It appears that Iowa has more than enough skill and talent on defense to compete for the Big Ten West title.

What the Hawkeyes really need to do is sort out their passing game and there were indications last weekend that they're getting closer to finding a rhythm through the air.

After sluggish efforts in its first two games, Iowa (3-0) threw for 338 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 38-14 win over Northern Iowa in the final tune-up before Saturday's showdown with No. 18 Wisconsin (2-1). The Badgers shut out the Hawkeyes on offense a year ago and might end up being the toughest defense they face in 2018.

"They have a certain temperament they play with," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They're a team that plays with excellent technique. They're rarely out of place. They work hard to the ball. Everybody on that team works hard to the ball."

Junior quarterback Nate Stanley entered the season with some wondering if he might be a potential early entrant in the NFL draft. That talk faded after Stanley, who threw 26 TD passes in 2017, had just one in wins over Northern Illinois and Iowa State. Ferentz said Stanley was "pressing" earlier this season before getting things going against the Panthers.

Stanley was 23 of 28 passing for 309 yards and two touchdowns in just about three quarters. By then the Hawkeyes — who had beaten Northern Iowa by just 20 combined points in three previous meetings — were up 38-0.

"I think we just consistently hit some passes early in the game, and that gave us a lot of momentum, allowed us to open up some things, especially with the longer passes that we hit. It allowed us the opportunity to just for catches and runs on shorter passes later in the game," Stanley said.

Perhaps the biggest key to Iowa's success against the Panthers was getting senior receiver Nick Easley the ball as much as possible.

Stanley, who had 51 catches a year ago, had only one reception against the Huskies and Cyclones. It was different last weekend, with Easley finishing with a career-high 10 catches for 107 yards and a third-quarter TD.

If the Hawkeyes can pair a defense ranked second in the country (allowing 8 points per game) with an improving offense, they've got a shot at a special season.

Iowa also expects explosive sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette, an all-purpose threat, back this weekend. He missed the Northern Iowa game with a shoulder injury.

"We all know we're fully capable. We just had to go out there and do it, and we were able to get that started," Easley said. "It was frustrating coming out of the first two games and not throwing the ball well, just because we saw what we were capable of and what we could do. But no one panicked."