Iowa has no trouble focusing for Northwestern

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Anyone who has followed Iowa this fall knows the Hawkeyes expect every game to be extremely competitive. So far, they've been right.

But No. 4 Iowa doesn't need to relive all of its hard-fought victories to get focused for Saturday's game against Northwestern (ESPN, noon ET).

At first glance, the Wildcats aren't exactly a daunting opponent. Their five victories have come against opponents with a combined record of 10-31. They lost to lowly Syracuse back in September. They've been banged up in key spots and have underachieved in other areas (offensive line, running back).

But since 1995, Northwestern has usually saved its best for Iowa. The Wildcats are 7-5 in the series since '95 with wins in three of the last four meetings. They have won their last two contests at Kinnick Stadium, including a 22-17 decision last year in a game where Iowa committed five turnovers. NU is the last team to beat Iowa at Kinnick.

“They’ve done a great job against us," Hawkeyes left tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "This game is definitely a big one. There’s no way we can overlook Northwestern."

Trying to pinpoint why certain teams succeed against others can be a futile exercise.

Iowa has owned Penn State as of late, winning seven of the teams' last eight meetings. Illinois usually plays well against Ohio State, winning in Columbus three times since 1999 and taking the Buckeyes to overtime in 2002 before falling. Northwestern's recent run against Iowa falls into the same category.

"I can't put a finger on why that is," Bulaga said. "It’s just the way the conference is. The way Northwestern has competed with us, we know every year it’s going to be a good game."

Iowa used to dominate Northwestern (as most teams did) and won 21 consecutive games from 1974-94. In the early 1990s, Wildcats head coach Gary Barnett put Iowa in his crosshairs as the team Northwestern needed to beat to reach the next level.

Barnett's teams won three straight against Iowa from 1995-97.

"Since ’95, this series has really changed," said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a star linebacker for Barnett's teams. "We felt pretty strongly that it was obviously a tough couple decades against them, and at some point, that shoe was going to finally drop and we’d get one win. Now to put it where this has become a pretty heated game between two programs that really respect each other, it’s turned a corner and it shows where our program’s at.

"We’re in a completely different place than we were when I arrived here [as a player] in 1993."

Not surprisingly, Iowa is a heavy favorite entering the game, and most factors favor the Hawkeyes.

They've been dominant in the fourth quarter, outscoring opponents 100-38 overall and 80-14 in Big Ten games. Northwestern, meanwhile, has lacked the late-game mojo it's had in past seasons, getting outscored 72-44 in the final quarter.

"It’s going to be a huge challenge for us," Fitzgerald said. "We’re playing a team with a lot of positive momentum. They’re finding ways to win, and that’s sometimes tough to overcome."

But after playing close games all season, the Hawkeyes expect more of the same on Saturday.

"They’ve played us tough over the years, so we take this game very seriously," Hawkeyes tight end Tony Moeaki said. "We’re expecting a real battle out there."