IOWA CITY, Ia. – The calendar turns to November on Saturday, when Iowa hosts Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium.
And five games in November will determine how this 2014 Hawkeye football team will be remembered. This season could still head in a lot of directions, from underachieving to a December date in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
Five games against Big Ten West Division foes: Northwestern, on the road at Minnesota and Illinois, and back home for Wisconsin and Nebraska. Each step is dangerous.
Northwestern has given Iowa fits in recent seasons. Minnesota has a bye week to stew after losing at Illinois. The Illini now have their second Big Ten victory in coach Tim Beckman's third season. And Wisconsin and Nebraska are building some late-season momentum that has them looking everything like the class of the West.
Heading into Iowa's Oct. 18 game at Maryland, coach Kirk Ferentz said if his squad kept improving, "we'll have a chance to have a good football team. And if not, we'll either be mediocre or bad."
All three options are still in play. But it's going to take a winning record in November to scratch mediocre and bad from the list of possibilities.
The Hawkeyes, 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten, were 3-1 in November last season. After losing to Wisconsin and winning at Purdue, Iowa came off a bye week to close out the month with wins at home against Michigan and at Nebraska.
That represented the Hawkeyes' first winning November since 2008. Iowa had been 4-11 in November between 2009 and 2012.
Like Iowa, Northwestern will be coming off a bye week. The Wildcats are 3-4 overall, and 2-2 in the Big Ten. Northwestern's slim West Division hopes will vanish with a loss at Kinnick.
The Wildcats are coming off a poor performance, a 38-17 loss to Nebraska in Evanston on Oct. 18. The Cornhuskers rallied from a 17-14 halftime deficit. One bright spot for Northwestern was freshman running back Justin Jackson, who rushed for 128 yards. That was his third straight 100-yard game.
Northwestern has specialized in kicks to the solar plexus against the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats trailed Iowa by double digits and rallied to win in 2008, 2009 and 2010. And in 2011, Northwestern rallied from a 17-0 deficit to tie the game before Iowa recovered for a 41-31 victory.
Last season at Kinnick, Northwestern rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit to tie the game, and had the ball first-and-10 at Iowa's 30 with less than 4 minutes to play. It looked like a well-told story was about to be repeated again.
Quarterback Kain Colter gained 9 yards on the next play, but Dan Vitale was called for a chop block. Mike Trumpy bobbled Colter's handoff from the Iowa 45 on the next play and the Hawkeyes' Desmond King recovered. Iowa went on to flip the script and win 17-10 in overtime.
The Hawkeyes' future moving forward could rest in the hands of their rushing game. Iowa is 11th in the Big Ten in that category at 146.3 yards a game. Just once in the last 15 games have the Hawkeyes had a 100-yard rusher – Jordan Canzeri had 165 yards in 20 carries at Purdue last season.
Northwestern is ninth in the league in rush defense at 158.3 yards a game. Maybe this is the week that Iowa's ground game breaks through. And it couldn't come at a better time.
After all, it's November.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.