IOWA CITY — Instead of a kickoff, a starter’s pistol might be a more appropriate way for Saturday’s Iowa-Northwestern football game to begin.
Hawkeyes defenders expect to be off to the races as they chase a multidimensional opponent in the 11 a.m. game at Ryan Field.
“They don’t waste any time, but we’re seeing that almost every week it seems,” Iowa defensive tackle Steve Bigach said.
A Penn State offense which averages a Big Ten-best 79 plays per game ran 90 against the Hawkeyes last Saturday.
Iowa faces teams which rank second and third on that list the next two weeks, preceding a trip to Indiana with its matchup against Northwestern. The Hoosiers average 78.4 plays per game, while the Wildcats are averaging 74.6 snaps against each opponent.
“Northwestern gets the ball a little more to the edge than some teams, so it seems like you spend the whole day running sideline to sideline,” Bigach said. “All the preparation we’ve done in the offseason should help, and we’re rotated a lot of guys up front. That’s giving us all a chance to catch our breath and it’s something we haven’t done as much of in the past.”
One thing won’t change.
The Wildcats will challenge Iowa with a multitude of looks.
For the past four games, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian have shared duties at quarterback. When Colter isn’t working behind center, he has lined up at receiver and running back this season for Northwestern.
“They are two very different quarterbacks and the offense has the potential to change a lot depending on which guy is playing quarterback,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Colter, no matter where he is lined up, can hurt you a lot of different ways. It’s a system that puts a lot of pressure on a defense.”
Colter is more of a threat to run out of the quarterback spot — he is second on the team with 456 rushing yards — while Siemian has been Northwestern’s primary passer this season. Colter has completed 70 percent of his 80 passes this season, but Siemian has more than twice as many attempts while connecting on 58.6 percent of his attempts.
The two quarterbacks have been interception-free in seven of the Wildcats’ eight games this season, helping Northwestern share the Big Ten lead in turnover margin with Penn State.
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“It’s a little tougher when you have to face two guys who are different, but we’ve seen it before,” Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. “We’ve seen scrambling guys before, and it will be a challenge again. You have to be aware of where those guys are at.”
In this instance, Colter and Siemian will not be the only concern.
Venric Mark brings sprinter’s speed to the tailback position, and he enters the Iowa game needing 90 yards to become the first Northwestern back since Tyrell Sutton in 2006 to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
The junior, recruited as a receiver, has been a threat as a return man on special teams in past seasons and continues in that role. He averages 25.1 yards on punt returns and 16.5 on kick returns this season.
“He’s a guy that you better have accounted for no matter what phase of the game he is in for,” Ferentz said. “If he’s there on the field, you need to really try to keep him contained because he is tough to defend.”
Coming off of a game which saw Penn State piled up 504 yards of offense — the most allowed by the Hawkeyes since Missouri gained 512 yards in the 2010 Insight Bowl — Iowa welcomes a challenge.
“We got embarrassed last week,” cornerback Micah Hyde said. “That wasn’t Iowa football. The best way to deal with it is to get back on the field and prove that against the next opponent. Northwestern is always a challenge, but it’s one we’re looking forward to meeting.”