EVANSTON, Ill. — Raise your hand if you like your team to punt from the opponent’s side of the field.
Spoiler alert: No one has their hand raised. OK, maybe Kirk Ferentz. No, no, no, his hand isn’t up, either. Or is it? No, no, no, it’s not.
The No. 19 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) did that twice to end the first half of Saturday's 20-0 victory over Northwestern (1-6, 0-5).
It’s hard to argue against any path to victory. As the NU game unwound, sure, Iowa could’ve taken a knee every down after Nate Stanley’s first-quarter 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyrone Tracy. That was a factor. The Wildcats being down to plan C at quarterback, that also was a factor. Last Saturday was an exercise in game control once the Hawkeyes got to a three-score lead.
Game control is not stunt football. It’s a headlock.
“First half, there was nothing to really be gained,” the Iowa head coach said postgame. “If we give them good field position, it gives them a chance to get some points at halftime. We’re up 10-0 at that point. If we didn’t make it in three, just get out of there.”
It’s hard to argue against any path to victory. But this was Iowa and Northwestern. Ferentz knows the history.
Some of these examples have aged, but it’s still Ferentz coaching a football game against NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald. There’s still relevance in these.
— 2005: Iowa led 24-7 at halftime at Ryan Field and lost 28-27.
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— 2009: Sorry to do this, but the Hawkeyes had a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and fell 17-10.
— 2010: Iowa had a 17-7 lead in the third quarter. It lost 21-17.
— 2017: It was just a 7-0 lead at half, but ended up a 17-10 defeat.
— 2018: The Hawkeyes led 10-7 in the third, but NU ended up celebrating the Big Ten West title in Kinnick Stadium with a 14-10 win.
So, yeah, the end of the first half left the door open. With a 10-0 lead, the defense herding the Wildcats around Ryan Field, that was the risk Ferentz decided to take by laying up before half.
“We’ve had a history here. We’ve seen some wild things happen in Evanston against us unfortunately,” Ferentz said. “Until we were in that last five minutes, it was hard to feel good about anything, quite frankly.”
What do the players think of going conservative in that moment, in that situation?
“There’s no point in giving them a short field and helping them out,” Stanley said. “In those situations, you’re playing the field position game, especially with the way our defense is playing.”
Said Tracy, “We weren’t really upset, we were frustrated, I guess you could say, because we’re used to going for it on fourth down. We have faith in our quarterback and our O-line to get that 1 yard, so I thought we could’ve gone for it, but when we did, we made it count.”
First drive of the third quarter. Iowa faced a fourth-and-8 from the NU 30. Stanley hit tight end Shaun Beyer for an 11-yard gain. Running back Mekhi Sargent scored from the 1 and the Hawkeyes had a commanding 17-0 lead.
The situations are obviously different. Plus, weather probably was against trying a 47- or 48-yard field goal with a 10-0 lead and the defense in herd mode. What Tracy said about fourth downs? Iowa is second in the conference with 16 fourth-down attempts, so it’s not all punt-a-geddon.
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Another decent argument for “going for it?” What’s Iowa going to need more than oxygen in two weeks against No. 18 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2)? Points. Iowa hasn’t broken 20 points against the Badgers since scoring 24 in 2014, when the Hawkeyes made it close with a second-half passing attack.
Wide receiver Brandon Smith (lower leg) won’t be back for Wisconsin, so Tracy piling snaps and successes up a the X spot would’ve been a luxury. True freshman tight end Sam LaPorta made plays, catching two passes for 43 yards. Sure, he could use more experience with senior TE Nate Wieting ailing and the Hawkeyes going into their biggest game of the season.
The offensive line adjusted to early stunts NU threw at it and improved immensely in the second half. More of that in the clutch at the end of the first half probably would’ve been a good thing to see.
Overall, the Hawkeyes negotiated a tricky two-game stretch against Purdue and Northwestern. No, these teams aren’t Big Ten titans in 2019, but both had two- and three-game winning streaks, respectively, against Iowa.
And now the biggest game of the season in two weeks at Camp Randall.
“This is a big game for us,” safety Geno Stone said. “We’re both 6-2. With (No. 13) Minnesota (8-0, 5-0) the next week, this is going to decide who’s going to the Big Ten (title game).”
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