By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – One game doesn’t make or break a season.
Or does it?
I would normally say no, but could make an exception with the Iowa football team’s game at Purdue on Saturday because the loser of that game will be in serious trouble in the crowded race to win the Big Ten West Division.
The loser of Saturday’s game in West Lafayette, Ind., will be two games behind Northwestern in the conference standings with just three games remaining.
The Wildcats will have their hands full on Saturday against undefeated and third-ranked Notre Dame. But win or lose, Northwestern still will be alone in first place in the Big Ten West Division with a 5-1 record heading into its game against Iowa on Nov. 10 at Kinnick Stadium.
And should Iowa lose to Purdue on Saturday, Northwestern could lose to Iowa a week later and still be one game ahead of Iowa in the conference standings with two very winnable games remaining against Minnesota at home and at Illinois.
Northwestern also has the tie-breaker over Wisconsin, having earned that with a 31-17 victory over the Badgers this past Saturday.
Kirk Ferentz would say the Purdue game is the most important game on the schedule because it’s the next game on the schedule and nobody takes it one game at a time more than Ferentz does.
“Bottom line is we're going to have to be focused, disciplined, play good team football, and then, obviously, be able to handle the challenge of being on the road and playing in front of a lively crowd,” Ferentz said. “That's kind of where it's at right now, and the nature of college football, every game is extremely important.
“We don't play 160 of them, so every game is important, and this week quite simply for us, there's nothing more important than playing this ballgame. That's where we're at. We'll try to finish up our preparation and travel over there on Friday and put a good game on the field Saturday.”
The Purdue game is also the most important game on the schedule because a loss would make Iowa irrelevant beyond the Big Ten.
Iowa was ranked 16th in the first college football playoff rankings, which were released earlier this week. That means Iowa is within striking distance of being relevant, but a loss to Purdue would sever that loose connection.
A loss to Purdue wouldn’t mathematically eliminate Iowa from winning the West Division, but it would put the Hawkeyes in a desperate situation.
Iowa’s next two games against Purdue and Northwestern will go a long way in defining the season.
Win both games and Iowa would be very much alive in the conference race with two games left against Illinois on the road and against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.
No disrespect to Illinois or Nebraska, but Iowa should win both of those games.
Two of Wisconsin’s remaining four games are against Penn State and Purdue, so the Badgers are certainly at risk of losing a third, and maybe even a fourth conference game.
As deflating as last Saturday’s 30-24 loss at Penn State was from an emotional standpoint, and from a divisional race standpoint, it hardly was a death sentence for Iowa.
But lose to Purdue and the Hawkeyes would be on life support and some fans would be beside themselves because they had big plans for this Iowa team.
The Iowa players all talked about moving on from the Penn State loss when they met with the media on Tuesday.
It’s about the only thing Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley talked about during his nearly 30-minute interview with reporters. No matter what the question was about, Stanley talked about moving on, which makes sense, considering how poorly he played against Penn State.
“I obviously just missed a bunch of throws that I’d like to have back,” Stanley said. “But you can’t have it back and you can’t dwell on the past.
“Just learn from those mistakes and move on.”
Stanley’s approach might not lead to any great quotes for a story, but it’s true.
Moving on is what teams do every week, but under different circumstances as Iowa offensive lineman Dalton Ferguson addressed on Tuesday.
“Honestly, I just think we’re all focused on beating Purdue,” Ferguson said. “What’s behind us is behind us. Last week, for prep for Penn State, we weren’t celebrating our win over Maryland, and we weren’t celebrating our win over Indiana, either.
“So even after the (loss) to Wisconsin, we had a bye week but we weren’t mourning over that loss. We just knew we had to get back to work.”
Purdue’s 4-4 record is deceiving because on a good day the Boilermakers can play with anybody as they showed by crushing Ohio State 49-20 on Oct. 20 in West Lafayette.
But on a bad day. Purdue can lose to just about anybody as it showed by losing to Eastern Michigan on Sept. 8 at home.
Purdue freshman receiver Rondell Moore is similar to former Iowa star Tim Dwight in terms of his explosiveness, his versatility and his size. Give Moore the tiniest opening and he can burn a defense.
Moore leads the Big Ten with 68 catches in eight games and is second in the conference with 802 receiving yards.
But Moore is far from a solo act in Jeff Brohm’s explosive offense.
Purdue quarterback David Blough is ranked second in the conference with an average of 293.8 passing yards per game and is third in passing efficiency.
D.J. Knox, who averages 6.5 yards per carry, also gives Purdue a dynamic threat at running back.
Purdue showed what it is capable of by defeating Iowa 24-15 in the 11th game of last season. And that was with Elijah Sindelar playing quarterback.
Sindelar is now Blough’s backup, so this is a different Purdue team. It's more explosive on offense compared to last season.
And yet, I’m still picking the Hawkeyes to escape from Ross-Ade Stadium with a much-needed three-point win, partly because Purdue is ranked last in the Big Ten in passing defense, allowing a whopping 293.1 yards per game.
Michigan State also showed the blue print for how to contain Purdue’s explosive offense, winning 23-13 last Saturday in East Lansing, Mich.
The Spartans are good on defense, but they aren’t quite in Iowa’s league.
Prediction: Iowa 27, Purdue 24