by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
EVANSTON — The Free Kain Colter movement finally scored its first major victory. Colter scored three rushing touchdowns and found Christian Jones on a beautiful deep ball downfield to lift Northwestern to a 28-17 victory over Iowa.
"It was great," Colter said. "I love, especially that passing touchdown that we had, that kind of took a little off my shoulders just because we were able to get it back to throwing the ball again. That was great."
Trevor Siemian attempted just one pass all day long. This game was Kain Colter's to win or lose.
"I've got great confidence in both our quarterbacks," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "I think we can win with both. I believe that both young men have helped us get to where we're at today. But right now, especially after today, it just seems like Kain is playing at such a high level. It gives us a great feeling going into the bye and moving forward for the rest of the year."
The Wildcats took a 28-3 lead behind an offense that moved the ball at will against a weak Hawkeyes defense. Junior running back Venric Mark made the highlight reel with a 72-yard sprint downfield. It was a particularly huge play, since Iowa had pinned Northwestern at its own one-yard line with a beautifully downed punt. Northwestern followed Mark's dash with six more rushes, capped off by Kain Colter's two-yard run around the right end to give the Wildcats a 14-3 lead.
"(Kain) is just a very explosive athlete," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Running quarterbacks, I can think of three right now in our conference, including him. It's very, very challenging to defend."
Northwestern seemingly ran the ball at will all day long. Mark finished with 162 rushing yards on just 16 carries, for an astounding 10.1 yards per carry average. Colter added 166 rushing yards.
"We feel like our offensive line is the best conditioned line in the nation," Colter said. "We're able to go fast. That really tires the defense out. We're able to keep playing a high level. They did a great job today. I feel like that's where it all starts, with the offensive line. A lot of times they don't get the credit they deserve."
The Wildcats attempted just 10 pass plays all afternoon long. Then again, they didn't need to do anything else. Northwestern had only two punts and one three-and-out all game long, a refreshing break from the malaise that has hit the Wildcats' offense in recent weeks. The Wildcats were spurred by their success on third-down opportunities, of which they converted 8-of-11, many on runs from Colter.
"He made some really good decisions today," Fitzgerald said. "There were some things that were pushed up in his face or they were covered. Instead of forcing the ball today, he made some really good decisions and saw some green grass and was able to take advantage of it."
After Northwestern was unable to convert a fourth-and-three, up 28-3, when Mark's awkward shovel pass up the right sideline fell to the ground, Iowa ploughed ahead. The Hawkeyes ran 12 plays on the drive, nine of which were rushes. Vandenberg capped off the drive with a one-yard plummet into the end zone.
Mark and Colter responded well, combining to sprint and deke their way to the threshold of the end zone, but a high snap by senior center Brandon Vitabile gave it back to Iowa, and the Hawkeyes took advantage with another Vandenberg keeper into the end zone. Iowa was helped along by two Northwestern penalties, a pass interference call on sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell and a silly shove from senior defensive end Quentin Williams, who was rightly flagged for roughing the passer.
"If we don't turn the ball over in the red zone, we put that game away with 10 minutes left," Fitzgerald said. "That's disappointing that we did that, and we can't have that happen."
The Hawkeyes seemed inspired by running back Damon Bullock's entry into the game. Mark Weisman was no match for the Wildcats on Saturday. They held him to 21 rushing yards on nine carries, and yet perhaps the most impressive display from Northwestern's defense was Ibraheim Campbell's thunderous hit on Weisman. Bullock was far more successful, reaching the century mark with 107 yards on 22 carries.
Still, it was too little, too late, and when Vandenberg's throw to the right sideline on fourth-and-two sailed wide right, Northwestern had its seventh win of the season.
"A week ago, we were in the driver's seat of where we want to go, and that's Indianapolis," Fitzgerald said. "We put ourselves in the back seat, and with the win today, we've moved back up in the front seat. We're not driving it. Like the kids say, we're riding shotgun."
Much like their defense, the Wildcats bent, but they never broke. The Hawkeyes never managed a play of greater than 19 yards. That stands in stark contrast to Northwestern, which featured a 49-yard pass from Colter to Jones, a 39-yard dash up the middle of the field from Colter and a 72-yard run by Mark. Those three plays alone accounted for 160 yards, nearly half of Iowa's total.
Vandenberg was off-and-on all game long. On one hand, he was undeniably clutch on third down, going 8-for-11 on third-down plays, along with a couple of rushes for first downs. He repeatedly found wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley along the sidelines for key first downs. On the other hand, Vandenberg also skipped a number of passes to his receivers, struggling with his accuracy all game long.
Meanwhile, Northwestern's defense made more than its share of big plays. Whether it was senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar's big pass breakup downfield, one of senior linebacker David Nwabuisi's 18 tackles or Campbell's huge hit on Weisman, there were big plays aplenty for the Wildcats.
Fitzgerald pointed to the three sacks Northwestern mustered, two of which came on third down.
"It seemed like we were having a party in the backfield all day today," Fitzgerald said. "It seems like we were on James quite a bit. That's what the guys talk about. There's a party at the quarterback, and everyone's invited."
Nwabuisi preferred to remember Campbell's huge hit on Keenan Davis, after which Iowa's star wideout lay on the field for a couple of minutes, recovering from the blow. Better yet, what had been ruled a complete pass was now ruled an incomplete.
"Everyone got off today. Everyone was making plays from defensive end to defensive tackle," Nwabuisi said. "That hit Ibraheim put on that receiver that made him drop the ball made me hurt for a second. That was a big hit. I almost felt bad, but he's wearing the wrong colors."
After the game, Fitzgerald took some time to question the media's negativity concerning his team. When the Wildcats have won, frequently attention has focused on why they didn't win by more. When they've lost, the outside world has acted as "if the sky is falling," according to Fitzgerald. At the end of the day, as Fitzgerald pointed out, Northwestern has played on nine Saturdays. The Wildcats have won seven times.
"It's just amazing," Fitzgerald said. "When we win, it's like, hey, we found a way to win. When we lose, it's like the sky is falling. That's all I read and that's all I see and that's all our kids see. We've had great fan support, and they've done a great job of not listening to the negative. We're a seven-win football team right now, and I'd like everyone not to forget that. That would be great."