Iowa Football

Northwestern 21, Iowa 20: 'Close, but not good enough'

Hawkeyes' 17-point lead evaporates in home opener

IOWA CITY — It really was a beautiful play.

Nate Stanley threw an accurate semi-wobbler over the middle to a streaking Tyrone Tracy. The pass hit Tracy in stride, and he sprinted unabated to the end zone.

You remember that, right? It was late in the fourth quarter of last year’s game at Wisconsin, a little over three minutes remaining, to be exact, and brought the Iowa Hawkeyes within two.

Stanley, of course, got stuffed short of the goal line on an attempted run up the middle that would have tied it and Iowa lost by those two points. And you thought that very tough loss would be the only significance of the sequence there.

That actually was the last time Iowa has scored a touchdown in the second half against a Big Ten opponent. Yeah, really.

It’s a nasty old streak that extended to five full games Saturday and was a contributing factor in another excrucating 2020 loss, this one to Northwestern, 21-20, at Kinnick Stadium.

“The most important stat is winning, so if we’re winning, we’ll live with that,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, pointing out Iowa won the three games last season that started this second-half TD drought. “But to that point, they outplayed us in the second half today ... It was a team loss. We didn’t really do anything consistenly enough today to expect to win a Big Ten game. That’s two weeks in a row. Those are the things we’re going to have to focus on.”

Hawkeye fans surely will focus on their team blowing a 17-0 lead after a quarter, on quarterback Spencer Petras throwing 51 passes in his second college start (what’s up with that?), another missed opportunity overall, another loss to Northwestern (that’s four in five years) and an 0-2 record. It’s the first time Iowa has dropped its first two games since Ferentz’s second season (2000), when he was trying to turn around the program.

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“It’s basically the same thing (through) two weeks,” said Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon, a significant force the entire day at defensive tackle. “We’ve got to finish. Iowa is a big team on finishing, and we just haven’t been able to do that these last two weeks. We’ve got to get back to playing Iowa football and finishing out strong.”

Jesse Brown’s 2-yard touchdown run with just over six minutes left in the third quarter provided the winning points for Northwestern (2-0), but it was really the second quarter that was more pivotal. Iowa cashed in back-to-back Wildcats fumbles for back-to-back early first-quarter TDs, a short Keith Duncan field goal giving the Hawkeyes their 17-point cushion.

But Northwestern regrouped and went on long, run-generated drives (16 plays, 75 yards and 14 plays, 79 yards) that eventually brought it back within 20-14 by halftime. Iowa’s defense did a better job overall against the rush than last week at Purdue, holding the Wildcats to a per-carry average of 2.4 and 143 yards overall.

Just not on those two get-back-in-the-game drives.

“They run the ball, are a good running team,” said Seth Benson, who led Iowa in tackles in his first college start at middle linebacker. “That was our goal, to stop the run. Obviously we didn’t go that good enough in the second quarter. We’ve got to be tighter on our fits, be better in our communication, and that starts with me.”

The offense was again good at times, not so good at others, especially in the second half when it generated just 104 total yards. It seemed to become way too reliant on the pass considering the game circumstances, with Petras being intercepted three times, two were errant throws off the hands of tight end Sam LaPorta to Northwestern defenders.

Fourteen of Iowa’s final 16 plays on offense were throws, the exceptions a Petras QB sneak on fourth-and-1 and a scramble for 10 yards.

“That’s Northwestern for you,” said Petras, who went 26 of 51 for 293 yards. “When they’re playing Cover-4, their safeties are in the fit, they’re coming down hard trying to stop the run. They have a lot of good run-stopping pressures that they bring. That’s kind of their M.O. They want to force you to take what’s there and sound football for 60 minutes. They played well, it worked (for them) today.”

“If you look historically at those kinds of numbers, the outcome probably wasn’t very good,” Ferentz said, when asked about the pass-heavy approach. “We didn’t run the ball effectively enough today (23 for 77 yards). Certainly hit a couple of runs on them, but with consistency, not enough. That’s something we have to address, because we don’t want to play that way. I’ll go on record saying that. We don’t want to play that way. Looking for a lot more balance than that.”

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And desperately looking for a win, any old win. Michigan State comes to town next week for an 11 a.m. kick, fresh off an upset of 13th-ranked Michigan.

“(Northwestern) played a better second half than we did, and that was really the story of the game,” Ferentz said. “You’ve got to play the full 60 minutes, and at the end of the game, all the critical areas — running the football, third-down conversions, the turnover rate — obviously, are going to be important in deciding the football game. We did a good job of that in the first half, not so much in the second half. They finished the game, and we weren’t able to. That’s kind of where we’re at right now.”

Ferentz pointed to what turned out to be another big moment that most might not remember. Iowa drove to the Northwestern 34 to end the half, but Caleb Shudak’s 52-yard field goal into the wind clanked off the right upright.

“That one kick was probably representative of our game today,” Ferentz said. “Close but not (good) enough.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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