IOWA CITY, Iowa — Welcome to Iowa’s most intense non-trophy series.
Northwestern comes to Kinnick for the third time in four years. Iowa has won the previous three meetings but dropped six of eight before the current streak. The matchup pits the Big Ten’s longest-tenured coaches in Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (18th year) and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald (11th year).
Each team has knocked the other from a Big Ten title in recent years. Their fan bases are a little different from one another. They both live and recruit in the same world. It’s everything that you’d want in a rivalry.
Here are five key things for Iowa entering Saturday’s matchup with Northwestern (11 a.m. CT ESPNU):
1. Cavalry’s not coming at receiver
Iowa senior Matt VandeBerg is out for the regular season with a broken right foot. The Hawkeyes plan to use their current personnel to replace VandeBerg and not shift a another positional player to receiver.
So former receiver Derrick Mitchell will remain at running back. So will Akrum Wadley. Do-it-all cornerback Desmond King also will stay on that side of the ball.
“This is hardly a crisis stage,” Ferentz said. “We’re all really sorry that Matt got hurt, don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing that, but hey, we’re going to play.”
2. No changes on cut blocks
Iowa right tackle Ike Boettger was penalized 15 yards for an illegal block below the waist that cost running back LeShun Daniels a 75-yard touchdown run at Rutgers. The penalty was scrutinized by Ferentz in his postgame news conference as too difficult to legislate and praised Boettger for a clean block.
Iowa left tackle Cole Croston spoke to an official on the field and was informed it was a chop block. The official told Croston that Boettger hit Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton from behind, when in fact Boettger’s right shoulder clipped the front of Hamilton’s legs.
Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz told his linemen that no changes in blocking style are coming.
“Brian honestly told us to not even worry about it and do the same thing 100 times over,” Croston said. “That’s what we’ve been taught and that’s how we’re going to block it.”
3. Cage match at Kinnick
College football history is marked with great rivalries. The best ones are organic.
Iowa has trophy games with Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa State and Nebraska. Northwestern has one with Illinois. The Iowa-Northwestern series, which enters installment No. 78 on Saturday, doesn’t have one. But that doesn’t mean it’s not as important as the others.
Since Northwestern’s breakthrough season in 1995, the Wildcats hold a 10-9 series lead over the Hawkeyes. Among the series’ most important moments include Northwestern derailing Iowa’s 9-0 start in 2009 with a 17-10 win. The next year, the Hawkeyes led by 10 points with 10 minutes left. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa rallied the Wildcats to a pair of touchdowns for the upset, knocking the Hawkeyes out of Big Ten title contention.
Iowa’s 27-17 upset in 2000 knocked the Wildcats out of an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth. The Hawkeyes have tamed the Wildcats by a combined score of 88-17 the last two seasons.
“They’re always dangerous,” Ferentz said. “If you look at our series with them historically, it’s always been a tough game. … They’ve got great young people on their team, and I expect them to come in here and fight.”
Maybe a trophy would cheapen this series. If it really needed one, I’d suggest an iPass with an encased photo of the DeKalb Oasis.
4. Closing the deal
Two weeks, two different outcomes for Iowa in the game’s closing moments.
The Hawkeyes led North Dakota State by a point late in the fourth quarter and couldn’t register a first down. After a punt, the Bison rumbled down the field and kicked a game-winning field goal for the victory.
Last week at Rutgers, Iowa led by seven points in a similar situation. Iowa gained two first downs, including Daniels’ 12-yard run on third-and-7, to close out the game.
“We’re going to be put in that situation hopefully more times throughout the rest of the season,” Daniels said. “To execute it successfully like we did this past Saturday I thought was good for us. Obviously the week before our 4-minute drill couldn’t have gone any worse than it had.”
5. Making strides
Iowa’s offensive line took its lumps after running for 34 yards against North Dakota State. But after rushing for 193 yards against Rutgers, the unit produced one of the week’s top grades by Pro Football Focus.
The Hawkeyes’ offensive line ranked seventh nationally in Week 4. Pro Football Focus recorded just three quarterback pressures on Iowa’s 31 passing snaps.
Perhaps more impressive was junior Boone Myers, who was graded as PFF’s best offensive guard last week. He was rated as the nation’s third-best run blocker and 19th as a pass protector. In 219 total snaps this year, he has allowed just one sack and one quarterback hit. Iowa other top-graded players were right guard Sean Welsh and center James Daniels.