Iowa (4-3, 2-1 Big Ten) has been a mystery midway through the 2012 season. After a dismal start to the season, which included a one-point win against Northern Illinois and a home loss to Central Michigan, the Hawkeyes appeared to have turned the corner. They bounced back to defeat Minnesota 31-13 and won a double-overtime thriller at Michigan State.
There was hope in Iowa City heading into a crucial matchup against Penn State. Many expected the Nittany Lions to regress and the Hawkeyes to continue their resurgence. The opposite took place.
Penn State embarrassed Iowa in front of a black and gold crowd last weekend, taking a 38-0 lead before giving up two meaningless touchdowns in the win. Not to discredit Penn State, but in a primetime game, Iowa should have played at its best. Instead, the Hawkeyes travel to Evanston this weekend looking to return to form.
Iowa on Offense
In a very solid junior season in 2011, James Vandenberg tossed 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. That positive ratio failed to carry over to this year.
The senior has struggled, managing only three touchdown passes in seven games. Much of the team's inconsistency can be pegged to the quarterback. Vandenberg boasts a strong arm, but his accuracy is a question mark. He completed only 17 of 36 throws in the Penn State loss. Worse, in the second half this year, his completion percentage is below 50 percent.
Last year against Northwestern, though, he put together a solid performance and averaged more than 10 yards per pass attempt.
Much of the team's prospects for success this weekend hinge on Vandenberg. Vandenberg looks to get back on track against an undermanned secondary expected to lose two of its top three corners for the week. The Cats defense ranks worst in the Big Ten in passing yards per game.
Meanwhile, Mark Weisman should play against Northwestern this Saturday. The sophomore broke onto the scene this season with four consecutive 100-yard games. During that span, he amassed eight touchdowns. He was held to five carries against Penn State due to an injury. Although his status has likely improved, he may still be limited.
The Hawkeyes boast a pair of talented wideouts in Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley. The two have combined for 65 catches and 761 yards. Their yardage amounts to 57.5 percent of the team's total output through the air.
Iowa on Defense
James Morris continues to be a presence in the unit. The junior ranked fifth in the Big Ten last season with 9.2 tackles per game, and has upped that number to 10.3 this year. The Iowa defense prides itself on experience in 2012. Nine of its top 10 tacklers are juniors or seniors.
Senior cornerback Micah Hyde – a solid player by all means – was arrested for public intoxication on Oct. 7. Still, Hyde has played in every game this season and deflected three passes in the loss to Penn State.
In terms of scoring defense, Iowa allows only 20.1 points per game, good for fifth in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes yielded just 3.6 yards per carry to opponents in their first seven contests. The pass defense has been less successful, yielding 213 yards on average.
With no signs pointing against the fact that Trevor Siemian will throw most passes in the Iowa game, the Hawkeyes can take advantage of a struggling passing attack. They are tied for third in the conference with seven interceptions, and unlike many of NU's recent opponents, should be able to make crucial picks when they have the opportunity.
Both teams are hungry for a victory. Iowa hopes to erase memories of the Penn State loss. Even after the blowout, the Hawkeyes have lost only one conference game and can move to an impressive 3-1 with a road victory.
Northwestern, too, can remain squarely in the Legends Division race with a win at Ryan Field. The key matchup appears to be Vandenberg against a weakened NU secondary. As is the case for most Big Ten games, it seems as though this could go either way.