Iowa Football

Northwestern grabs opportunity by the horns, wins Big Ten West title

Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz shake hands at the end of the Iowa Hawkeyes football game with the Northwestern Wildcats at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Northwestern won the game, 14-10. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Northwestern Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald and Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz shake hands at the end of the Iowa Hawkeyes football game with the Northwestern Wildcats at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Northwestern won the game, 14-10. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Isaiah Bowser saw everyone dancing around on the field, but couldn’t fully comprehend why at first.

The Northwestern running back didn’t hear Coach Pat Fitzgerald inform his guys postgame Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium that they were Big Ten Conference West Division champions.

“I was just asking everybody ‘What’d he say? What’d he say?’” Bowser said. “(A teammate) finally told me, and I started jumping around, too.”


A 14-10 win over Iowa combined with losses by Purdue and Wisconsin officially clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game in three weeks. The Wildcats are just 6-4 overall but 6-1 in the conference, two games up on second-place Purdue and Wisconsin with two games to play.

Since Northwestern already has beaten both, it was dancing time.

“I didn’t hide from them the opportunity (we had) this week,” Fitzgerald said. “It was ‘Hey, we can control the West if we win Saturday in Iowa City, and if some things happen, we can be putting a trophy in the case with two weeks to play. Anyone want to sign up for that?’ They were all like ‘Yeah!’

“We’re just keeping it real. I’m not a big believer in, hey, don’t tell them. Because they’re going to go on Snapchat and Twitter. You’ve got to embrace the suck when it’s not good and embrace the fun when it’s awesome.”

This Northwestern team had its veteran quarterback Clayton Thorson coming off offseason knee surgery, lost home games in early September to Duke and Akron and saw its best running back (Jeremy Larkin) have to retire from football because of a spinal condition. The amount of injuries the Wildcats have incurred is so high, Jake Collins attempted his first field goal since high school in the fourth quarter.

He’s really a punter. Northwestern’s two kickers were hurt and unavailable Saturday.

That’s sort of absurd.

“This is just a testament to where we are from the Akron game. It’s just night and day,” said defensive back Travis Whillock. “But this was just one of our goals. Now we’re going to get back to work and keep this thing going in the right direction.”

“Just playing in the Big Ten and making it to Indianapolis is a dream come true,” said Bowser, a freshman who gouged one of the top rushing defenses in the country for 165 yards and a touchdown. “Everybody in there was stoked. When Coach Fitz told us at the end of the game that we were going to Indy, it was a great feeling.”

Northwestern has been able to do something Iowa has not this season, and that’s win close games. It beat Nebraska in overtime in mid-October, then had to rally late to edge a bad Rutgers team, 18-15.

Then there was this one. Bennett Skowronek’s beautiful, diving 32-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth provided the winning points.

Northwestern’s defense recovered a pair of fumbles by Iowa running backs after that, and here the Wildcats are: Big Ten West champs, as the caps and T-shirts they all wore postgame proudly proclaimed.

“This team has overcome a ton of adversity,” Fitzgerald said. “You start off the season the way we did, with a quarterback coming off a major knee surgery to fight his way back onto the field ... Then we got beat up, got a bunch of injuries, lost some tough games there. The brotherhood that is over there in our locker room is the glue that has held everything together. That is one thing I would say about this group. The brotherhood is special. It starts and ends with our seniors. Really proud of our leaders, really proud of our seniors.

“I’m just very fortunate to be their coach. This is a terrific group of young men.”

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

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