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West title in reach, Northwestern tops Big Ten surprises

FILE - In this Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, file photo, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald talks with his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern can clinch the Big Ten West championship and its first appearance in the conference title game by winning two of its final three games. (AP Photo/Jim Young)

IOWA CITY -- Today’s test for the Iowa football team is as much mental as it is physical.

The Hawkeyes have reached a crossroads in their Big Ten schedule, slipping to 3-3 in league play with back-to-back losses at Penn State and Purdue as they prepare to host West Division leader Northwestern in a 2:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium.

Coach Kirk Ferentz has leaned on the 13 seniors on the Hawkeye roster to help his team regroup, counting on the leadership he has seen grow over the past six months to make a measurable difference as Iowa reaches a critical juncture in its schedule.

“The amazing thing about this team is that it hasn’t taken a whole lot,’’ senior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It’s not like we’ve got to be calling meetings or calling guys out all the time. For the most part, this is a team that believes in each other.’’

From Hesse’s perspective, that bond has never been more important than it is now as the Hawkeyes work to move beyond the sting of a 38-36 setback at Purdue in a game decided by a field goal with 8 seconds remaining.

"No one has been pointing fingers and everyone takes ownership in what we do, good or bad, and everyone wants to improve together,’’ Hesse said. “Even though we’ve had some adversity, that’s what we’re focusing on right now, sticking together and just keep pushing.’’

Northwestern, 5-1 in the Big Ten and 0-3 against the rest of the planet this season, gives Iowa little choice.

The Wildcats have ridden the savvy of senior quarterback Clayton Thorson and a solid defense that has held seven opponents below their season scoring average to success this season.

Much like Northwestern’s 17-10 overtime win over the Hawkeyes last year, a game decided on a 1-yard touchdown run by Thorson, the Wildcats have found ways to win by keeping things close into the fourth quarter.

Five of Northwestern’s games, including four in Big Ten play, have been decided by four points or less and Ferentz expects more of the same in a series that seen the Wildcats win seven of the 12 games since Pat Fitzgerald took over the program at his alma mater.

“We’ve had a great series over the years. It’s not a trophy game, but it really kind of feels like that,’’ Ferentz said.

Iowa isn’t the only Big Ten program getting the Wildcats’ best. Northwestern has won 12 of its last 13 games against conference competition, the lone blemish a 20-17 loss to East Division leader Michigan on Sept. 29, and the Wildcats have won their last six Big Ten road games.

“These guys are gritty, they’re tough and they play good football,’’ Ferentz said. “They find a way to win when it’s important, do what they have to do. That’s a big challenge in anything you do.’’

Iowa’s work begins with attempting to get Thorson out of his comfort zone.

He’s completed 60.2 percent of his 347 passes this year for 2,213 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

“We want to make him uncomfortable,’’ Hesse said. “We want to make him get out of rhythm and do what we can to get him in passing situations. Just like every other week, that’s what we’re going to be trying to do.’’

In a match-up between the Big Ten’s longest-tenured coaches, Fitzgerald wouldn’t expect it to be any other way.

“We’ve competed against each other a number of times now and they’ve all been challenging games,’’ he said.

Hesse said the Hawkeyes are working to make certain the mindset is right to make that the case again.

“We just want to make sure we stick together and we play as good as we can,’’ Hesse said. “We still have the potential to play three really good games down the stretch and do good things. That starts with what we do this week against Northwestern.’’

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