IOWA CITY — Northwestern brought the swag.
Though Saturday’s scenarios seemed pointed against the Wildcats locking up the Big Ten West football title, they still brought boxes of shirts and caps proclaiming them the champions of the West had three needed results happened.
Penn State had to beat Wisconsin, which it did to no surprise. Purdue had to lose at Minnesota, which it did and was a big surprise. Most importantly, 10-point underdog Northwestern — Vegas’ oddsmakers are savvy cats, but nobody’s perfect — had to beat Iowa in Kinnick Stadium.
Which it did, 14-10. Which in hindsight doesn’t feel like a surprise at all.
Wildcats Coach Pat Fitzgerald came to his postgame press conference wearing one of those caps letting Big Ten World know his team will be in Indianapolis on Dec. 1 to take on Michigan or Ohio State.
“I can’t take credit for being prepared,” Fitzgerald said. He was referring to the new garb, not the way his team was ready to do battle Saturday.
“I give credit to our equipment staff. ... Friday, they told me they had brought the stuff. ‘If we win, would I like to use it?’ I said ‘Absolutely!’
“The whole thing worked out. That’s a big deal.”
Do you think Kirk Ferentz would have OK'd such shirts and caps to be ready had his Hawkeyes needed a similarly unexpected set of things to happen to lock up their division? The guess here is a solid no. Such talk would have been taboo in the days leading up to the game.
“I didn’t hide the opportunity this week,” said Fitzgerald. “ ‘Hey, we can control the West if we win in Iowa City on Saturday. And if some things happen, we’re putting a trophy in the case with two weeks to play. Anybody want to sign up for that?’
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“And they were all like ‘Yeahhhhhhh!’ ” he said with a roar. A Wildcat’s roar.
Iowa once looked like it had a fair chance to win its way to Indy, but it peaked a few weeks ago and slid back to anonymity. Northwestern picked itself off the floor after September home losses to Duke and Akron and has stood tall since.
If something were important Saturday, the Wildcats were more decisive at it. Iowa doesn’t allow teams to run the ball this season? Past tense. Northwestern rushed for a killing 184 yards.
Iowa’s go-to is power offense? Some seasons. Not this one. The Hawkeyes’ rushing game was feeble with 64 yards, 2.9 per carry. And, two lost fumbles in the last five minutes.
There was no panic in purple when the Wildcats, trailing 10-7, came up with nothing after a 19-play drive spanning seven minutes of the third and fourth periods.
On their next drive, the ‘Cats went ahead with 9:27 remaining on an absolutely fabulous 32-yard touchdown catch by Bennett Skowronek on a beautiful pass by Clayton Thorson, Iowa’s response was nothing resembling a champion’s.
Three straight weeks. Games that went to the end against Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern. Didn’t finish, didn’t finish, didn’t finish. That’s how the Hawkeyes have added a third-straight season to their 8-4/7-5 pile.
This one hurts more than the last two, though. It could have been Iowa with the West swag. Except it couldn’t.
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You either have the stuff to win in fourth quarters or you don’t. You get the most out of your rare preseason first-team All-America offensive player, or you leave everyone wondering what is going on when tight end Noah Fant can have one catch for 0 yards and not even be involved in some critical moments.
Max Cooper was Nate Stanley’s end-zone target when Iowa had a third-and-11 at the Northwestern 20 midway through the third quarter. Max Cooper isn’t first-team Iowa.
“We’re playing the guys out there that we feel are best in the situations that’s given to them,” Ferentz said when asked whatever happened to Fant, who has a measly 18 career TDs. It’s a strange deal, whatever the story.
On the other side, a quarterback who had reconstructive knee surgery in mid-January wore a new cap, one noting he belonged to the best in the West.
“Obviously,” Fitzgerald said, “Clayton has been just a warrior.”
These guys are all warriors. But the Wildcats were better prepared, for in-game battle and postgame celebration.
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