by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Players to watch
Offense: Nolan MacMillan
MacMillan certainly isn't the best player on the Iowa offense, but this week, he might be the most important. Starting left tackle Brandon Scherff was injured last week against Penn State and will be out for the season, putting the pressure on MacMillan to keep the ship afloat. The Hawkeyes' offensive line has been impressive this year and has been a big reason for the success of fullback/running back sensation Mark Weisman. With Weisman coming back from injury, the offensive line will have to be especially good, and a lot of the unit's success will depend on how well MacMillan can adjust. If he can fill in for Scherff without any problems, Weisman could have a bounce-back week. If not, it will be tough for the Iowa offense to get rolling.
Defense: Micah Hyde
Hyde struggled last week against Penn State, but he's been solid all year long and is one of the better cornerbacks in the Big Ten. In fact, he could be the best corner Northwestern has faced this year. His stats aren't spectacular, but that's because many quarterbacks have avoided his side of the field. If he shuts down his side of the field again, Northwestern's passing offense will continue to struggle, and that will be important in a game that figures to be low scoring.
Biggest Strength: Rush Offense
It's tough to find an obvious strength on this Iowa squad, mainly because every phase of the game has struggled at some point. Before last week I probably would have said the pass defense, but the secondary was lit up by Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin. The running game has also been very inconsistent for the Hawkeyes, but it has the most upside of any phase of the game right now. If Weisman is having a good game and the offensive line is playing well, Iowa may be the best rushing team that Northwestern has played up to this point. That's not a given by any means, but a healthy Weisman and a strong performance rom MacMillan would give the Wildcats' rush defense a solid test.
Biggest Weakness: Pass Offense
Heading into the season, Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg was supposed to be the best pocket passer — and perhaps the best quarterback — in the Big Ten. He was supposed to be aided by top talents Keenan Davis and CJ Fiedorowicz. Instead, he has regressed considerably and has yet to put together a solid game. Vandenberg has just three touchdowns to five interceptions and is only completing 55.8 percent of his passes. He's averaging only 5.7 yards per attempt and 189 yards per game. It's tough to figure out the reason for Vandenberg's regression, though it's likely a combination of losing top target Marvin McNutt and having to switch to a new offense under new offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Regardless, if there was and quarterback NU would like to face this week after all the injuries in the secondary, it would be Vandenberg.
Under the radar: Anthony Hitchens
One of the bright spots on this Iowa team is the linebacker corps, which is one of the best in the Big Ten this year, and with all three players returning, could be the top unit in the conference next season. It's led in the middle by All-Big Ten candidate James Morris and on one side by ballhawk Christian Kirksey. Then there's Hitchens, who is quietly second in the nation with 12.29 tackles per game. Tackles is an overrated stat, but Hitchens certainly deserves more credit than he is getting for his ability to always be around the ball. In the past, Northwestern's quarterbacks have run all over Iowa, but these might be the most athletic linebackers the Hawkeyes have had under Kirk Ferentz, and Hitchens, Kirksey and Morris will be important in stopping the Wildcats' zone read and option attacks.