Iowa chases 4th-straight vs. Wildcats

IOWA CITY – Over the past two games, Iowa has looked nothing like the team that dominated the Big Ten West in 2015.

The Hawkeyes (3-1) will look to re-assert themselves today against Northwestern (1-3), but the loss of star wide receiver Matt VandeBerg won’t be easy to overcome.

VandeBerg is out indefinitely after injuring his right foot Monday in practice. VandeBerg, a senior, is the team’s leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Iowa’s offense hasn’t been all that great anyway over the last two weeks, so losing its top outside threat stings.

“This is hardly a crisis stage. We’re all really sorry that Matt got hurt, don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing that, but hey, we’re going to play. We’ve got to play,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

The Hawkeyes were even more banged up heading into last year’s game against the Wildcats and left Evanston with a 40-10 win, one of their signature victories in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 18 seasons.

Northwestern doesn’t look nearly as strong as it was around this time last year either. The Wildcats have already lost to Western Michigan, Illinois State and Nebraska – all at home – and will make their road debut today.

Here are some of the key things to watch for as Iowa prepares to host its West rival:

WILDCAT THREATS

Northwestern has yet to score more than 24 points in a game. But the Wildcats have some dangerous weapons, including senior wide receiver Austin Carr. He leads the Big Ten with 28 catches for 392 yards – and had eight grabs for 108 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 24-13 loss to Nebraska. Junior running back Justin Jackson is on pace to become the first back in school history with three straight 1,000-yard seasons, and quarterback Clayton Thorson completed a career-high 24 passes last week after setting a personal best with 320 yards the week before.

DOING IT WITH DEFENSE

The Hawkeyes defense hasn’t been the problem. Iowa is allowing just 13.5 points per game and has held its two Power Five opponents, Iowa State and Rutgers, to just 10 combined points. “I’m really impressed with how hard they’re playing. It’s Iowa. They do what they do and they do it well,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

ROAD TRIP

The most disappointing thing about Northwestern’s surprisingly poor start is that all three of its losses came at Ryan Field. But the Wildcats were tough on the road in 2015, winning at Nebraska, Wisconsin and Duke.

“This will definitely be a great challenge and a huge first test … you’re not going to play in a tougher environment than Kinnick” Stadium,” Fitzgerald said.

FUNKY SERIES

The common thread for this series is that, more often than not in recent years, the results were unexpected. Few thought Iowa would beat Northwestern by 30 points last year or 48-7 in Iowa City in 2014. But the Wildcats ended Iowa’s national title hopes by knocking out quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the first quarter of a 17-10 win in 2009, and they took the Hawkeyes out of Big Ten title contention with a 21-17 win in 2010.

NOTABLES

Iowa once took 21 consecutive games from Northwestern prior to a Wildcats win in 1995, the year they went to the Rose Bowl. Northwestern is 10-9 against the Hawkeyes since then. … Iowa running back Akrum Wadley has rushed for 310 yards and five touchdowns in just two games against the Wildcats. … Northwestern and Iowa are averaging nearly identical yards per game, but the Hawkeyes are averaging 30.5 points while the Wildcats are at just 16.2