Northwestern downs Iowa in a quintessential Big Ten game.
The Wildcats kept their bowl hopes alive in this low-scoring thrill ride.
The scoring was sparse, but who doesn’t like free football?
EVANSTON, Ill. — Who says a game has to be high-scoring for it to be fun?
In a game that didn’t see points light up the scoreboard until late in the second quarter, the Northwestern Wildcats stunned the Iowa Hawkeyes 17-10 in overtime.
The announced crowd of 40,046 at Ryan Field witnessed two teams combine for over 650 yards and just 27 points. That correlation is certainly an outlier, due in part to a viral case of butterfingers among pass catchers and poor third and fourth down conversion rates.
“I thought we were really resilient,” said Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald after the game. “We knew this was going to be a battle. fPlaying a team that we have some much respect for and watching the way that they’ve played on tape preparing for today, we knew it was going to be a struggle and we were going to have to fight for every inch, and that’s exactly what happened.”
But, that’s just Big Ten football, right? Low scores, hard nosed defense and a deluge of punts. In this game’s case, Ryan Gersonde and Hunter Niswander, of Iowa and Northwestern respectively, both punted five times.
To borrow a saying from Rich Eisen, “Punters are people too!”
That certainly seemed to apply to this game, as fans of both teams got to enjoy to enjoy some fourth down excellence — at least on the kicking side. Niswander, a senior, had himself a career day, booming five punts for 254 total yards and placing three within the 20 yards. Early in the second half, he booted an 80-yard punt from the Northwestern 17-yard line that was downed inside the Iowa five-yard line. Talk about switching fields.
Gersonde averaged 52.6 yards on his five punts, four of which were over 50 yards. His longest of the game was a 61-yarder.
Elsewhere, quarterbacks Clayton Thorson and Nate Stanley turned in fairly pedestrian performances, with Northwestern’s Thorson throwing for 192 yards with 21-36, good for 58.3%. Stanley played similarly, throwing for 223 yards on 19-33 passing, completing 57.6 percent of his passes.
Neither put together an earth shattering performance, however, a noticeable amount of dropped balls from both teams didn’t help either gunslinger’s final line.
The comparisons continue, as similar to Thorson and Stanley, running backs Akrum Wadley and Justin Jackson had nearly identical showings.
Wadley carried the ball 26 times for 90 yards, his longest gain of the day being for 22 yards. Jackson gained 93 rushing yards on 25 handoffs, his longest carry going for 11 yards. The senior tailback was just seven yards away from his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
The Hawkeyes missed two opportunities to get on the board in the first quarter. First, they failed to convert on fourth down in the red zone during their inaugural drive. On their subsequent possession, junior kicker Miguel Recinos shanked a 37-yard field goal wide left, negating 12 play, 71-yard drive.
The game was broken wide open with less than three minutes left in the first half, when sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley connected on a 61-yard pass to a streaking Matt Vandenberg over the middle, who was brought down by a single defender at the Northwestern 16-yard line.
On third down with less than a minute left before halftime and just seven yards to the goal line, Stanley connected with junior tight end Noah Fant, who was left uncovered in the flat and waltzed into the end zone for his fourth touchdown of the season.
That was when the Hawkeyes finally seized an opportunity to score, and the seas of Iowa fans clad in yellow erupted throughout Ryan Field for their team — and possibly out of boredom.
After both teams were able to convene and regroup at halftime, it looked like a whole different set of offensive players trotted out of the locker room for Northwestern, as the team looked like they were ready to produce offensively.
The Wildcats were able to tie it up around halfway through the third quarter, with a six-yard Jeremy Larkin touchdown run that capped off what was arguably Northwestern’s best possession to that point.
Northwestern’s junior quarterback, Clayton Thorson largely struggled prior to that drive, in which he marched the offense 66 yards down field on 12 plays. He went 4-5 on passing and showed off his legs on a 21-yard rush in a series that reinvigorated the offense.
This game didn’t see another score until halfway through the fourth quarter, when Northwestern kicker Charlie Kuhbander’s thirty-yard field goal barely made it through the uprights, giving the Wildcats a 10-7 lead, their first of the game.
The Northwestern defense held down that lead, when Stanley lobbed an easy interception to freshman safety JR Pace, who was able to take the ball back to the Iowa 35-yard line.
On their next possession, the Wildcats moved just five yards on three plays before attempting to convert on a sixth fourth down. On fourth and five within the Iowa red zone, Macan Wilson dropped a Thorson throw. Regardless, he was flagged for offensive pass interference, turning the ball over on downs and giving Iowa more than enough time to either tie the game or move ahead.
The Wildcats opted to go for it on fourth down 16 times prior to the game, garnering a .625 success rate. Pat Fitzgerald decided to test his odds on fourth down six times during this game, converting on exactly half.
“I think Fitz trusts us to get a first down and we love that,” Thorson responded, when asked about Fitzgerald opting to go for it on fourth down so frequently. “We love going for it on fourth down. We love the trust he has in us.”
The Hawkeyes gradually moved down the field, when multiple members of the Iowa offensive line appeared to false start on a fourth and inches. That set the play back, forcing Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz to settle for a 48-yard field goal, which Recinos drilled.
Contrary to what many fans of both teams wanted, coach Fitzgerald decided to wind down the time remaining in regulation and opting to take his chances in overtime. Although Northwestern had two timeouts and 90 seconds to work with, they also had poor field position and was going into the wind against an established and motivated defense. Regardless, his decision prompted boos to ring throughout Ryan Field.
“I felt like our defense was playing really well. I wanted to run the ball on first down to see if we could force Kirk to take his timeouts,” said coach Fitzgerald after the game regarding his decision to run out the clock in overtime. “And then if we got him to take his timeouts then we could be aggressive after that. Because I do not want to punt into that wind,” Fitzgerald continued. “So, I wanted to play a 25-yard game, and that was the decision we made, and to our guys credit, they went out there and executed it – in overtime.”
It really only took a few plays in this overtime, with Justin Jackson breaking a handful of tackles on a marvelous run to the one-yard line. Clayton Thorson pushed his way into the endzone on second and goal, and Kuhbander tacked on an extra point to give Northwestern the 17-10 advantage. It was Thorson’s 14th rushing touchdown of his career.
There was no need for the offense to get back on the field after that, as Iowa’s Noah Fant, who scored the Hawkeyes’ only touchdown, dropped an easy first down pass on fourth and three. It secured a much needed win for Pat Fitzgerald & Co. — and a crushing loss for Kirk Ferentz’s squad.
The Northwestern Wildcats improve to 4-3 (2-2 B1G) and will take on the 6-1 (6-0 B1G) Michigan State Spartans at home next Saturday on ESPN @ 2:30 p.m. CT.
The Iowa Hawkeyes fall to 4-3 (1-3 B1G) and are set to take on a 4-3 (1-3 B1G) Minnesota team next Saturday with a similar resume. The game is slated for a 5:00 p.m. CT kickoff on Fox Sports 1.