Iowa Football

Northwestern is no football factory, but look who leads the Big Ten West

All things considered, Wildcats wildly successful

Northwestern's Clayton Thorson scrambles against Iowa during a 2017 game at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Northwestern's Clayton Thorson scrambles against Iowa during a 2017 game at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa is 21st in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings. Northwestern is unranked.

The Hawkeyes have outscored their nine opponents by a total of 107 points. The Wildcats have outscored theirs by a sum of two points.

Yet, Northwestern is alone atop the Big Ten West at 5-1. The Hawkeyes are 3-3.

Saturday’s Northwestern-Iowa matchup is the renewal of a hard-fought rivalry without a traveling trophy attached. If there were one, it might be in the shape of a question mark. Iowa prides itself on being the developmental program, a program gets the most out of its players. It builds winning teams rather than simply recruiting them. Its track record supports that.

But then you look at the Northwestern-Iowa series since Pat Fitzgerald became the Wildcats’ head coach in 2006. Maximizing potential is something that wears purple well.

Iowa is 100-64 overall and 57-47 in the Big Ten in that time. Northwestern is 92-69 and 53-51. Northwestern has three 10-win seasons to Iowa’s two in that time.

But this is perhaps the wildest part of the Wildcats’ story: Since Fitzgerald has been Northwestern’s coach, just 15 of his players have been selected in the NFL draft and none were selected in the first three rounds. Iowa has had 45 players drafted in that same period, 19 of them in the first three rounds.

Yet, Fitzgerald’s ‘Cats are 7-5 against the Hawkeyes.

It isn’t just an Iowa thing. Northwestern beat Michigan State this season and in the two before it. In 2015, the Wildcats beat Penn State, Wisconsin, and the Stanford team that drubbed the Hawkeyes in that season’s Rose Bowl.

Now, the ‘Cats are trying to close in on their first Big Ten division title.

“They’ve really developed a defensive identity, 2007, 2008,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and to me since that time they’ve been a really tough opponent and have played very well.

“But bottom line is when you put the film on, they’re extremely well-coached. Those guys play hard, and they play good football.”

As a private school with high academic standards, Fitzgerald’s recruiting pool isn’t as deep as those of the Big Ten’s other 13 programs. That won’t change. What recently became different, however, is Northwestern has gone from perhaps having the worst football facilities of all Power Five conference programs to the best.

The Walker Athletics Center is a $270 million, 500,000-square-foot facility on the shore of Lake Michigan in Evanston. College football writer Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports wrote “In terms of size, spectacle and spending, Northwestern has sprinted past the biggest names in the facilities arms race.”

“It’s going to attract a lot of great recruits,” Wildcats senior quarterback Clayton Thorson said in August. “Long-term for our program and for Northwestern sports, it’s going to be unbelievable.”

When people would talk about the arms race in college football facilities, Northwestern was never mentioned. Now, it’s the center of the discussion.

But the team with the hoity-toity facility at the elite university in the affluent suburb still looks like a guts-and-heart group, battling the Big Ten’s best without backing down.

You look at this season’s Wildcats, and you don’t see greatness. You see a 5-4 team that’s a double-digit underdog at Iowa. The ‘Cats barely got past Nebraska at home and Rutgers on the road. They lost to Akron.

Yet, here they come with 12 wins in their last 13 Big Ten games, with victories in their last six road contests. Here they come with a 5-1 league record, with the only loss a 20-17 decision to Michigan.

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Here they come two wins from playing in the league’s championship game, and with their final two games against also-rans Minnesota and Illinois.

The Wildcats beat Purdue on the road and Wisconsin at home. Iowa did neither.

“You find a way to win,” Ferentz said. “That’s what good teams do, and that’s what they’ve done.”

Saturday may be the Hawkeyes’ day. Barring a big upset in the two weeks that follow, though, it will be Northwestern’s year.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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