Don't look now, but Iowa is undefeated as it readies for perhaps the most difficult game remaining on its regular-season schedule, Saturday at No. 20 Northwestern (11 a.m. CT, ABC/ESPN2).
Who guessed the Hawkeyes would stand 6-0 overall, ranked No. 17 and 2-0 in the Big Ten? The list is likely short. Before the season, ESPN’s Football Power Index gave Iowa a 2.7 percent chance to win its first six games -- the lowest figure of 12 remaining Power-5 unbeatens.
Iowa survived September unscathed with help from a 57-yard, game-winning field goal by Marshall Koehn as time expired against Pitt. It beat Wisconsin 10-6 on Oct. 3, the Hawkeyes’ first victory over a ranked foe since 2011, as the Badgers turned it over four times -- including a fourth-quarter fumble at the Iowa 1-yard line.
The biggest test yet, though, arrives Saturday in Evanston against the Wildcats (5-1, 1-1).
Let’s examine the reasons for Iowa to be wary in Week 7:
Mounting injures: The Hawkeyes will have as many key players on the sideline Saturday as on the field. Heading the list of injured Iowa stars is defensive end Drew Ott, who was lost for the season last week against Illinois with a torn ACL. Welcome, freshman Parker Hesse, to a starting front four that needs to stay stout against Northwestern’s rushing attack, the second-most productive in the Big Ten. Questions abound this week over the health of quarterback C.J. Beathard, 7-0 as a starter at Iowa. Beathard told reporters this week that he “can throw the ball fine,” not exactly a denial that he’s operating at less than 100 percent. Also out are top receiving target Tevaun Smith, starting tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger, tight end Jake Duzey and running back LeShun Daniels. Without Daniels, Jordan Canzeri has hit his stride, topping 100 yards in four of the past five games. He rushed for 256 on a school-record 43 carries againt the Illini. Iowa needs more of such clutch performances Saturday to account for its losses to injury.
Its painful recent history with Northwestern: Iowa has more than twice as many wins as Northwestern in this series, which dates to 1897, but the Wildcats are 5-4 against coach Kirk Ferentz’s teams under Pat Fitzgerald and seem, in recent years, to save their best performances for the games where Iowa most stands to benefit from a win. Saturday marks the first Iowa-Northwestern meeting as ranked foes since 1996, but the Wildcats upset the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes in 2009 and beat No. 13 Iowa a year later -- the last time a Ferentz team has been ranked as high as it sits this week. “The majority of the games,” Ferentz said, “have gone right down to the wire. To me, when I think of this series, that’s what I think of -- that’s what it is and that’s how it’s been for at least my 17 years.”
It’s just time, isn’t it?: What if the Hawkeyes win? Think about that. Iowa has started 7-0 just four times, most recently in 2009, when it won its first nine and rose to No. 4 in the BCS standings before the 17-10 loss to the Wildcats. Iowa, in that game, played the second half without injured QB Ricky Stanzi. We’re not suggesting that Beathard may meet a similar fate Saturday, but the Wildcats are tough on quarterbacks, holding foes to a national-low 15.8 QBR and 138.2 passing yards per game. If Iowa makes it past Northwestern, the Hawkeyes host Maryland and visit Indiana, before home games against Minnesota and Purdue and a post-Thanksgiving trip to Nebraska. An undefeated regular season would start to look achievable. At the very least, a win in Evanston turns gives Iowa a commanding advantage in the supposedly wide-open West Division.