PART I: HYPE MACHINE
NICK MEDLINE: Dan Vitale — The superback strung together two of his worst performances against Wisconsin and Minnesota, struggling in both key facets of his position: blocking and catching. He's often targeted in practice, of course, and needs to convert on opportunities with more frequency. After his memorable five-catch, 101-yard outing in the season opener, he's gradually faded in terms of importance to this offense. With Colter back and the group looking for much better, expect Vitale to regain some of his old form.
STEVEN GOLDSTEIN: Matt Harris — Iowa's offense moves slowly, and it's most vulnerable through the air: the Hawkeyes tote a strong inside running game with Mark Weisman and rank seventh in the country with only five sacks allowed all season. If Northwestern's defense is going to make an impact, it'll be in shutting down the vertical passing game and sealing off the big play. Harris has played well in recent weeks and lined up alongside Nick VanHoose in practice Wednesday. Here's his chance. Iowa's no. 2 wideout, Tevaun Smith, is averaging less than 10 yards per catch on only 12 receptions.
PART II: MOST VALUABLE
NM: Kain Colter — What if something went right? What if Kain Colter returned and made us (for a moment) forget all of the recent struggles? He's poised to return–even without Venric Mark–and infuse the offense with his versatility. If you'd told me before the season that the offense would primarily be responsible for a hypothetical three-game losing streak, I'd have laughed. Now, Northwestern desperately needs one of its best players, who can lead the Wildcats back into the win column.
SG: Tyler Scott — The dude's been an absolute monster on the edge, and leads the Big Ten with five sacks this year. More importantly, he looks stout in run defense, which will come in handy against ground-and-pound Iowa. With Colter regaining the fold, Mark still out and Iowa lacking explosiveness, Saturday has all the makings of a slow, ugly football game. Scott can be a difference-maker getting into the backfield.
PART III: QUESTION MARKS
NM: Can the defensive tackles step up? — Sean McEvilly returns to bolster the unit, which faces another difficult matchup against Iowa power back Mark Weisman. Although Will Hampton showed impressive effort as his replacement, McEvilly's presence should make this group visibly better. The Hawkeyes will thrive, easily, if they can dominate on the ground. So it's on McEvilly–who suffered from a tough early-season foot injury–to make his return a memorable one. It could be the proverbial perfect timing.
SG: How will Mick McCall use the running game? — Pat Fitzgerald praised Iowa's aggressive front seven all week, but there's been no excuse for the lack of carries to Treyvon Green the past two games. If Green and Buckley get involved early and often, the Wildcats can set a tempo and take some pressure off the struggling passing game. If the offense hits the panic button again and falls back into lazy pocket passes, it could be another long one.
PART IV: BOLD PREDICTION
NM: Stephen Buckley gains more than 125 yards from scrimmage — I'm intrigued by the redshirt freshman talent, who continues to flash his receiving skills on the practice field. After rushing for 58 yards on nine carries last week, he's ostensibly ready for an expanded workload. If Buckley discovers some comfort in the screen game or short passing sets–one staple of the Colter offense–he could have the long-awaited breakout game. With full eligibility remaining, he might ease the already difficult transition post-Venric Mark.
SG: Siemian won't thrown an interception — It's been a rocky month for the quarterback, but against Iowa's stout defense, I don't think he'll have to take many risks downfield Saturday. Northwestern should deploy a between-the-tackles gameplan, and with Colter back, Siemian won't feel nearly as much pressure to anchor the offense. The Hawkeyes only have one pick in their past two games.
PART V: SCORE PREDICTIONS
NM: Northwestern 38, Iowa 24 — I've said this at length: Pat Fitzgerald teams win these games, the ones in which his team faces significant adversity. Motivated by their head coach, and by the frustration that permeated Trienens Hall in recent weeks, NU players return to their confident ways. Barring any setbacks, the two-quarterback system can once again flourish—carried by the running game's return. Then, if Nick VanHoose, Matt Harris and Dwight White can make plays against sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock (7 INTs this season), the Wildcats will ride momentum to their first Big Ten win. I'm confident with this one.
SG: Northwestern 31, Iowa 24 — Tyler Scott talked to me about the Cats' sense of urgency this week, and as bad as the team's been on both sides of the ball recently, it's tough to see it losing a fourth straight game against an offense that struggles to score. Iowa will win on both lines, but I like Northwestern's speed and Tony Jones' potential to break things open with a deep reception or two. Sloppy game, but hell, the Wildcats will take whatever they can get right now.