Ruden: Iowa in perfect position ahead of Wisconsin game

As crazy as it would have sounded two weeks ago, Iowa’s in a perfect spot heading into the bye week.

Iowa+running+back+Mekhi+Sargent+scores+a+touchdown+during+the+Iowa+vs.+Northwestern+football+game+at+Ryan+Field+on+Saturday%2C+October+26%2C+2019.+The+Hawkeyes+defeated+the+Wildcats+20-0.+Sargent+carried+the+ball+46+yards%2C+with+the+longest+run+at+13+yards.

Katina Zentz

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent scores a touchdown during the Iowa vs. Northwestern football game at Ryan Field on Saturday, October 26, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats 20-0. Sargent carried the ball 46 yards, with the longest run at 13 yards.

Pete Ruden, Pregame Editor

Don’t look now, but Iowa’s not in as bad of a spot as you would’ve thought scrolling through Twitter two weeks ago.

If you clicked the blue icon with the white bird on your phone at any point from Oct. 5 to Oct. 18, you would have thought Iowa hadn’t won a game yet.

Instead, the Hawkeyes were 4-2 with a seven-point loss to a team that beat No. 8 Notre Dame by 31 on Saturday and a five-point loss to a team that’s now a top-five program in college football.

Things could have been a lot worse.

Now, Iowa sits at 6-2 (3-2 Big Ten) — the same record as Wisconsin, which was thought to be a Big Ten powerhouse two weeks ago — with Indianapolis still in its sight.

A.J. Epenesa summarized it best after Iowa’s 20-0 shutout of Northwestern on Saturday.

“Coach [Kelvin] Bell says it all the time — all of our dreams and aspirations for this season, for this team are still in front of us,” he said. “We still have the opportunity to do great things, and it’s all about taking advantage of our opportunity and never settling for anything less than our best.”

That opportunity comes in two weeks.

While Iowa’s road game against Michigan early in the month appeared to be the biggest game on the Hawkeyes’ schedule, there’s no doubt that Wisconsin has taken a firm grip on that.

Minnesota — which leads the Big Ten West with an 8-0 (5-0) record — faces three ranked teams in its final four games, including the Hawkeyes and Badgers.

The West is still wide open, and if the Hawkeyes can find a way to escape Madison with a victory, they’re well on their way.

At this point, if any of the three contenders win out, they’re in a great spot heading into the final stretch of the season.

Over the past two weeks, Iowa looks like it at least has a shot, which would have been a laughable comment 14 days ago.

But the offense has improved to the point of scoring at least 20 points in each of the last two games after recording a combined 15 during the Michigan-Penn State stretch.

The defense has continued its stellar play each week, as it recorded its second Big Ten shutout of the season against Northwestern on Saturday. The unit ranks third in the conference in scoring defense (10.1 points per game) and total defense (265.9 yards per game).

Iowa ranks ahead of Wisconsin in scoring defense, but the Badgers lead the conference in total defense, giving up only 223.5 yards per game.

That presents problems for the Hawkeye offense, just as Badger running back Jonathan Taylor presents challenges for Iowa’s defense.

That’s OK, though.

The Illini allowed Taylor to run for 132 yards and a touchdown, but they made their mark on defense by forcing three turnovers.

From there, they did just enough on offense to pick up the biggest win of the Lovie Smith era. That bodes well for Iowa, knowing its defense can put its offense in a position for success.

As cliché as it may sound for teams to say they’re taking things one game at a time, that’s exactly what Iowa needs to do.

If it does, things could look even more different in two weeks.

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