Iowa Football

Iowa football: 5 things to know about Northwestern

Wildcats lead Big Ten West despite uneven season

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass during the first half against Notre Dame Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) throws a pass during the first half against Notre Dame Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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The Iowa football team enters Week 11 looking for answers after its second straight loss — and in need of a win.

Enter Northwestern, the once-Big Ten pushover that has been a thorn in Iowa’s side for more than 20 years.

The Wildcats, coming off a 31-21 loss to Notre Dame, are just 5-4 overall, but at 5-1 in the Big Ten are in the driver’s seat in the West.

Iowa, on the other hand, is 6-3 overall, but 3-3 in the West and now in the role of division spoiler.

Here are 5 Things about Northwestern and Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium (2:30 p.m., KFXA).

1. Roller coaster ride

Some Iowa fans have voiced their displeasure about the Hawkeyes’ losing streak and taken shots at the coaching staff and quarterback Nate Stanley for inconsistent play.

Consider Northwestern’s season.

The Wildcats opened with a 31-27 win at Purdue, then followed that with losses at home to Duke, Akron and Michigan.

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Just when it seemed all was lost, Northwestern found its footing and knocked off Michigan State, Nebraska, Rutgers and Wisconsin. The Spartans and Badgers were ranked at the time.

The Wildcats were tied with the third-ranked Irish at halftime Saturday, 7-7, before Notre Dame scored 14 unanswered points in the third quarter.

“Lot of self-inflicted wounds tonight,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the loss. “Second half I think our guys pressed a little bit, especially defensively. There were some plays we gave up tonight that should not have happened.”

The Wildcats are averaging 24.7 points per game and allowing 24.4. They struggle running the ball, averaging just 93 yards, but pass for 264.7.

2. A true Wildcat

Fitzgerald didn’t start the fire, but he sure has kept it burning in Evanston, Ill.

In his 13th season as the Northwestern head coach, Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to five winning seasons and eight bowl games.

His overall record is 92-69 (53-50 in the Big Ten) and includes three 10-win seasons and three of the program’s four bowl wins.

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Fitzgerald, 43, took over in July 2006 after the sudden death of Randy Walker and, at the age of 31, was the youngest coach in the FBS at the time.

An All-American linebacker for the Wildcats who twice was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, “Fitz” personifies Northwestern. He played high school football at Carl Sandburg in Orland Park, Ill., before moving to Evanston. He now lives in Northfield with his wife and three sons.

“It’s hard to believe that any former Northwestern athlete bleeds more purple than Coach Fitz,” former Wildcats QB Mike Kafka said in Fitzgerald’s bio. “His enthusiasm and passion for his alma mater is unmatched.”

3. Veteran leader

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson has been around the Big Ten block a time or four.

He’s in his fourth year as a starter and has been under center for 47 consecutive games — a school record. He is 32-15 as a starter.

He’s closing in on 10,000 yards for his career — he has 9,761 after Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame — and has completed 58 percent of his 1,554 passes with 55 career touchdowns.

He has passed for 2,213 yards this season, completing 60.2 percent of his 347 passes. He has 11 touchdowns and has been intercepted 10 times.

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Thorson was ranked the No. 6 dual-threat QB in the country after an all-state career at Wheaton (Ill.) North High School and picked the Wildcats over, among others, Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State.

4. History lesson

Football made its debut on the Northwestern campus in 1876, but it mostly was an intramural sport for many years.

Northwestern became a charter member of the Western Conference in 1896, a league that eventually became the Big Ten.

The Wildcats, a nickname given the team by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1924, have won or shared eight conference titles, the first in 1903 and the last in 2000.

Gary Barnett, who turned the program around in the mid-1990s, directed the team to back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1995 and ’96, a feat first accomplished by Dick Hanley in 1930 and ’31.

5. The series

Iowa has owned the Wildcats historically, winning 50 of the previous 79 games.

Recent history, however, tells a much different story.

Northwestern has won the last two games — 17-10 in overtime a season ago — and the teams are 4-4 since 2010. They are 8-8 in this century and the Hawkeyes have a slim 14-12 advantage since a 56-14 win in 1990.

Iowa dominated Northwestern before that, winning all 10 games in the 1980s and seven of nine in the ’70s. Iowa won 21 in a row from 1974 to 1994.

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These two teams first met in 1897, a 12-6 Iowa win. The Hawks won 11 of the first 15 games before Northwestern won four in a row from 1926 to ’32, its longest winning streak in the series.

l Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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