(WSCR) – At 5-1 the Northwestern Wildcats are still very much in the hunt for a Big Ten title, but losing at home two weeks ago to Purdue didn’t do them any favors. The Wildcats’ matchup this weekend presents them the perfect opportunity to jump right back to the front of the pack along with Iowa and Wisconsin. Northwestern plays the 8th ranked Michigan State Spartans, a win would put the November 13th and 27th games against the Hawkeyes and Badgers circled on every Northwestern fan’s calender.
This is exactly where Iowa wanted to be halfway through the season.
The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes are coming off wins over Penn State and Michigan and now control their own destiny in the Big Ten. The league’s other top contenders; Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, all have to visit Kinnick Stadium over the next six weeks, starting with Saturday’s date against the 10th-ranked Badgers (6-1, 2-0).
Ideally, the Hawkeyes (5-1, 2-0) would like to be undefeated. But their loss to Arizona last month doesn’t affect their ultimate goal of winning the league title for the first time since 2004 and earning back-to-back BCS bowl bids, which would be a first.
But while projecting Iowa’s path to the Big Ten title has become the hot topic for Hawkeyes fans, coach Kirk Ferentz wants no part of it.
“I’m not looking at the race. I hope our players aren’t. To me, there is no race yet,” Ferentz said.
Perhaps the best news for Iowa as it heads into the second half of the season is that it’s relatively healthy and playing well on both sides of the ball.
Adam Robinson has put aside any concerns about the lack of depth at running back created by Jewel Hampton’s season-ending knee injury and Brandon Wegher’s departure for personal reasons.
Robinson hasn’t just shouldered the load for the Hawkeyes, who love to run the ball. He’s quickly become one of the best running back in the Big Ten.
Robinson rushed for 143 yards on a career-high 31 carries in a 38-28 win over Michigan, with a pair of touchdowns and four receptions for 61 yards. He’s now fourth in the Big Ten in rushing with 103.8 yards a game.
Of course, the wear and tear on Robinson’s body has continued to mount in his first season as Iowa’s lone featured back, so the coaching staff is working to limit how much punishment he takes in practice.
“We’re just going to be smart with him,” Ferentz said. “He doesn’t have to prove his toughness to us. We have great faith that he’s going to do what he’s supposed to do. So we try to just be careful with him. The big thing is to have him effective on Saturdays.”
It also helps that quarterback Ricky Stanzi has blossomed as a senior.
Stanzi was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the week after putting up one of the best performances of his career against Michigan. Stanzi was 17 of 24 passing for 248 yards with three touchdowns – all to Derrell Johnson-Koulianos – and no interceptions.
Stanzi appears to have put his inconsistencies behind him and is quietly putting together one of the best seasons by any quarterback in the country.
Stanzi’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was an unsightly 17-to-15 a year ago. It’s now 13-to-2, with a completion percentage of over 68 percent.
“I think it’s experience. Rick was a great young guy last year and a very good player. I think right now he’s just playing at a higher level,” Ferentz said. “He’s always worked extremely hard, but now he’s got four years in the bank going into this year. Plus, factor in his work ethic and I think we’re seeing just excellent things from him.”
If Iowa can handle its business against Wisconsin and No. 8 Michigan State over the next two weeks, the Big Ten will be theirs to lose. But the Hawkeyes know that if they start looking past the Badgers, all that might just go out the window.
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves, because once you do that, that’s when you’re going to take a step back and lose a game or two,” tight end Allen Reisner said.
Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.