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5 Things: Iowa vs Northwestern

Hawkeyes welcome the Wildcats for a showdown at what Pat Fitzgerald calls a 'cathedral of college football'

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The Iowa football team might not have inspired a great deal of confidence in its fans and followers with a 14-7 win at Rutgers that felt more like a root canal than a football game. But no matter how it’s sliced, the Hawkeyes go into homecoming against Northwestern 3-1, and riding a three-year win streak against the Wildcats (1-3).

As both teams search for better footing and a clear path forward in the Big Ten with their showdown at Kinnick Stadium, here are 5 Things on Iowa vs Northwestern.

1. Cathedral of college football

“Looking to this week, obviously a tough trip to one of the cathedrals of college football out at Kinnick,” said Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald. “It’s Iowa. They do what they do, and they do it very well.”

That was Fitzgerald on Monday during his weekly news conference — in his opening statement to media. The former Wildcat linebacker-turned-assistant-turned-head coach has either played or coached in Kinnick Stadium 10 times, so he’s pretty familiar with his surroundings when he’s in Iowa City.

Northwestern goes to the Big House (Michigan Stadium), the Horseshoe (Ohio Stadium) and Happy Valley (Beaver Stadium) and Memorial Stadium in Lincoln just for Big Ten play. He’s coached teams playing at Notre Dame and played in the Rose Bowl, among others. Putting Kinnick Stadium in that group — because, let’s be honest, they’re cathedrals of college football — is no small compliment.

2. Kicking ain't easy

It’s always an adventure with college kickers.

Ask any Iowa State (too many to count), Florida State (Wide Right I & II), Georgia/Minnesota Vikings (Blair Walsh missed a brutal pair against Michigan State in the 2012 Outback Bowl before his shank in last year’s NFL playoffs) or Stanford (three missed field goals in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl) fan.

Northwestern has had its own trip down college kicker lane of late. Wildcats kicker Jack Mitchell missed a 26-yarder and an extra point in Saturday’s loss to Nebraska, and is 1 of 4 this season in field goals. His inconsistencies even appeared to affect Northwestern’s play-calling, because the Wildcats ran a fake field goal that went nowhere instead of attempting a 40-yard kick.

Fitzgerald was asked five kicker-related questions on Monday and reiterated what he said after the game Saturday: the competition is wide open. Mitchell and Matt Micucci are the two vying for the job.

“The plan is whoever has the most consistent week will go out there, and the plan is to make field goals and extra points,” Fitzgerald said. “(Mitchell) has got to get consistent fundamentally.”

Kicker woes give defensive coaches a lot of leeway on late down calls, and Iowa could take advantage of that on Saturday.

3. An exercise in longevity

Fitzgerald’s essentially lifelong tie to the Big Ten comes with some great reverence for its institutions. That includes Iowa’s head coach.

“Kirk’s the Dean of the Big Ten (in his) 18th year,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald, in his 11th year, trails only Ferentz in terms of longevity among Big Ten coaches. That kind of continuity is rarely seen anymore in college football. Both coaches have had time to breathe while suffering through some struggles and mediocrity in their careers. Fitzgerald’s first two seasons (4-8 and 6-6) weren’t nearly as lean as Ferentz’s, but he did survive the hot seat while placing two 5-7 seasons (including a 1-7 Big Ten campaign in 2013) in between two 10-3 seasons in 2012 and 2015.

The pair are two of just three coaches, with Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, to have at least 10 seasons with their Big Ten schools, and four league coaches are in their first season this year. Fitzgerald is every bit as much Big Ten as anyone.

4. Next level competition

OK, so 27 full seasons between Ferentz and Fitzgerald combined at the helms of Iowa and Northwestern. The results on the college football playing field are solid — that much is certain.

But what about the next level?

Iowa has produced 53 NFL players during Ferentz’s time as head coach at Iowa, and 35 since 2007. Northwestern, by comparison, has eight under Fitzgerald’s time guiding the program (2007 Draft through 2016). Currently, Iowa has 22 former players in the NFL, putting them sixth among Big Ten schools, while Northwestern has six, which is lowest.

While Northwestern may not have the quantity, right now there’s a lot of quality coming from its most visible alum in Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian. He has the Broncos undefeated as the starter while taking over for the retired Peyton Manning. Fitzgerald politely reminded everyone Monday Siemian isn’t the only former Wildcat who deserves NFL praise.

“We’re very proud of (Siemian) and ecstatic for how he’s playing,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s amazing, though, nobody has talked to me about (New Orleans Saints offensive lineman) Zach Strief. Over a decade of playing … nobody talks to me about the tackle. Everybody wants to talk to me about the quarterback. I make light of that because I understand it. … Nobody here is surprised (about Siemian).”

5. The Situation (No, not the Jersey Shore weirdo)

The overall history of this series sides heavily with the Hawkeyes (50-24-3), but recently it’s been pretty even. A few situational notes on the circumstances for this game:

It’s homecoming for Iowa. The Hawkeyes have faced Northwestern 10 times in homecoming games and are 7-3 in those games.

Under Fitzgerald, the Wildcats have played the Hawkeyes following a loss nine times, and are 4-5 in those games — but 1-3 in the last four instances (each year from 2011-14). When coming to Kinnick Stadium after a loss? They’re 2-2.

Northwestern has twice faced Iowa after a loss to Nebraska. The Wildcats are 1-1 in those games.

In the Fitzgerald era (he took over in 2006), the series is even at 5-5, with both programs sporting three-game win streaks against the other.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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