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IOWA CITY — Coming into Saturday’s matchup against Iowa, Northwestern ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten in several categories. Among them: scoring offense, total defense and passing defense. The Wildcats also ranked 11th of the 14 Big Ten teams in rush defense.
Before Saturday, Northwestern was scoring 16.3 points per game. The Wildcats won Saturday, 38-31.
Before Saturday, Northwestern was giving up 435 total yards per game. Iowa finished with 283 total yards.
Before Saturday, Northwestern was giving up 257.5 yards per game passing. C.J. Beathard was 19 of 27 for 204 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Before Saturday, Northwestern was giving up 177.5 yards per game rushing and 4.5 yards per carry. The Hawkeyes had 41 carries for 79 yards (1.9 ypc).
All the things Wildcats (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) head coach Pat Fitzgerald wanted to see improved or changed — cohesion and consistency on both lines, limiting of big plays by opponents; weathering a hostile environment — he got. His offense went for 362 yards, but most importantly 198 on the ground, and drove Iowa (3-2, 1-1) to its first Big Ten loss since 2014.
“I just think we’d had self-inflicted wounds (before Saturday),” Fitzgerald said. “When you play on the road, when you play Iowa — as physical as they are — you’ve got to be able to contain the run. You’re typically not going to be able to stop it, but you’ve got to keep it inside and in front. It really looked like we were able to minimize gains. I think that was really key, and got our pass rush going. We got them to third and five or more, which for any offense is challenging.”
Even though it wasn’t one of the Wildcats’ bottom statistical rankings, the run defense was a particular concern for Northwestern because how Nebraska gashed them last week. The Huskers ran for 310 yards and had 12 runs of 10-plus yards — six of which from quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Iowa’s struggle, then, was something the Hawkeyes were obviously disappointed with — Coach Kirk Ferentz began his answer to the run game question with a simple, “That’s not good.” Fitzgerald was asked the difference — why such a drastic change so quickly.
The 11th-year head coach laughed and said “Tommy Armstrong.” Improvements on the edge of the Wildcats’ defense and linebackers and safeties getting to their spots quickly while fighting off blocks were evident, and aided by the lack of a more mobile quarterback.
Iowa’s style was one for which Northwestern felt prepared.
“I think everybody did their job. I think we came ready to play, ready to tackle; ready to be physical. That was from the start,” said linebacker Anthony Walker. “We knew it was going to be a run-right-at-us game, and we knew we had to bring our big-boy pants, and I think we did that.”
On the other side of the ball, quarterback Clayton Thorson didn’t have a banner day passing, but he operated the offense much more efficiently than a week ago, and hurt Iowa more than once keeping plays alive en route to completing 18 of 30 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns — all of which went to Austin Carr.
Iowa failed to get much of any pass rush on Thorson most of the day, with just one quarterback hurry and one sack — a combo hit between Josey Jewell and Parker Hesse.
Eliminating the issues they faced and exploiting the Hawkeyes’ struggles proved to be the ticket for the Wildcats.
“I thought the guys executed much better. I thought Clayton had a better football clock in his head,” Fitzgerald said. “They were close a bunch, but he was able to get the ball out of his hand. Even a week ago, at times, he held the ball too long. It’s part of the maturation with a sophomore quarterback. This is a tough place to play and I thought he handled it well. It’s as hostile as you’re going to (see).”
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