By Tim Balk

It might not feel like it coming off a 38-0 drubbing last week against Michigan, but Northwestern’s game this Saturday against Iowa is one of the biggest Pat Fitzgerald has ever coached.

Yes, the thrashing the Wildcats took at the Big House against Michigan was deflating. Yes, it curbed much of the hype that had been building around the ‘Cats. And yes, in a week that features five top 20 battles, the NU-Iowa game, with it’s 11 AM start time, doesn’t have the feel of a season-defining game. But this game matters in a way that Wildcat games haven’t mattered in a long time: Northwestern is still looking at a potential Big Ten Championship berth.

The last time you could make a claim like that was probably back in 2013, when the college football world turned its focus to Evanston for the ‘Cats’ primetime battle with Ohio State. While the Iowa game won’t have same bright lights feel of the OSU game, it likely will be more impactful. The ‘Cats played their hearts out against the Buckeyes that night and nearly stole the game, but that Northwestern team, which finished 5-7, proved not to be a real Big Ten contender. And while it was a huge, season defining game with lasting implications, this Saturday’s may prove to be even more so.

When you look back on the past 10 years of Northwestern football, you see a lot of solid football teams–bowl teams, teams capable of pulling off upsets of the nation’s elites, and, of course, the surprising 10-3 2012 team. But you don’t see any Big Ten Championships, and you don’t see a lot of games that could have even led to Big Ten Championship appearances.  Even the 2012 team finished two games behind Nebraska in what was then the Legends Division.

2015 could change all of that.  That is partially a result of a soft Big Ten West. And it is partially due to the balance and experience of this NU team which, Michigan game notwithstanding, has been nasty on defense and underratedly competent on offense. A Big Ten title remains a distant long shot, but if NU can get by Iowa they will have the inside track to the conference championship game and a highly manageable slate of games remaining.

There are no games on NU’s remaining schedule that they can’t win.  Home against Penn State? On the road against Wisconsin? Not guaranteed wins by any stretch, but certainly manageable games.

Iowa is good. The Hawkeyes’ strengths align with NU’s weaknesses. The Hawkeyes excel at stopping the run and putting pressure on quarterbacks. Bad news for Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson. On offense, Iowa boasts a robust rushing attack sparked by senior Jordan Canzeri. Defending the run is NU’s relative defensive weakness.

Iowa is 6-0. They are tough.
The ‘Cats season certainly does not solely hinge on this game. A loss would not doom the ‘Cats, nor would a win guarantee a visit to Indianapolis. Still, the implications are massive and the stakes are high. A win very well could push NU toward a double digit win season and even bigger things in 2016.

Michigan was just a teaser for ‘Cats. Iowa is the main event. The Big Ten West hangs in the balance.  

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