Northwestern is coming off a disappointing come-from ahead loss to Nebraska (sound familiar?) and Iowa is coming off a hefty loss against Penn State. Both teams are looking to get back on track after troubling weeks. It's homecoming in Evaston and the ‘Cats will look to put behind the recent loss and pull off a big win in front of the alumni. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes look to get Northwestern back for a string of losses in Iowa City in the past. So who has the edge?
When Northwestern has the ball…
This is, simply put, a mystery. The Wildcat offense has looked spectacular on occassions this year (Indiana, Syracuse) and horrible on occassions this year (pretty much every other game). The coaches can't seem to find the right way to work between Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, and production through the air is dismal. Venric Mark remains the lone bright spot, rushing for 910 yards and 9 touchdowns so far this year. But other than that, the ‘Cats offense has mostly stalled.
On the other side of the line, the Hawkeye defense is giving up 20 points per game, but the rush defense is mostly average, nothing Northwestern hasn't faced this season. The passing game will still be a question for the ‘Cats, but they will likely be able to move the ball on the ground. Venric Mark will need a big game to boost the ‘Cats, but he will more than likely have one if he stays healthy.
When Iowa has the ball…
Northwestern's already troubled secondary is depleted. Top cornerback Nick VanHoose will not play in the game, and neither will cornerback Quinn Evans. That said, James Vandenberg is completing just 55 percent of his passes and has only thrown three touchdowns to his five interceptions, so if there's any game where the Wildcats secondary can survive, it's likely this one.
The Hawkeyes post a threat on the ground, with Mark Weisman averaging a shade under 100 yards per game with 8 touchdowns. The NU rush defense has been pretty solid, and they can key in on Weisman if Vandenberg can't get much going in the passing game. If he starts completing passes, however, the depleted NU secondary will draw the linebackers into more coverage-heavy sets and the ‘Cats probably won't hold the run game hostage. That's a big if for Vandenberg though.
It all comes down to Venric Mark in this one. The explosive punt returner has had two touchdowns already this season and can break away at any point. With Iowa's less-than-stellar offense, Mark will likely get the chance to field a few punts. If he breaks it on just one, it will change the impact of the game.
Jeff Budzien has been solid for the ‘Cats, missing just one field goal – and it was in an difficult situation from 53 yards for the go-ahead score against Nebraska. Other than that, eh's been solid for NU and the coaches will continue to show full confidence in him, as they should.
Iowa's kicker Mike Meyer is 14 for 17 on the year with a long of 50, so he's a solid kicker in his own right. With the kicking game essentially even, this comes down to the punt returns, and Mark gives NU the edge.
Iowa will want to beat Northwestern, plain and simple. The ‘Cats have embarrassed good Hawkeye teams on Iowa's home turf recently, and Iowa will want to return the favor. NU will have a large homecoming crowd on hand, but large crowds didn't help Iowa escape unscathed in the past.
Both teams are hungry for a win, with Iowa perhaps having a litte more to prove – they are still fighting for bowl eligibility at 4-3 on the season.
Prediction: NU still doesn't figure out the passing game, throwing for less than 100 yards and no scores. Luckily, Venric Mark has a stellar performance. He'll have three touchdowns and well over 100 yards, and Kain Colter will add a score on the ground. Iowa's Weisman pounds away for one score and a gritty 100 yards, and Vandenberg torches the NU secondary twice for scores. It'll stay close the whole way, but NU will slip away with a win in this one to improve to 7-2 on the season.
Northwestern 31, Iowa 24