Iowa-Northwestern: Two unstable offenses, two quests for relevance

Neither team has been a passing fancy

It didn't end well for Iowa at Northwestern in 2010 (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
It didn't end well for Iowa at Northwestern in 2010 (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

Rose Bowl! Rose Bowl!

For all the verbal and written dirt shoveled on Iowa’s football team since last Saturday night, the Hawkeyes could be tied for first-place in the Big Ten Legends Division by this week's end. At the halfway point of the conference season for the Hawkeyes.

Hey, it’s possible. Since the league’s Game of the Week features two teams on NCAA probation, don’t rule out anything.

But the more-grounded way of looking at Saturday’s Iowa-Northwestern game in Evanston is this: It’s a quest for relevancy.

The loser will be a footnote in the annals of the Big Ten’s 2012 season. And if that loser is Iowa, the Hawkeyes (now 4-3) might have a hard time just finishing the regular-season with a .500 record.

Should Iowa win, it’s 3-1 in the Big Ten with its next two games at Indiana and at home against Purdue. Which is about as ideal a scenario as you’re going to get, no matter how difficult those two games might be in reality.

But if Iowa falls to the Wildcats? Then it’s in trouble in the league race, and could be toast psychologically. Especially if it has brought no more to the table than it did last week against Penn State.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is a defeat against Iowa from probably taking a 4-game losing streak and a 6-5 record into its season-finale against Illinois. The Wildcats play at Michigan and Michigan State in their next two games.

There is nearly as much disappointment within Northwestern’s fan base as in Iowa’s. Twice in their last three games, the Wildcats blew double-digit leads in the fourth-quarter, against Penn State and Nebraska.

That failure to close is what separated them from an 8-0 record and from becoming a big, feel-good national story.

Guess what, Hawkeye fans? You aren’t the only disgruntled folks in the Great Midwest.

No one in purple is too wild about the two-quarterback system Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald is running. No one in Wildcat Country seems too pleased that Northwestern is 99th in the nation in passing-efficiency, and has thrown just six touchdown passes in eight games.

“We don’t have an identity,” Northwestern quarterback/slot receiver Kain Colter told this week. “We really need to develop that with the play-calling and find out what we’re going to do.”

It’s not just you, Iowa.

Last week, more fans at the Nebraska-Northwestern game in Evanston were for the visiting team. Colter said he had to go with a silent snap count on the Wildcats’ final two drives because Huskers fans were so noisy.

Eastern Nebraska is twice as far from Chicagoland as Eastern Iowa, but Husker Nation made the trip and got their hands on those tickets. Granted, going around the Big Ten circuit is a new and fun thing for them. Few Hawkeye fans who have been to Ryan Field a time or three consider it a favorite venue.

So unlike Nebraska last Saturday, the Hawkeyes won’t be in their home-away-from-home on Saturday. For all the fans they bring to Northwestern, it can be a weird and creepy place for them. It certainly was in their last visit, two years ago.

Eight Saturdays ago, Iowa began this season with a skin-of-its-teeth 18-17 victory over Northern Illinois in Chicago. Saturday, 16 miles to the north of Soldier Field and again on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Hawkeyes would happily take another 1-point win for their bus ride home.

Without a victory in tow, though, that ride and the next month could feel really long.  

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