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Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert says Wisconsin loss has opened up Big Ten West race, but Iowa needs to concentrate on tough Northwestern team. Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Mekhi Sargent’s first start at running back for the Iowa football team came a year ago against Northwestern.

It is not a happy memory for the junior.

He spent the November afternoon running repeatedly into a brick wall. His longest gain was 8 yards. He lost the first fumble of his Hawkeye career. He watched the Wildcats grind out a 14-10 victory and then celebrate their Big Ten West title on the Kinnick Stadium turf.

“It wasn’t pretty at all,” Sargent said of his first encounter with Northwestern.

The rematch comes Saturday at Ryan Field, with No. 19 Iowa (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) trying to snap a three-game losing streak against the Wildcats (1-5, 0-4) in an 11 a.m. kickoff on ESPN2.

Sargent is bracing himself.

“It’s going to be an ugly game as far as the run. But when it’s there, it’s there. We’ve got to capitalize on our opportunities,” he said.

“It tests you mentally. It tests you physically. What type of football player are you? Are you going to go out there and make plays? Or are you going to go out there and be average?”

Sargent and the Iowa running game has been decidedly below average against Big Ten opponents this season. In those four games, Sargent leads the Hawkeye rushing attack with only 157 yards on 42 carries. That’s 39 yards per game and 3.7 per touch.

That’s difficult to stomach for a Hawkeye program that wants to chew up the clock and wear out opponents.

What also weighs heavily is those three consecutive losses to the Wildcats, by a total of 18 points. Northwestern, under 14th-year head coach Pat Fitzgerald, often draws comparisons to Iowa, which is led by Kirk Ferentz in his 21st year. They are the two longest-tenured coaches in the Big Ten and are perennial bowl-game participants largely by developing under-recruited athletes.

“I hope that's a compliment towards us in that, to me, I look across, I watch them, they don't beat themselves. That's the first thing you have to do in football. They rarely mess it up. They play hard. They show up every week,” Ferentz said of the Wildcats.

“They don't give anything easy or cheap defensively. You have to earn every little bit that you get. It's hard to do that offensively, to sustain drives against a team like that.”

Iowa has struggled to finish drives recently. In its past three games, seven trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line have produced only two touchdowns and five field goals.

So that’s first on Iowa’s to-do list for Saturday: Find its way into the end zone against a veteran Wildcats defense that has surrendered only 20 points to the Hawkeyes in the past two seasons.

Second on the list is to not commit turnovers that hand prime scoring opportunities to a Northwestern offense with limited options at the skill positions. Iowa has committed seven in its past three games. No one is certain whether junior Aidan Smith or sophomore Hunter Johnson will start at quarterback for the Wildcats on Saturday. But one thing that is certain is that neither have been any good this season. They have combined for two touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

The Hawkeyes said this week there is no lingering resentment from seeing the Wildcats revel in their big moment at Kinnick last November.

“If it was the other way around, and we just secured the Big Ten West title, we would have done the same thing,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said. “I have no problem with that. They earned it. They put in the work, like we did.”

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Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley on the challenge posed by Northwestern defense, and what Calvin Lockett can bring to the Hawkeye offense. Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

Instead, the Hawkeyes have some extra motivation Saturday because of what happened to Wisconsin a week ago. The Badgers, who looked like the runaway best team in the Big Ten West through six games, stumbled 24-23 at Illinois, giving the Hawkeyes and their fans hope that a trip to Indianapolis for the league title game is back in play.

“It also reminds us that every week is important. The West is open now, so we’ve got to come out each week and focus on that week individually,” Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert said.

“We haven’t been able to catch these guys (Northwestern) recently. So that’s been the goal this week, to come out and try to change that and get something going our way for the next couple years, starting this year.”

That brings us back to Sargent, still smarting over last season’s 27-yard outing against the Wildcats. He is determined to atone.

“It’s not a good feeling at all. It was my first time in (as a starter) and there was a lot at stake. We did not play our best football last year,” Sargent said.

“It’s going to come down to who plays smartest the longest. Who plays physical football the longest.”

No. 19 IOWA (5-2, 2-2) AT NORTHWESTERN (1-5, 0-4)

Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN2 (Roy Philpott, Kelly Stouffer, Lauren Sisler)

Line: Hawkeyes by 10

Weather: Cloudy and 49 degrees, with a 20 percent chance of rain. Winds from the east-southeast at 10 mph.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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