EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Welcome back to the Big Ten championship race, Hawkeyes.
No. 20 Iowa will try to take advantage of a reprieve and avoid a letdown against a team that's provided plenty of heartache in recent years when it visits Northwestern on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-2) got back into the Big Ten West race last week, thanks to a lackluster 26-20 win over Purdue and an assist from Illinois.
The victory over the Boilermakers came on the heels of back-to-back narrow losses to Michigan State and Penn State in which the Hawkeyes were outscored a combined 27-15. The assist from Illinois? That was the Illini's shocking victory over Wisconsin.
All that combined to give Iowa a path to the Big Ten title game, though it's hardly a clear one.
The Hawkeyes trail the Badgers (6-1, 3-1) by a game and No. 17 Minnesota (7-0, 4-0) by two. But if the Hawkeyes win their remaining four — a stretch that includes a trip to 13th-ranked Wisconsin and a home matchup with the Gophers — they would win the West if Minnesota loses once more.
Before they turn their attention to those potential showdowns, they have to beat Northwestern (1-5, 0-4). The Wildcats have lost four in a row since a 30-14 victory over UNLV. But they've given Iowa fits in recent years, with three straight victories by a combined 18 points.
"They don't beat themselves," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's the first thing you have to do in football. They rarely mess it up. They play hard. They show up every week. You have to beat them if you're going to beat 'em. Nothing easy about it."
Northwestern has a history of ruining things for Iowa. In 2009, the Wildcats knocked quarterback Ricky Stanzi out of the game and then knocked a team that came in 9-0 from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Last year, Northwestern secured its first division championship with a 14-10 victory at Iowa. But the Wildcats matched their worst losing skid since 2014 last week when they got pummeled 52-3 by Ohio State. And contrary to Ferentz, coach Pat Fitzgerald insisted his team is doing quite a bit to beat itself.
"Guys are doing things that I just don't get it," Fitzgerald said. "Usually, when there's some semblance of guys that are competitive depth, I can pull a guy and put (another) guy in. Offensively, we've got some injuries in some areas. And we've had some issues, personnel-wise, in a position in particular, where we're rolling with what we've got because everybody else quite frankly isn't ready to go out in the arena."
Though he's thrown for more yards this season than any other Big Ten quarterback, Iowa's Nate Stanley will be missing one of his favorite receivers. Brandon Smith — tops on the team with 33 catches — is expected to miss three to five weeks after being carried off by his teammates last week with a right leg injury. That could lead to more opportunities and more double-teams for Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the Hawkeyes' main deep threat and their leader with 443 yards receiving.
Northwestern had quarterbacks Aidan Smith and Hunter Johnson listed with the first team, just as they were for the Ohio State game. But neither has performed particularly well, combining for nine interceptions and two touchdowns. Johnson started the first four games before leaving the loss at Wisconsin Sept. 28 because of a lower body injury, and Smith started the past two.
The game matches one of the nation's stingiest defenses against one of the least productive offenses. Iowa has shut down opponents, ranking fifth in the nation in scoring defense (11.6 points per game), eighth in rushing defense (91.1 yards per game) and 10th in total defense (275 yards a game). The Hawkeyes have allowed 98 first downs, tied for sixth fewest in the country and second in the Big Ten. Northwestern — 127th in yards per game and 128th of 130 teams in scoring offense — can't get anything going.
Iowa would probably like to get its run game going. Since going off for a soaring 351 yards against Middle Tennessee State, the Hawkeyes have just 173 yards on 93 attempts the past three games. That includes a 30-carry, 1-yard showing against Michigan on Oct. 5. Iowa needed 33 attempts to get 102 yards last week, though Mekhi Sargent broke off runs of 21 and 14 yards on consecutive plays for the winning touchdown.