the only thing I could put my finger on is we've been pretty successful in the turnover ratio," Fitzgerald said of the last two seasons. "That's really the only thing I can identify. Every game you have to make big plays and stop the run and run the ball effectively, play well in the kicking game. That recipe hasn't changed, but the one common theme is that we've done well in the turnover ratio, fortunately for us."
The Hawkeyes have turned the ball over a combined nine times in the last two years. Northwestern only has given it away twice in this contests.
"They have done a good job of playing the way you're supposed to play and we haven't," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You do the math in an even game like that, you're not going to win. On top of that, we screwed up on special teams, several times, a couple years ago.
"So to me, that's been the story of it. You've got two even teams. One team played clean, played really well and the other team didn't and it's pretty academic who is going to win or lose."
HAWKEYE HUDDLE: Fans attending the Iowa football game at Northwestern should make plans to attend the "Hawkeye Huddle" on Friday evening, November 12.
The Huddle will be held from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at Goose Island Wrigleyville, 3535 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois. The Hawkeye Huddle is presented by the National I-Club and the UI Alumni Association.
Admission to the Hawkeye Huddle is free and includes cash refreshments, snacks, Hawk Shop door prizes, cheerleaders and Herky. Visit www.hawkeyesports.com/iclub for additional information.
TELEVISION: ESPN (HD) will televise the contest. Dave Pasch, Chris Spielman and Bob Griese will call the action. The game is also available online at espn3.com.
RECORDS, RANKINGS: Iowa (7-2 overall, 4-1 Big ten) is ranked 13th in the AP and coaches polls and also is 13th in the BCS Standings. Northwestern (6-3, 2-3) is unranked.
HISTORY: Iowa holds a 46-22-3 advantage in the series that began with a 12-6 Iowa victory in 1897. The teams have split the last 10 meetings, but Northwestern has won the last two games and four of the last five. Iowa holds a 23-13-3 advantage in games played in Evanston, where the teams have split the last four meetings. Four of the last five meetings overall have been decided by nine points or less.
THE LINE: According to the Las Vegas Hilton, the line opened and has remained at Iowa minus 11.5 points. The Mirage in Vegas opened and it's held at Iowa minus 10. I've seen some movement on the off-shore sites with money going on Northwestern,
Iowa is one of those teams that's tough to bet on right now. Are the Hawkeyes the team that beat Michigan State by 31 or the one that needed a dropped pass by Indiana to escape a winless team in the conference?
You might say that Iowa has settled into a trend of playing well then letting down the following week. The Hawkeyes won at Michigan, lost at home to Wisconsin, beat up on the Spartans and then limped home in Bloomington.
You also could say that Iowa plays to the level of its competition. Maybe that's the Hawkeyes' M.O. this year.
When I saw the Indiana line at 17 last week, I recommended to stay away from the game. The line moved up to 18 or 18.5 by kickoff. That was a loser even in a tease.
I'd also advise staying the heck away from this one in Evanston. Strange things happen when these teams meet. Namely, the Wildcats have Iowa's number and it's Senior Day at Ryan Field.
If forced to take a side, I'll choose Iowa. I'd prefer the Hawkeyes in a tease, however, instead of laying 10 or more.
Here are some trends…
-Hawkeyes are 5-0 ATS in their last 5 games as a road favorite of 3.5-10.0.
-Hawkeyes are 14-3 ATS in their last 17 games following a ATS loss.
-Hawkeyes are 4-10 ATS in their last 14 games in November.
-Wildcats are 5-1 ATS in their last 6 games in November.
-Wildcats are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games as a home underdog of 3.5-10.0.
-Wildcats are 0-6 ATS in their last 6 games overall.
-Northwestern QB Dan Persa vs. Iowa MLB James Morris - It's a positive that the Hawkeye true freshman has two starts under his belt before facing the versatile Persa. The dual-threat junior ranks first in the country in completion percentage and is second in the Big Ten in passing yards a game.
Morris will have to be on top of his keys and reads. He'll get help from his fellow linebackers and line, but if he gets out of position, Persa will hurt the Hawkeyes with his arm and legs.
Ebert leads the Big Ten and ranks 20th nationally in receiving yards per game (87.7). Six of his seven TDs this season are from 20 or more yards.
Iowa WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos vs. Northwestern CB Jordan Mabin - Another one-on-one that could be classic. Two seasoned veterans in line for all-conference honors will go heads up.
Mabin has started 33 games in his career. He leads the Big Ten and is 20th nationally in passes defended with 10.
Iowa LT Riley Reiff vs. Northwestern DE Vince Browne - Iowa's steady tackle could be challenged. Browne is a speedy rush end that energizes his teammates with big plays.
Browne ranks second in the conference with .67 sacks per game and his fourth in the league with 1.28 tackles for loss per contest.
Northwestern H-Back Drake Dunsmore vs. Iowa Strong-side LB Shane DiBona/Jeff Tarpinian - Tarp could get the start if he makes enough progress health wise this week. Even if he isn't a starter, he'll likely see some reps where Dunsmore is his responsibility.
Dunsmore is a Mackey Award semifinalist. He has four touchdown receptions this season, including a one-handed, circus catch last week at Penn State.
Northwestern - Justan Vaughn (questionable, concussion),
-Although the Wildcats opened November with a loss last week, the month has been a good one for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. Since taking over as NU's head coach in 2006, the Wildcats have posted a 9-5 record in November, which includes a 6-2 record since 2008. Three of those six wins came against top-25 clubs.
-The Wildcats have scored in double figures 43 straight games.
-The past three years, Northwestern has ranked among the nation's leaders in third-down conversion percentage. NU ranked 19th in 2007, 21st in 2008 and 17th in 2009. The Wildcats are 69-of-138 (50.0 percent) on third-down conversions—that ranks 14th nationally (along with Iowa).
-Northwestern has had four different players lead the team in rushing after nine games.
-The Wildcats have held four of their nine opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.
-Iowa ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense (85.2), sixth in scoring defense (14.3), eighth in total defense (294.6) and 14th in pass efficiency defense (109.61).
-Iowa has been guilty of just six turnovers (three lost fumbles, three interceptions). Only Oregon State, with four, has fewer turnovers than the Hawkeyes. Iowa has not lost a fumble in last five games.
-Iowa's opponents have had 100 possessions, and just three have started in Iowa territory. Arizona had two possessions start in Iowa territory and Iowa State started one possession on Iowa's end of the field.
-Iowa has played nine true freshmen. Iowa played just three true freshmen in 2009. The Hawkeyes played seven true freshmen in 2000, 2003 and 2008.
-Dating back to 2008, Iowa has won nine of its last 11 games away from Iowa City, with both losses to ranked teams. A six-game win streak was snapped in the overtime loss at eighth-ranked Ohio State last November and Iowa lost at 18th-ranked Arizona earlier this season.
-Indiana. For the season, Iowa has scored 88 points following 20 opponent turnovers, which includes 14 points following two blocked kicks.
THE PREDICTION: Last week, it set up as a classic letdown game for Iowa. The Hawkeyes traveled to winless-in-conference Indiana after knocking off unbeaten and then Top-5 ranked Michigan State.
Iowa let down. It barely escaped Bloomington with an 18-13 win highlighted by Hawkeye penalties and poor execution.
The Hawkeyes now face a trap game this week. They play a Northwestern team that's 2-3 in the Big Ten on Saturday with a showdown against fellow conference title contender Ohio State looming in a week.
The good the for Iowa is that it saw what could happen last week when it plays poorly. It learned the lesson in a win.
In addition, Northwestern has owned the Hawkeyes, winning four of the last five meetings between the two schools, including the past two seasons in Iowa City. They've been given motivation.
For a second week in a row, it looks like Iowa could expose a shaky secondary in its opposition. The Wildcats rank 100th nationally in pass defense. QB Ricky Stanzi will need to improve his accuracy, which was uncharacteristically erratic against Indiana.
While the perception exits that the Hawkeyes struggle with Northwestern's spread offense, it's their cover-four defense that has been just as effective. They've scored a combined 27 points in the last two meetings. Granted, Stanzi left last year's game early with injury, but the Wildcats physical play caused that and the early exit of Shonn Greene the previous season.
Iowa will need to score more points this week to knock off the Wildcats on senior day in Evanston. I have a good feeling that will happen.
I think for the reasons mentioned above - the letdown at Indiana and the knowledge that Northwestern is fully capable of taking them out of title contention - has the Hawkeyes playing closer to the level they reached against Michigan State. They won't run away and hide by halftime but I think they pull away late, setting up a huge weekend in Iowa City against the Buckeyes.
IOWA 27, Northwestern 13