Northwestern fans hoping that the Wildcats snap out of their three-game skid got some unexpected good news on Thursday.
They already knew that quarterback Kain Colter would return to action, but they were likely surprised when the Northwestern injury report released yesterday afternoon didn't have defensive tackle Sean McEvilly's name on it.
Together, the two standouts may give the Wildcats the spark they are looking on both sides of the ball as they take on Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday (11 a.m., BTN). After a 4-0 start that saw them rise to No. 16 in the AP poll, the Wildcats are still looking for their first Big Ten win after dropping three straight to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The injury news wasn't all good, however. Star tailback Venric Mark, who has played in just two games this season, will be sidelined once again against the Hawkeyes. Backup superback Mark Szott and reserve linebacker Jaylen Prater are also out.
McEvilly, a redshirt junior and the best defensive tackle on the roster, has missed the last four games. Not entirely coincidentally, the Wildcats lost three of them. In the three games he played before injuring his ankle McEvilly posted seven tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
More than statistics, however, McEvilly will provide an anchor in the middle to bolster the Wildcats' run defense. That will come in handy against Iowa's Mark Weisman, the No. 3 rusher in the Big Ten who averages 96.6 yards per game.
Still, the defense hasn't been the main problem during the Wildcats' three-game spiral. The bigger culprit has been the normally efficient offense. They were able to put up 30 points in their loss to No. 4 Ohio State on Oct. 5, but since then they scored just six and 17 in setbacks to the Badgers and Gophers, respectively.
Colter, a senior captain, played only the first quarter against Wisconsin before leaving with an ankle injury. He didn't play at all against Minnesota last week.
Trevor Siemian, Northwestern's No. "1B" quarterback, has struggled while leading the team the last two weeks. He completed just 38-of-80 passes (47.5 percent) for 397 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. In the loss to Minnesota, Siemian gave up a pick-six and fumbled deep in his own territory, handing Minnesota 10 points in a game the Wildcats would lose by three.
Both Wisconsin and Minnesota were able to effectively pressure Siemian with blitzes. The line failed to protect him and Pat Fitzgerald has been critical of his signal caller for holding the ball too long, leading to some of the eight sacks he suffered in the two games.
Colter adds an extra dimension with his running ability that Siemian just doesn't have. Last season, Colter rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns as the Wildcats ran over the Hawkeyes in a 28-17 win. As a whole, the Wildcats racked up a season-high 394 yards on the ground.
This Iowa team is stronger than last year's version against the run, but the Hawkeyes on Saturday will be without their best defensive lineman, fifth-year senior end Dominic Alvis.
The Hawkeyes won't be able to pin their ears back and rush the passer when Colter is at the helm because he is so dangerous when breaking contain and freelancing. Plus Iowa, in general, doesn't like to blitz very much, preferring to stay back in its Cover-4 or Cover-8 defenses. That may play to the Wildcats' favor, as well.
Even though Kinnick Stadium is one of the most difficult places to play in the Big Ten, this game could be just what the doctor ordered for Wildcat squad on life support. Northwestern has had Iowa's number in recent years, winning six of the last eight contests between the two conference rivals. Fitzgerald is 5-2 overall and 3-1 in Iowa City, where he notched his first Big Ten game in 2006 and maybe the biggest regular-season win of his career over then-No. 6 Iowa in 2009.
Will Northwestern be able to continue its mastery of the Hawkeyes and salvage its season? The Wildcats' school-record streak of five consecutive bowl games could be riding on it. Northwestern still needs two more wins to qualify for a post-season berth, and with Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State still on the schedule, the road doesn't get any easier.