Our good friends at Black Heart Gold Pants decided to revisit Iowa's stunning upset of Northwestern in 2000, a loss that cost the Wildcats a trip to the Rose Bowl. I maintain that such a game never took place and that BHGP must have used CGI to create the alleged video of a game we all know never happened, but that's neither here nor there.
Fortunately, there are plenty of Northwestern upsets of Iowa in the more recent past to help get over the sting of that doctored propaganda footage. Since Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006, he's gone 4-1 against Iowa, including 3-0 at Kinnick Stadium. In all four of the wins, Northwestern has been a significant underdog, facing spreads of 20.5, 9.5, 14, and 10 respectively. The odds of NU winning all four of those games are about 1 in 1050, less than 0.01%. Strangely enough, the one time NU was favored over Iowa in 2007, Iowa came away with the win.
So let's take a look at all 5 NU-Iowa games since Fitzgerald took over and see if there's anything that might explain NU's remarkable success (wizardry and magic potato notwithstanding.)
This was by far the biggest upset of the bunch, at least in terms of point spread, as Northwestern was a 20.5 underdog going into the game. That large spread was more due to how bad NU was than anything else; Fitzgerald's bunch came into Kinnick Stadium at 2-7 overall and 0-5 in Big Ten play. Meanwhile, Iowa was 6-3 and looking to get to .500 in Big Ten play.
Yet somehow, Northwestern dominated the game, out-gaining Iowa by nearly 200 yards. Tyrell Sutton and Terrell Jordan gashed the Iowa defense on the ground, running for 225 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries, and the NU defense was surprisingly stout, holding the Hawkeyes to just 264 yards and intercepting Drew Tate twice.
Northwestern entered as a slight favorite in the game, and dominated on offense in the first quarter, jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead. But Iowa rallied behind the surprisingly competent quarterback play of Jake Christensen (21/36, 299 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) and shut down the Northwestern offense from the second quarter on. C.J. Bacher threw for 264 yards, but it took him 54 attempts to do it and he was intercepted three times. A poor effort on both sides of the ball for Northwestern in this one.
This was a bizarre game. Northwestern didn't have much of an answer for the Iowa offense, as Shonn Greene had 159 yards and a touchdown on just 21 carries, and Ricky Stanzi was 21/30 for 238 yards and a touchdown. The Iowa offense averaged 6.67 yards per play, which is an elite number; that's the equivalent of 20 yards per 3 downs, and you only need 10 to get a first down, so it's hard to see how Northwestern's defense ever got off the field.
The answer is that Iowa turned it over five times, on four lost fumbles and a Stanzi interception. The final Iowa turnover came in the fourth quarter, with Iowa leading by a point and driving into Northwestern territory, as Brad Phillips buried Shonn Greene on a hit of questionable legality, forcing a fumble and leaving Greene with a concussion. Northwestern took over and drove for the winning touchdown.
NU's offense did well in this game, putting up 22 points and nearly 400 yards on a stout Iowa defense, but this is likely an Iowa win without all the fumbles. It's difficult to lose a game when you win the turnover battle by 4.
While the 2006 win was a bigger upset in terms of point spread, this NU win was far more relevant nationally, as Iowa entered the game undefeated and ranked 4th in the country. And Iowa certainly looked the part of a top 5 team early, taking a 10-0 lead behind the play of Ricky Stanzi. But early in the second quarter, Corey Wootton sacked Stanzi in the end zone, forced a fumble for a Northwestern touchdown, and injured Stanzi's ankle in the process. Untested freshman James Vandenberg replaced Stanzi and was promptly intercepted, setting up a Dan Persa to Drake Dunsmore touchdown pass and giving Northwestern a lead they would never relinquish.
After NU took the lead, the rest of this game was about as boring as a football game can get. Fitz was content to play extremely conservatively and sit on the lead, in part because his normal starting quarterback Mike Kafka was limited with a leg injury and Persa eventually had to leave the game with a hand injury, and in part because Vandenberg was horrendous, completing just 9 of 27 passes for 82 yards. NU had just 239 yards of offense for the entire game, and Iowa was held to 127 yards after Stanzi left the game early in the second quarter.
Iowa appeared to have this game in hand, leading 17-7 early in the fourth quarter, but after Stanzi made an ill-advised throw into double coverage and was intercepted by Brian Peters, Dan Persa cemented his status as a Northwestern legend by leading two straight touchdown drives, famously tearing his Achillis tendon just after throwing the winning pass to Demetrius FIelds.
Persa stole the show for Northwestern, accounting for almost all of their offense with 318 yards passing and 50 yards rushing. Iowa's defense held strong for most of the game, but seemed to tire in the fourth quarter as they were worn down by NU's fast-paced no-huddle offense. Overall, it was an evenly played game; fortunately for Northwestern they took the lead with 1:22 remaining and Iowa didn't have quite enough time to drive for the go-ahead score.
Looking at these five games, there doesn't appear to be a consistent trend to explain Fitzgerald's dominance. He won by dominating on the ground in 2006, by forcing a bunch of fumbles in 2008, by injuring Iowa's quarterback in 2009, and by wearing down Iowa's defense with no-huddle in 2010. The 2007 loss can largely be explained by Iowa's quarterback outplaying his Northwestern counterpart. As BHGP explains, Iowa's inability to put points on the board has been a large part of the problem, but the reason for their struggles has been different in each loss. In 2006 Iowa's offense just wasn't very good. In 2008, they moved the ball but turned it over constantly. In 2009 their QB got hurt and the backup wasn't ready to go. And last year, the play calling was a big problem; offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe started coming under fire around the Northwestern loss.
The good news for Iowa is that the Northwestern defense so far this season has been a complete train wreck, currently ranking last in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game (yes, worse than Minnesota). NU ranks 87th in rush defense, 105th in passing efficiency defense, and 104th in total defense. So Dan Persa will likely need to have another huge game to keep NU from falling to 2-4.