EVANSTON, Ill. — Your team is somewhere between the fourth downs.
Near the end of the first half, the No. 20 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) had a lead over Northwestern. The Iowa defense would never admit to this, but it was already probably thinking shutout against a punchless Northwestern (1-6, 0-5) offense late in the second quarter.
Let’s be honest.
“Shutout?” defensive end Chauncey Golston said when asked when the defense started thinking shutout. “Before we even got off the bus. We think that every game.”
Of course, the Iowa offense needs to be a long for this ride. The Hawkeyes had a fourth-and-1 from Northwestern’s 44, took a delay-of-game penalty and punted. Next drive, Iowa had a fourth-and-1 from Northwestern’s 45 with 45 seconds left before halftime.
They called timeout, punted and went to the locker room with a 10-0 lead. Of all places to leave the door open, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz knows this is the riskiest.
“We’ve had a history here. We’ve seen some wild things happen in Evanston against us unfortunately,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Until we were in that last five minutes, it was hard to feel good about anything, quite frankly.”
Then it looked like someone won an argument in the halftime locker room over fourth downs.
On their first drive of the second half, the Hawkeyes faced a fourth-and-8 at Northwestern’s 30. It was rainy and windy Saturday at Ryan Field and that did factor, but Iowa went for the kill.
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Quarterback Nate Stanley took a shotgun snap with running back Tyler Goodson on his left and tight end Shaun Beyer on his right. Beyer showed block and then released on a wide-open out route. Stanley hit him for an 11-yard gain and first down.
Four plays later, Sargent broke in from the 1 and it was 17-0. The Wildcats were splat and the Hawkeyes rode to a 20-0 victory before 42,104 fans.
“We were able to get out late when they didn’t blitz,” Stanley said. “They forced me out, their coverage sank and Shaun did a great job getting out, catching the ball and getting the first down.”
The Hawkeyes are somewhere between these situations. There’s caution and then there’s calculation. The fourth-down call was excellent and brilliantly executed and broke Northwestern, which Iowa’s defense held to 202 yards offense while securing its second shutout this season.
“In the first half, I didn’t think there was much to be gained from it (going for it on fourth down),” Ferentz said. “Second half was a little different situation.”
The fourth down turned the game from sticky and gritty to a launch for the Hawkeyes.
Launch? Let’s now turn to the current Big Ten West standings. Minnesota leads at 5-0 after beating Maryland on Saturday. And then there’s Iowa and Wisconsin, tied at 3-2. The Hawkeyes and Badgers have a bye next week and then meet in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 9. After that, Iowa plays host to Minnesota, which hasn’t won in Kinnick Stadium since 1999.
After losing to Michigan and Penn State in back-to-back weeks, the Hawkeyes now have a moment of truth. Maybe a couple of them.
“Last week, we had kind of an ugly win,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “This wasn’t a pretty win, but as a defense, we take confidence out of this into one of the biggest games of the year. If we handle what we’re supposed to handle, we control our own destiny.”
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You started to feel that in the second half against Northwestern. You knew going in the defense was going to feast, but the Hawkeyes’ offense, without wide receiver Brandon Smith, was there with the defense putting the Wildcats in a sleeper hold.
Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, who filled in for Smith, started it, taking advantage of a missed tackle for a 50-yard TD on a pass from Stanley in the first quarter. Kicker Keith Duncan added a 40-yard field goal. The Hawkeyes scored off the fourth down and Duncan added a 28-yarder in the fourth quarter.
“We were frustrated in the first half because we’re used to going for it on fourth down,” said Tracy, who finished with two catches for 88 yards. “I thought we might go for it, but when we did, we made it count.”
The defense did its thing. The 202 yards was NU’s second-lowest this year, just a few more than the 199 Ohio State allowed it last week. The Hawkeyes had 5.0 sacks, with defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon leading the way.
The game even left Ferentz with a chance to rant about cut blocks. Fullback Brady Ross was hit with a 15-yard penalty late for blocking below the waist. The Iowa sideline took a 15-yard unsportsmanlike in the aftermath.
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Ferentz said. “Apparently, I don’t know anything about the rules anymore. Boy, you opened the door for me.”
The “open door” is a pretty good metaphor to take out of this. The door is wide open in the West.
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