Iowa Football

Iowa football look ahead: Northwestern might be poised to be permanent in the Big Ten West race

$270 million facility, 5-star quarterback transfer, this might be the new normal for Northwestern

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald raises his arms to signal touchdown after Wildcats wide receiver Bennett Skowronek hauled in a pass in the end zone against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald raises his arms to signal touchdown after Wildcats wide receiver Bennett Skowronek hauled in a pass in the end zone against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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You guys saw Northwestern clinch the Big Ten West Division title last season after the Wildcats won a staring contest with the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.

 

Think about that moment for Northwestern football. And then, give a little thought to where it happened.

Northwestern claimed its first division title against a program that beat it 21 straight times. From 1974 to 1994, Iowa beat Northwestern. Iowa sucked in the 1970s; Northwestern sucked worse.

And then last year. The Wildcats won a division title. They could legitimately sing Queen’s “We are the Champions” as loudly and quickly as they wanted.

You can see head coach Pat Fitzgerald “linebacking” his way through ...

“But it’s been no bed of roses. No pleasure cruise. I consider it a challenge before the whole human race, and I ain’t gonna lose.”

Northwestern was the champion. Now what?

You’re wishing for a huge drop-off because you like Iowa. Probably not happening.

The fact of the matter is Fitzgerald has built the West’s most consistent program. Since the league went to geographical divisions, Northwestern has had just one losing conference record (3-5 in 2014).

If you really look at Northwestern’s progress, it’s 7-2 and 8-1 in the Big Ten the two years. The Wildcats were building toward the 2018 division title. They’re 29-16 against the Big Ten since 2014. Iowa is 27-16. Wisconsin is 34-9. Nebraska — the cheeky 2019 favorite of the mile-wide, inch-deep preseason publications — is 20-23.

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The myth that Wisconsin runs the West isn’t a myth, but after last season, have the Badgers lost their grip and is Northwestern set up here for a little bit of a run?

Remember when after the 2002 season Kirk Ferentz would be the NFL’s most wanted? Oh man. Every week. Finally, Northwestern had to sweat that out.

Going into the Wildcats’ victory in the Holiday Bowl, three NFL teams approached Fitzgerald, including the Green Bay Packers. Fitzgerald drove a stake in this in quintessential Fitzgerald fashion.

“Hashtag Go ‘Cats, man. I’m not going anywhere. This is home forever,” Fitzgerald said after beating Utah in the Holiday Bowl.

Also in 2018, Northwestern’s indoor facility opened. It was a statement. The $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. Of course, it has that view and it worked almost immediately.

Around the same time the Fieldhouse opened, 5-star QB Hunter Johnson visited the Evanston, Ill., campus.

“The facility shows a commitment to winning,” Fitzgerald told Sports Business Journal. “And that we’re not satisfied being a cute, little team that goes to bowl games occasionally.”

That’s some bravado. But is it really? Why can’t it be Northwestern’s mission statement? This program has put its money where its mouth is, including a $4.5 million per year salary (according to the Chicago Tribune) for Fitzgerald.

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Was last season a blip for Wisconsin? If it wasn’t, who do you like semi-reguarly to sit on the Big Ten West throne?

Northwestern is clearly making its case.

Northwestern skill players 

It’s hard to know what to expect from Johnson. He’s the centerpiece going into the season. When a 5-star QB transfers in from Clemson, you’re going to have expectations.

This maybe fits into the new Northwestern narrative. NU is waving goodbye to Clayton Thorson, statistically one of the program’s best QBs, and saying hello to Johnson, a prostyle 5-star with a big arm. That’s living right. (Having Stanford, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Ohio State in your first six games, as the ‘Cats do for 2019, is not living right.)

Northwestern isn’t Clemson, where 5-star QBs throw to 5-star wide receivers. Flynn Nagel was the ‘Cats’ top receiver in 2018 with 68 receptions.

The Wildcats lost three starters on the O-line, but showed amazing depth at running back in 2018. After Jeremy Larkin’s career ended due to health reasons, freshman Isaiah Bowser rushed for 866 yards, including 165 and a TD in the clincher at Kinnick.

Weird stat: Bowser wasn’t in the plans for half of 2018. Through six games, Bowser had two carries for 2 yards. He did all of his damage in the final six games.

One last thing with the offense: The ‘Cats will have a new left tackle. Iowa still has A.J. Epenesa.

Northwestern defense

Defensive lines win championships in the West. Last season, 15.5 of NU’s 24.0 sacks came from D-linemen, including end Joe Gaziano, who might be the best pass rusher in the Big Ten that you don’t know. The Cats did lose tackle Jordan Thompson, who had 35 career starts.

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NU also returns linebacker Paddy Fisher, one of those “faces of the defense” guys. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he stops the run. When the Wildcats clinched at Kinnick, they held Iowa to 64 rushing yards (2.91 yards per carry on 22 attempts).

Super hot, possibly relevant take on this game that’s 100-something days away: If Northwestern beats Iowa for a fourth straight season, it’ll match the Wildcats’ longest winning streak against Iowa ... since 1926 to 1933.

Hawkeyes Look Ahead

Oct. 26 At Northwestern (Ryan Field)

Week beforePurdue at Kinnick

On the horizon: The Hawkeyes will have their second bye week. You know that thing about being good in November? Starting Nov. 9, the Hawkeyes will face Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska. That’s three rivalry trophy games in a span of four weeks. Plus, the Big Ten West trophy, which is always somewhat up for grabs when Iowa meets Wisconsin.

For Northwestern

Week before: Ohio State at Northwestern (Ryan Field)

On the horizon: Indiana at Memorial Stadium (Bloomington, Ind.)

Northwestern Wildcats

Game: Oct. 26 at Ryan Field

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Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (96-70, 14th season at Northwestern)

2018 record: 9-5, 8-1 in Big Ten West Division (champions, actually)

Scoring offense: 24.2 points per game (12th in B1G, 100th nationally — Illinois was 93rd at 26.0)

Total offense: 354.4 yards per game (12th B1G, 108th nationally — Michigan State was 117th at 342.1)

Scoring defense: 23.2 points allowed per game (6th B1G, 41st nationally — Iowa State was 37th at 22.9)

Total defense: 390.9 yards allowed per game (8th B1G, T-64th nationally — Ohio State was 71st with 403.4)

Series: Iowa leads 50-27-3.

Last meeting: Iowa lost 14-10. Tight end Noah Fant, the 20th pick in the NFL Draft last month, didn’t see the field on the final drive. But that was OK, because he got 29 consecutive snaps the next week in a 63-0 victory at Illinois. Iowa seems more than happy to handicap itself to make whatever point. Most of its fans sort of like winning.

Super early, totally unofficial spread prediction: At Northwestern, which now has a 5-star QB. The reigning Big Ten West champions will be favored. Let’s say 3.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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