Iowa was sitting pretty three weeks ago with a 6-1 record but dropped its last two games at Penn State and Purdue to essentially fall out of contention in the Big Ten West Division.
But the Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten), unranked in the AP poll, still has the respect of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which ranked them at No. 21 this week.
It seems upside-down, but Iowa is favored by 10 to 11 points as it prepares to host the West Division leader, Northwestern, in Iowa City on Saturday. The Wildcats (5-4, 5-1) have a one-game lead on Wisconsin and Purdue.
“Big challenge for us this week,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“Our staff has so much respect for their staff. We have competed against each other now a number of times and they’ve all been challenging games. They have had two defeats on the road in a row. They have been right there, one play away in both games.
“They probably feel very similar to what we do. We kind of gave away some games.”
The Hawkeyes had a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Penn State, but quarterback Nate Stanley threw an interception. In last week’s 38-26 loss to Purdue, Iowa rallied to take the lead in the fourth quarter but allowed the Boilermakers to drive to a winning field goal in the final seconds.
“We’re obviously upset that we lost, but our mindset is positive and looking forward,” Iowa safety Amani Hooker said. “We’re not going to quit and let the season go downhill.”
Iowa’s offense hasn’t been able to consistently run the ball this year. The Hawkeyes have broken only two runs longer than 20 yards since the opener. Their 3.88 yards per carry average ranks 94th in the country, a uncharacteristic number for a program that prides itself on power football.
The Hawkeyes continue to split carries between running backs Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young.
“For whatever reason, we have people look at us like we’re a run-first team, which is kind of funny,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
“They did it in ’04, too, and we couldn’t run from here to that door right there. … But I think our goal is just to move the ball and try to score points, and we’ll do whatever we feel we have to do to be successful at that.”
Stanley, a junior, connected last week on 21 of 32 passes for 275 yards and one touchdown and also ran for a 1-yard touchdown. He has 17 touchdown passes this season, tied for second in the Big Ten, and 43 in his career, tied for fourth in Iowa history. He has been sacked only 10 times, the fewest in the Big Ten.
Iowa’s strength is its tight ends, and it only stands to reason that the Hawkeyes will try to go to Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — a combined 66 catches for 979 yards and 10 TDs — as much as possible against the Northwestern secondary. One of Northwestern’s safeties, Jared McGee, was considered doubtful on Monday. Northwestern allowed 343 passing yards last week to Notre Dame’s Ian Book in a 31-21 loss.
The Wildcats are led offensively by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who has thrown for 9,761 career yards, but the passing game has been inconsistent lately. Running back Isaiah Bowser has handled a big workload, rushing 81 times for 318 yards in the past three games.
A win over Iowa would be a huge step for Northwestern toward the Big Ten title game. The Wildcats finish at Minnesota and vs. Illinois at home, two games they probably will be favored to win.
On the other hand, Northwestern isn’t even bowl eligible yet.
Fitzgerald said his message to the team Monday was “20.”
“This squad is only guaranteed 20 days together,” Fitzgerald said. “What we learn every day will hopefully prepare us for those three Saturdays we have left together.”