EVANSTON, Ill., — It was a game of chicken. Played in recliners. Powered by fans.
There were few beautiful offensive breakout moments in Northwestern’s 17-10 victory over Iowa (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) before 40,046 fans Saturday at Ryan Field.
Northwestern (4-2, 2-2) got the two that mattered. Quarterback Clayton Thorson kept a TD drive alive with a 21-yard gain on a third-and-15 scramble. And then in overtime, Iowa had a miscommunication on defense and Thorson found running back Justin Jackson wide open in the left flat for a 23-yard gain to the 1. Thorson pushed his way into the end zone for what would be the winning points two plays later.
The Hawkeyes’ overtime possession stalled at their 18. On fourth-and-3, quarterback Nate Stanley threw to tight end Noah Fant and he dropped it at the Wildcats’ 13.
Iowa football is Noah Fant right now. Fant talked about the play in the postgame. His eyes were red and puffy. The play clearly gutted him.
“Any time I’m touching the ball, I want to score the ball,” Fant said. “Obviously I framed up the ball, started looking into the defense to see where I could get a crease at and didn’t focus on the ball and dropped it.”
And that’s really where the Hawkeyes are right now. They are a true sophomore tight end with big plays in them. The key phrase there is “true sophomore.” Young-dude mistakes are going to happen. Stanley went immediately over to Fant during the aftermath.
Stanley knows Fant is a talented player — he did score Iowa’s lone TD vs. Northwestern on basically the same play — and he knows he’s going to need all of the Noah Fant that he can get.
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“Just keep your head up,” Stanley said. “There’s nothing you can do about it now except learn from it, and he’s going to do that. He’ll learn from it and doing everything he can in practice to get better.”
OK, the uplifting part of the Hawkeyes’ overtime loss at Northwestern is over. Fant has done good things and he will rally. Football games are Jenga. A few more blocks hit the rec room Berber before the Hawkeyes tumbled.
This is where it gets ugly.
Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz talked about getting the running game going during the bye week. Early, Iowa looked like Iowa again that way. The Hawkeyes rushed for 53 yards in the first quarter and held a 7-0 halftime lead.
And then the Hawkeyes ended with 89 rushing yards. Iowa ended four possessions on downs, failing on fourth down (the wind gusted into the 20 mph range out of the south end zone in the second half, leaving both sides going for it on fourth down a total of nine times).
“Yeah, Iowa likes to run the ball, it’s no secret, everyone knows it,” NU defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “At the beginning of the week we were focusing on stopping the run, setting the edge and making him cut it up into the heart of our defense. We have linebackers like Nate [Hall] and Paddy [Fisher] and Brett [Walsh] who can make plays when we make him cut it back, so we focus a lot on trying to make the ball carrier cut inside of the defensive ends and bottle it up there.”
In Iowa’s three losses this season, it’s failed to rush for 100 total yards. That’s pretty much ballgame for this offense and the Ferentz philosophy. During the last 2 1/2 seasons, Iowa is 0-10 when it’s held to less than 100 yards. You hate that number and how it looks on the field. They really hate that number and how it looks on the field.
“It kind of closes the playbook a little bit,” Stanley said when asked what the lack of a running game does to the Hawkeyes.
Iowa also had at least four drops. Stanley completed 19 of 33 for 223 yards, an interception and a TD. Running back Akrum Wadley rushed 26 times for 90 yards. And the Hawkeyes finished with just 312 yards of offense. In four games this season, Iowa has been held between 236 and 312 yards total offense.
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Iowa had 74 yards on 30 plays in the second half. That’s a fan-powered recliner not going very far and not going very fast.
“We’re a better football team when we run the ball efficiently, it’s always been that way,” Ferentz said. “That is our plan and that will continue to be our plan, so we’re going to try to do a better job there.”
Without linebacker Josey Jewell (shoulder) and safety Brandon Snyder (knee), Iowa’s defense stuck its fingernails in the Ryan Field turf and boxed the Cats in for most of the game. With Ben Niemann replacing Jewell and Kevin Ward taking over at outside linebacker for Niemann, Northwestern’s play count hit 82 and the Hawkeyes started giving ground in the second half.
Ferentz said Jewell didn’t pass a medical test and had to be held out, but he added that the senior is close to a return and that Snyder is week-to-week.
Iowa has now lost three games by a total of 16 points. With a three-game deficit to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, a division title isn’t happening.
The Hawkeyes are a true sophomore who does wonderful things one moment and then goes thud the next. That’s going to continue to tease you and/or lift you for the next five weeks.
Obviously, the lifting is better than the teasing.
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