If Northwestern wins this game, it will have to do so on offense, and luckily for the Wildcats, Iowa is young and suspect on defense this season.
The option attack worked brilliantly, as all three running backs had limited carries but racked up high yards-per-carry averages and Kain Colter ran well when called upon at quarterback.
The threat of the run opened up the passing game for Persa and the hurry-up offense stifled the Michigan defense for a good part of 30 minutes.
When the offense runs efficiently, it's the best in the Big Ten, as it proved once again in the first half on Saturday.
It has been a tale of two halves for Northwestern all year, and that can't continue against the Hawkeyes, who the Wildcats have mounted second-half comebacks against each of the past few years.
The Iowa defense is comparable to Michigan in that it has talent, but it is still trying to put things together. The Wolverines have a better defensive front and the Hawkeyes have a better secondary.
The good news for Northwestern is that it proved it could move the ball against Michigan—it has done so against better Iowa defenses in recent years, as well—but the bad news is that it couldn't do so consistently.
Iowa has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks—especially Persa—so Northwestern should have the advantage, but it must put together two halves of football to get the win.
When Iowa Has the Ball
After last week, it's hard to know what to expect from the Iowa offense.
The Hawkeyes were held to just three points against Penn State en route to a 13-3 loss, but that was against a Nittany Lions defense that is much tougher than Northwestern's.
When the Iowa offense has clicked—particularly in the fourth quarter of a big comeback against Pittsburg—it has been outstanding. Quarterback James Vandenberg may be the best pure passer in the Big Ten and Marvin McNutt is one of the conference's best wide receivers. Receivers Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley have improved this year, as well.
The offensive line is solid, and while running back Marcus Coker has struggled at times, he has also had some impressive games.
The problem with Iowa's offense is establishing an identity. At times, the offense has left its conservative, slow-pace offense to run a hurry-up, which Vandenberg has run very well. However, against Penn State, coach Kirk Ferentz kept switching between the hurry-up and the traditional offense. His offense couldn't establish a rhythm and it eventually cost the Hawkeyes.
Iowa should have a much easier time putting up points this week, particularly by exploiting the week Northwestern secondary.
Illinois' A.J. Jenkins and Michigan's Junior Hemingway have both put up big receiving numbers against the Wildcats, and expect McNutt to do the same. Vandenberg is a much better passer than Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, so don't expect the pass defense numbers to improve.
While the Iowa offense has the edge on paper, it must put together a full four quarters of football in order to win, which is something it hasn't done against an opponent not named Louisiana-Monroe.
After a weak showing against Illinois, the Northwestern punting game got back on track last week and kicker Jeff Budzien nailed a short field goal—his first since the opener against Boston College—to improve to two-for-four on the season.
There were issues on kickoff return, though, as the Wildcats fielded two kickoffs that looked sure to go out-of-bounds.
Iowa's kicking game is much more stable than Northwestern's. Sophomore Mike Meyer is nine-for-11 this year, including a field-yarder against Iowa State. Punter Eric Guthrie has quietly put together a solid year as well in place of current Detroit Lions punter Ryan Donahue.
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald are widely considered two of the best coaches in the Big Ten.
Both coaches have done a solid job of coaching up lesser-known recruits and turning them into top college players and NFL talent.
However, both coaches have received criticism this year due to slow, underachieving starts.
Ferentz's criticism is due to his inability to adapt to the faster-paced game and his skepticism of the no-huddle offense. Fitzgerald's criticism is due to his team's struggles after halftime.
One coach will see the tension ease up this week and the other will be criticized even more. The way both teams have been playing, it's hard to tell which will be which.
Both teams are limping into this game, Northwestern on the heels of a three-game losing streak and Iowa coming off a humiliating loss in Happy Valley.
Expect both teams to be motivated, but there's also the danger of low confidence levels hurting each team's morale.
This will be the toughest environment Northwestern has had to play in this year—it's a night game in always-difficult Kinnick Stadium and it's also "black and gold spirit day" and "America Needs Farmers night."
However, the Wildcats haven't lost at Kinnick since 2002 and Persa played well in 2009, when he replaced injured Mike Kafka and upset the No. 4 Hawkeyes.
Northwestern has had big momentum swings over the past few games and it must avoid those, especially on the road in a tough environment.
This has been the toughest game to predict so far. I planned on picking Northwestern because of the Wildcats' success against Iowa recently. However, the Hawkeyes had won eight-of-nine against Penn State and lost last week to the Nittany Lions.
History isn't as much of a deciding factor in football games as the media sometimes makes it out to be.
Northwestern's best shot to win this game will be Persa's ability make plays, as Iowa has struggled in run and pass defense against dual-threat quarterbacks.
Iowa's best shot to win this game is to continue to exploit the Wildcats' secondary, which has made average passers look outstanding. Vandenberg is an above average passer and this is the best set of wide receivers Northwestern has seen this season.
This should be a fairly high-scoring game—at least by Big Ten standards—and it should be close, as both offenses take turns gashing their opponents' defensive weakness.
Expect this game to come down to late in the fourth quarter, and while Northwestern has the talent and experience to come through in the clutch, I'm not confident this team can pull out a close win.
Score: Iowa 31, Northwestern 28