IOWA CITY - Just three weeks ago, Northwestern was a quarter away from beating Ohio State and solidifying its status as a Big Ten and national title contender.
The Wildcats head to Iowa simply hoping to keep their season from falling apart.
Northwestern, once a dark horse for the league title, has lost three straight ahead of a two-game road trip that starts Saturday against the Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten).
The Wildcats (4-3, 0-3) aren't counting on star running back Venric Mark to play and versatile quarterback Kain Colter is questionable with a sprained ankle. Northwestern has struggled mightily without those two, combining for just 23 points in losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota.
"The last two weeks we beat ourselves. Either from a lack of execution or turning the ball over, our offense has caused us to be in a hole," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "The only way we're going to get out of it is to fight and scratch, and I believe those guys will do that. I really do. I believe there's great character in that room."
The Hawkeyes have also slipped in the standings following losses to Michigan State and Ohio State.
Northwestern (4-3, 0-3) at Iowa (4-3, 1-2)
Today, 11:01 a.m.
At Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TV: Big Ten Network
But Iowa's outlook seems much brighter.
The Hawkeyes nearly pulled off an upset against the Buckeyes last week before falling 34-24. Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock threw a career-high three touchdown passes in the toughest environment of his young career, and the Hawkeyes found success using three tight ends in multiple formations.
Iowa should also have plenty of extra motivation to beat the Wildcats.
Coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff often pointed to a lopsided loss to Northwestern last season to illustrate how bad things got during a six-game slide to end 2012.
"As a coach you focus on the things that keep you from having a chance to have success. There were a lot of visuals in that game that really jumped out. Next thing you know, we're up there looking at a 28-3 score which is not a good position to be in," Ferentz said
Here are five things to consider when Iowa hosts Northwestern:
Iowa has led at halftime in each of its seven games this season, blowing its advantage three times. The Hawkeyes led Michigan State 14-10 before being shut out in the second half, and the Buckeyes roared back from a 17-10 deficit behind star quarterback Braxton Miller. "We've had stretches we're we've played really good football, and we've had some others where things probably didn't go as well as they needed to. There are things that we need to clean up. But you know, those are two good football teams," Iowa safety Tanner Miller said.
Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian has struggled, throwing a pair of picks last week in a loss to Minnesota. Siemian, who's not nearly the runner Colter is, has taken eight sacks over the past two games while completing just 47.5 percent of his passes. "Trevor's given us a lot of opportunities to win a lot of football games. He just needs to settle down, play his game, not try to do too much," Fitzgerald said.
After decades of futility at the hands of Iowa, Northwestern has seized control of this underrated rivalry. The Wildcats have won four of the last five meetings, including a 17-10 win in 2009 that derailed Iowa's national championship hopes. "The one thing you can say about them is since the mid '90s they do what it takes to win. They've done a good job of that. They've done it several different ways," Ferentz said. The Hawkeyes once won 21 straight against the Wildcats from 1933 to 1995.
The teams Iowa has lost to, Northern Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State, are a combined 20-1 this season. The teams that beat Northwestern are 17-4. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats have also had three common opponents, with Iowa holding a clear edge. Both nearly beat Ohio State - but Iowa trounced Minnesota 23-7 and Western Michigan 59-3, while Northwestern lost to the Gophers and beat the winless Broncos by 21.
RED ZONE REALITY CHECK?
Iowa has allowed just four touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line, the lowest total in the country. Northwestern leads the Big Ten in red zone efficiency, scoring on all but one of its 29 trips with 17 touchdowns.