Iowa football is 4-2 at the halfway point, and things are looking better than expected. We've been here before, though. Just 12 months ago, the Hawkeyes were 4-2 after a win at Michigan State and looking bowl-bound. Six losses later, we were wondering what had happened. So what are the odds that Iowa goes bowling?
Here's what's left for Iowa:
October 19: @ Ohio State (6-0, 2-0)
Ohio State isn't a horrible matchup: They don't throw the ball that much (just 212 yards per game), they've shown some defensive vulnerabilities, and Wisconsin played them close with a style of play not unlike Iowa. Of course, it's still Ohio State in the Horseshoe, Carlos Hyde is back with a vengeance, and Iowa will need to throw the ball just to stay close (Wisconsin needed nearly 300 yards through the air to keep it within the margin of error). There's a reason Iowa is a 17-point underdog here. Let's just move on.
October 26: Northwestern (4-2, 0-2)
This game could depend on what Northwestern shows up. The Wildcats played Ohio State close to the bitter end in Evanston two weeks ago, throwing for 343 yards and forcing three Buckeye turnovers before fading in the fourth quarter. The next week, they were beaten the hell down at Wisconsin. Northwestern gave up a whopping 286 rushing yards to the Badgers, managed just 44 rushing yards of their own, and converted just 2 of 17 third downs.
Venric Mark and Kain Colter are both dealing with leg injuries that have left them largely ineffective (they combined for 18 rushing yards on 9 attempts at Wisconsin). Both remain day-to-day, though Colter's likely closer to returning than Mark. While Northwestern has no trouble throwing the ball, they need some semblance of a running game to keep the wolves at bay.
The other question: Whether the Wildcats can stop Iowa's running game. Northwestern has allowed 200 rushing yards in both of its losses and is conceding more than 28 points per game so far. Syracuse scored 27 despite playing in just its second game under a new coach. Western Michigan got 17 despite being Western Michigan. Maine scored 21 on the Wildcats. Maine.
Northwestern is always a dangerous proposition for Iowa, and there's no doubt that Fitzgerald will have his team ready for his own personal Hate Bowl. But, aside from their heavy reliance on the passing game on offense, this isn't a bad matchup for Iowa.
November 2: Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1)
Don't let the record or ranking fool you: Wisconsin is good. They're a Pac-12 officiating crew from being 5-1 and ranked in the top 15, Joel Stave is disturbingly effective in their new offense, and Melvin Gordon might be the best halfback in the country. Wisconsin is fifth nationally in rushing offense, with nearly 300 yards on the ground per game. The Bagers are also fifth in scoring defense, though both figures are skewed by games against UMass, Tennessee Tech, and Purdue.
Wisconsin presents a pair of issues for Iowa. For one, their offense resembles the Michigan State scheme that caused Iowa problems two weeks ago. Iowa will sell out to stop the run, as they are wont to do. When they do, Stave and receiver Jared Abbrederis can certainly move the ball on their own. Abbrederis is averaging 18.5 yards per reception and accounts for nearly half of the Badgers' total receiving yards. Wisconsin has more accomplished players in the passing game than Michigan State had, and so Iowa's run-centric defense won't do the job on its own.
On the other side, Wisconsin's 3-4 could give the Iowa running game some trouble. The nose guard and wider alignment has proved difficult for Iowa's zone scheme in the past, as responsibilities shift and the stretch needs to stretch another few feet outside. Much like the Michigan State game, where the Spartan defensive line stunted and slanted to the strong side, just daring Mark Weisman to attempt a cutback, the defense might make this a Damon Bullock game. It needs to be a Mark Weisman game: Since the Hebrew Hammer emerged against UNI last year, Iowa is 1-7 in games where he does not run for 100 yards (and the one win was Western Michigan, where the Hawkeyes ran for 258 with the backups while saving Weisman some wear and tear). If that's going to happen, Iowa needs to show some variety in the running game that we haven't seen too often.
Wisconsin is good. Iowa is at home. Toss up? I'm saying toss up.
November 9: @ Purdue (1-5, 0-2)
Purdue's offense is bad. The Boilermakers boast the worst offense of any team from a Big Five conference, 119th nationally. Purdue is only slightly better in scoring offense: 118th nationally, ahead of only Western Michigan, Southern Miss, FIU, Miami (OH), and UMass. They can't run the ball (467 rushing yards, 119th nationally). They can barely throw the ball (1257 passing yards, 84th nationally). They can't hold onto the ball (four fumbles lost). They can't throw the ball to the right guys (nine interceptions).
Purdue's defense is bad. The Boilermakers rank 81st nationally in total defense, allowing 417 yards per game. They are even worse at keeping opponents from scoring: Purdue opponents average 37.8 points per game, 114th nationally and worst among Big Five conference teams. Northern Illinois hung 50 on them two weeks ago. Cincinnati, which lost to Illinois and South Florida, put up 42 in the season opener.
I don't care that it's on the road. A loss in this game is a fireable offense.
November 23: Michigan (5-1, 1-1)
It's hard to make sense of just what Michigan is doing this year. The Wolverines aren't particularly good at anything offensively. They average 396 yards per game (by comparison, Iowa averages 417 ypg). Devin Gardner is middling: He's completing less than 60% of his passes, his average yards per attempt is down almost a full yard over last season, and he's thrown nearly as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (11). Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess are threats on the outside, but Michigan doesn't throw enough to make them any more than a tangential concern. Michigan averages over 170 yards per game rushing, but at an extremely pedestrian 4.0 yards per attempt. Gardner leads the team in rushing, and halfback Fitz Toussaint manages just 3.4 yards per rush.
Somehow, Big Blue has turned that pile of meh into one of the most effective scoring offenses in the country, averaging 39 points per game. Part of that has been the competition: The Wolverines put up 59 on Central Michigan, 42 on Minnesota, and 40 in a quadruple-overtime defeat at Penn State last week. On the other hand, getting 41 on Notre Dame is no laughing matter, and Michigan had 34 at the end of regulation against Penn State.
So how is it that Michigan has scored so many points with so little production? The Wolverines' field position has not been spectacular: The average non-overtime Michigan drive has started at the Wolverines' 27 yard line, and just a handful have started past their own 40. It turns out that Michigan's offense is just really bad at the first three plays of a series and fairly excellent after that. Michigan has been forced to give the ball up in three plays or less 27 times through six games, not including end-of-half and end-of-game kneeldowns. As a point of reference, Iowa has 24 three-and-outs, including eight against Michigan State. When Michigan gets that initial first down, though, they are lethal. The Wolverines have had 45 drives of longer than three plays. Just 13 times has Michigan strung together more than three plays and not gone on to score.
That likely does not bode well for Iowa's bend-don't-break defense, and with Michigan's rushing defense conceding less than 90 rushing yards per game -- just one yard per game more than Iowa's defense so far -- this isn't as much of a toss-up as we would like to imagine.
November 29: @ Nebraska
Nebraska is 8th nationally in rushing offense. Iowa is 8th nationally in rushing defense. Nebraska relies on its running quarterbacks to distract the defense's attention from its tailback. Iowa's defense feasts on running quarterbacks and has no problem defending the read option. Nebraska quarterbacks are completing 65% of their pass attempts. Iowa allows a meager 52% of opponent passes to be completed. Nebraska has run for 18 touchdowns. Iowa has not allowed a rushing touchdown through six games, the only team left in the country pitching a shutout on the ground. Nebraska's offense going up against Iowa's defense is the main event in this year's finale, and it should be fascinating to watch.
Where the game could be decided, though, is when Iowa has the ball. The Cornhuskers are conceding 158 yards per game rushing, worse than past Iowa opponents Northern Illinois and Minnesota. Nebraska is not significantly better against the pass, ranking 54th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 86th (!!!) in passing yards allowed. The Nebraska secondary can force turnovers -- their 11 interceptions so far this season are among the best in the country -- but struggle when opponents don't overreach. And Kirk Ferentz has no intention of overreaching.
If Iowa's running game finds lanes against Nebraska's defense and opens up the play action game, this game is extremely winnable. Whether Iowa will be healthy or effective enough to do that in late November -- and whether their Floridian quarterback is ready to play in Lincoln two days before December -- is another question entirely.