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Weekend Rewind, week 9: Northwestern vs. Iowa

Every week, InsideNU writers Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we’ll try and stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with one big takeaway from the Big Ten. Following Northwestern’s 17-10 loss to Iowa, here’s the ninth edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

Stephen Buckley’s breakout game

As Northwestern and Iowa's players and coaches congregated at midfield after the Hawkeyes finished off their 17-10 overtime win over Northwestern Saturday, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz – the recipient of quarterback Jake Rudock’s perfectly floated game-clinching touchdown pass – basked in the afterglow, Wildcats senior running back Venric Mark marched away from the throng, paced toward the tunnel near the left corner of the end zone, touched the “Believe in Yourself” sign being held up by a Northwestern football staffer and disappeared into the bowels of Kinnick Stadium.

Sitting out with a lower-body injury, Mark, who wore sweatpants and skullcap while watching the game from the sidelines, sat out his sixth game of the season Saturday. His presence was sorely missed. With a healthy Mark in the lineup, Northwestern’s offense is dynamic and explosive. It can run zone-read plays better than most teams in the country. It can score more than 10 points on the road against Iowa.

But the senior’s absence should not detract from one of the more positive takeaways from Saturday’s loss: the performance of redshirt freshman Stephen Buckley. Buckley hadn’t rushed for more than 60 yards in a game prior to Saturday, when he broke out for a team-high 99 on 17 carries. His biggest play came at a pivotal juncture; with the score knotted at 10 and Northwestern approaching midfield late in the fourth quarter, Buckley broke off a 30-yard gain to move the Wildcats into Hawkeyes territory. A Dan Vitale penalty moved Northwestern backward 15 yards, forcing the Wildcats into a first and 25 from Iowa’s 45-yard line. Next came senior running back Mike Trumpy’s fumble, his second of the game, which was recovered by Iowa.

Had Northwestern not committed two ill-timed self-inflicted wounds, we may well be talking about Buckley as the catalyst that sparked the Wildcats’ late, season-turning victory. We’re not, of course, so his performance, impressive as it was, won’t get as much recognition as it probably deserves. But even if it came in a loss, Buckley’s breakout – something I sort of predicted last week -- is a promising development for Northwestern’s offense. Unless Mark, about whom there is concern of a possible left leg fracture, surprisingly returns sometime over the next couple of weeks, the Wildcats need an explosive back to replace him in the lineup. Buckley showed signs Saturday that he can do exactly that.

It will take time before Buckley can even approach the offensive output Mark provided on a weekly basis last season, but the redshirt freshman’s emergence should quell fears that Northwestern’s offense without Mark is doomed to fail. It can be good, if not as great, without Mark, and it should only get better as Buckley gets more touches over the next few weeks – assuming, of course, Mark doesn’t return to the lineup in the meantime.

- Chris Johnson

Kain C0lter (and NU) have Iowa's attention

If you listened closely enough at the end of the game, you probably could have heard a sigh of relief coming from the Iowa sideline, partly because of the final score and partly because that's the last time the Hawkeyes will ever have to face Kain Colter. And after the game, it was clear that Colter has the utmost respect of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. In his BTN interview after the game, Ferentz noted what a great competitor Colter is, then he called him a "tenacious competitor" in his postgame press conference.

Colter owned Iowa last year, and while this Hawkeyes defense is much improved, he still had a solid game and nearly led NU to a win. He's a do-everything player — one who can make things happen on broken plays — and the kind of player that has given Iowa fits in the past.

In order to contain mobile quarterbacks like Colter, Iowa has had to make adjustments. However, the Hawkeyes have stubbornly avoided doing that, and it's allowed Colter, Dan Persa, Braxton Miller and other quarterbacks of the same mold to beat them. In this game, however, Iowa gave Colter the respect he deserved. The Hawkeyes put a spy on Colter — something they've rarely done with any quarterback — and still could barely contain him. That, more than any words, is the ultimate sign of respect.

Perhaps even more fascinating is how Ferentz apparently treated this week. Ever since the Gary Barnett era, Northwestern has treated its game against Iowa as a rivalry, and the Wildcats have had a lot of success in doing so. However, Ferentz rarely reciprocated on the rivalry aspect, failing to show Pat Fitzgerald's level of emotion heading into the game. That drove Iowa fans crazy. But this week was different, according to Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey. More, from the Des Moines Register:

Iowa State? That’s obvious, an in-state rival and all. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald broke his leg against Iowa in 1995, and always seems to use that unfortunate event as personal motivation. In 2010, one of his players told media members that Fitzgerald hated Iowa.

Why, people wondered, didn’t Ferentz respond with some emotional response on game week? Apparently, he has. Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens, turning in one of the best games of his career, noticed a change in Ferentz.

“There was a little pep in our step this week,” Hitchens said. “This one and Iowa State. We knew (Northwestern) was going to come out and give us their best shot. That’s the type of team they are. I guess they don’t like us. I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

I've watched this "rivalry" from both sides for a long time now, and that's the first time Ferentz has seemingly given the Northwestern game that kind of respect. It's about time — the Wildcats have earned it.

- Kevin Trahan

Around the Big Ten

Ohio State needs to run up the score 

In most situations, running up the score is cruel and merciless. It involves teams inflicting needless demoralizing, point-based damage on opponents. It is uncalled for and unjust in more ways than one.

There are situations where these critical characterizations of the practice may not apply. When rivalries, personal coaching beef or payback for previous blowouts, among other factors, are involved, running up the score is warranted. Preferred, even. And when it comes to the Bowl Championship Series, there is no reason why teams with national championship aspirations shouldn’t always be thinking about running up the score. The BCS’s ranking system – based on two polls and an amalgam of murky mathematical formulas – basically begs teams to do it.

So when a team like Ohio State goes out and hands Penn State its worst loss in 114 years – and scores more points (63) on the Nittany Lions than any other team since the Duquesne Athletic Club scored 64 in 1899 – there should be no complaints. None. Zero. Nothing. Ohio State is well within its rights to march down the field and hang as many points as it can on the overmatched (and limited, scholarship-wise) Nittany Lions.

In the first BCS standings revealed last week, the undefeated Buckeyes ranked fourth, behind Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. The Buckeyes, thanks to a pillowy soft Big Ten schedule, are unlikely to jump any of the aforementioned teams should they finish the season undefeated. That would leave them out of the national championship game – a historical football powerhouse with a rich history of winning riding a 20-game win streak, denied a shot at competing for the national championship? And all because the Buckeyes played a weak schedule? That’s a plausible scenario, and the only way Ohio State can try to avoid it is by convincing poll voters that – contrary to what’s suggested by its season resumé, which, thanks to the Big Ten’s lack of elite competition, qualifies anywhere between “mediocre” and “meh” – it belongs in the national championship game. That it can play with ‘Bama and Florida State and those green-and-yellow Nike-clad, point-gouging freaks from outerspace. Plain old wins and losses won’t do it, so the Buckeyes don’t really have a choice. They have to boatrace everyone that remains on their schedule, including an undermanned Penn State team, to remain in the national championship conversation.

So no, I don’t object to the Buckeyes, up by 49 points and looking to tack on a few more before calling it a night, challenging a Nittany Lions fourth-down conversion in the waning moments of the third quarter. At his postgame press conference, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien declined to comment when asked about Meyer’s decision to challenge the spot of the ball. He also said this (from the Cleveland Plain Dealer): “They’ll put it behind them,” Obrien said of his players. “We’ll remember some things.”

That sounds like the right attitude. Next time you’re leading the Buckeyes by double-digits late in a game, don’t relent. Let the rout continue. Or, here’s a novel concept: try stopping them.

- Chris Johnson

Minnesota's unlikely renaissance

Earlier this year, I wrote in our weekend rewind that Minnesota might actually be for real. The Gophers were 4-0 at the time and had one of the best rush offenses and one of the best run defenses in the Big Ten. The following game against Iowa, however, would be the Gophers' first real test, since they'd spent much of the non-conference slate playing nobodies. And against the Hawkeyes, the Gophers fell flat, rushing for only 30 yards — they claimed to be a power running team — in a 30-13 home loss.

After that, I figured we'd see the same old script from Minnesota. It would find a way to get to 6-6, earning a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl or Little Caesars Bowl, thanks to an incredibly weak non-conference schedule. That may sound cynical, but ever since Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber donned maroon and gold, the Gophers have never given us any reason to believe they could go beyond that. Until this year, that is.

Despite head coach Jerry Kill sitting out to deal with his epilepsy — interim coach Tracy Claeys has done a fantastic job — Minnesota has won its past two games against Northwestern and Nebraska, the same Northwestern and Nebraska that were expected to be leading contenders for the Legends Division title. There are a couple of caveats here. 1) Northwestern has been struggling lately and played absolutely terribly against the Gophers. If NU had played how it did (in a loss) this week, it would have won that game. 2) Nebraska's run defense is awful. Rushing for 271 yards against the Cornhuskers doesn't make you a power running team. South Dakota State rushed for 227 yards against them.

So am I sold on the Gophers? Absolutely not. It's tough to see them as a Legends contender with a bad passing offense and an inconsistent run game. However, at 6-2, it's impossible to ignore Minnesota when discussing postseason possibilities at the end of October. That's progress and the first real step up for the program since the end of the Glen Mason era.

- Kevin Trahan

Power Rankings

1. Ohio State — The dismantling of Penn State was impressive, and while Ohio State needs a lot of help to reach the BCS National Championship game, you can no longer say the Buckeyes have no chance at holding their own.

2. Wisconsin — Wisconsin is sitting pretty after their second bye week. However, the one knock on the Badgers is that they don't have a great win. A win in Iowa City this week would be their best one yet.

3. Michigan State — Illinois is bad, but a 45-3 win is very impressive for a Michigan State offense that hasn't been consistent yet. It'll have to bring its "A" game against Michigan.

4. Michigan — The Wolverines haven't really done anything this year, so it's tough to put them this high, but they haven't done enough to drop below fourth, either.

5. Iowa — The Hawkeyes aren't going to win the Legends Division, but they're improving. The defense has been impressive and the offense has shown flashes. Next year could be a breakout year, but this year is probably a stepping stone.

6. Minnesota — Does Minnesota deserve to be higher? Maybe, but the Gophers still lost 30-13 to Iowa earlier this year and weren't all that impressive in the win against Northwestern. If they keep it up, they'll shoot up the rankings.

7. Nebraska — The run defense is still a problem, and that plays right into Northwestern's strength. The Wildcats are reeling, but Nebraska should be on upset alert again this weekend.

8. Penn State — The win against Michigan seems like forever ago. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has a bright future, but he's just a freshman and he can't do everything. The defense needs a lot of work.

9. Northwestern — The drop from 4-0 to 4-4 has been stunning. The upcoming schedule doesn't get any easier: at Nebraska, vs. Michigan, vs. Michigan State.

10. Indiana — Someone suggested Indiana's defense playing a game against Calvin Johnson. How many yards would Megatron go for in that one? 500? More?

11. Illinois — Illinois has been better than last season, but the Illini still have a long ways to go. That was especially evident in the 45-3 loss to Michigan State.

12. Purdue — Obligatory "Purdue didn't lose to Bye Week" joke. But seriously, the Boilermakers might be looking forward to bringing Ohio State to town. For some reason, they've had a lot of success against the Buckeyes, though I don't anticipate that continuing this year.