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Northwestern shows signs of progress in 17-10 loss at Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa. -- Early in the first quarter, Northwestern had the look of a defeated team. Iowa had just strung together a 14-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that included 12 rushing plays, each of them illustrating one of the Wildcats’ biggest flaws during its recent losing streak: a porous run defense.

It felt like Northwestern was about to get run off the field, literally and figuratively, like the negative momentum built up over the past three weeks would snowball into a fourth consecutive loss.

What happened over the next three quarters, then, felt like progress for the Wildcats, but it didn’t result in a win. Northwestern’s 17-10 defeat at Kinnick Stadium won’t convince anyone the Wildcats can turn their season around, but it was an improvement over last week’s loss against Minnesota. That much was clear.

“Credit to the Hawkeyes, they did a nice job,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said afterward. “Very disappointing, to say the least.”

For one, the run defense, after getting gashed on the opening drive, stiffened; Iowa finished the day with just 136 rushing yards on 3.3 yards per carry. “I think we just fit our gaps properly,” Fitzgerald said of the defense. “We tackled well.” The Wildcats also got great performances from both starting cornerbacks, one of whom, true freshman Matthew Harris, was making his first career start.

In sum, the Hawkeyes’ offense, which managed 24 points at Ohio State last week, scored just 10 against Northwestern in regulation, and struggled to consistently advance the ball – or sustain long drives – against the Wildcats’ defense.

It’s easy to be wary about giving Northwestern’s defense too much credit for stifling Iowa’s mediocre offense (which entered Saturday ranked eighth in the Big Ten in yards per play) for most of the game, but given the Hawkeyes’ decided size advantage along the line of scrimmage – advantages they used in the first half of last week's loss at Ohio State – and Northwestern’s tendency to get driven backward while trying to stop the run (particularly during this losing streak), Saturday’s defensive performance should be viewed as a positive. And if you focus on some of the individual performances – including those of Harris, of whom Fitzgerald said “I’ll have to watch the tape, though, but I thought he played pretty well,“ and Ariguzo, who finished with a team-high 14 tackles – the defense’s effort looks even more promising.

“I thought our defense played well enough for us to win again [after playing well enough against Minnesota last week],” Fitzgerald said.

The other side of the ball continues to be a mystery. The quick-hitting, rhythm-based attack that worked so well last season and early in 2013 has reached its nadir. That’s what quarterback Kain Colter and the rest of the offense hopes, anyway – that the unit has sunk to its lowest point, that the rest of the season will only yield progress, that it can’t possibly get any worse than this. “We suck right now,” Colter said of the offense. “We gotta get better.”

Colter's statement may be an exaggeration. Northwestern did outgain Iowa 329 to 305 and convert 8-of-14 third downs. And Colter, in his first game back from injury, didn't appear hampered by a balky right ankle, which was thickly taped. Redshirt freshman tailback Stephen Buckley, seeing an increased workload with senior running back Venric Mark injured, had the best game of his career, finishing with 99 yards on 17 carries. Sophomore superback Dan Vitale, who had struggled with drops in recent weeks, bounced back and, but for one costly penalty, looked like one of Northwestern's best offensive players. "Danny? I thought all but one play was outstanding," Fitzgerald said of Vitale, who caught four passes for 52 yards and a touchdown.

The biggest problems, it seems, are turnovers and penalties. The Wildcats committed five of the latter for 55 yards and two of the former – lost fumbles both. “We shot ourselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers,“ Colter said. “That’s just  a recipe for disaster.”

Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s easy to point out one other major flaw: the offensive line. Iowa’s defensive linemen repeatedly pressured Colter, registering five sacks of the senior quarterback (and one of junior QB Trevor Siemian, who played sparingly). If a statistic exists for “drop back, look up, tuck and scramble four yards,” Colter must have broken the all-time single-game record Saturday.

The most salient example came in overtime. On fourth down of Northwestern’s first and only drive, in what would wind up being the last play of the game, Colter took a snap and looked up, only to find Wildcats receivers blanketed in coverage and two Iowa defensive linemen charging at him. His only recourse? Tuck it and run. Game over.

“I think they ran a little stunt, and we didn’t get it blocked, and the guy came free,“ Colter said of the play. “Everything happened fast. I was just trying to escape him, trying to make a play, and it didn’t happen.”

A fourth consecutive loss won’t make anyone in Northwestern’s locker room feel better. The optimism of the close defeat to then-No. 4 Ohio State three weeks ago – to say nothing of the excitement and national media attention that attended it – is gone. Northwestern is in a tailspin, no doubt about it. But it can still make something of its season by winning the two games required to reach a bowl game. Next week’s tilt at Nebraska will be tough (though the Huskers did just lose to Minnesota), and the Wildcats will need to stop self-destructing on offense if they have any hopes of competing with Michigan and its high-powered offense or Michigan State and its vicious defense – home games scheduled for Nov. 16 and Nov. 23, respectively. And the Illinois game at the end of the season, a matchup most people would have penciled in as a win in August, doesn’t look like a sure thing anymore.

The Wildcats have work to do before regaining their early-season form. But after Saturday’s close loss, it’s safe to say they have less work to do than they did after last week’s defeat to Minnesota. The losing streak will stay intact for at least one more week, but Northwestern appears to be making the adjustments required to break it.

“Right now we just gotta make a decision,” junior linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo said. “Are we going to get better or are we just going to let this linger on? So we just gotta keep moving forward.”

Ugly as the optics – four losses in four Big Ten contests – may seem, the Wildcats showed Saturday that they are improving, not getting worse, over the course of this losing skid. If Northwestern can build off this performance, sometime over the next three weeks the story should shift from silver linings and impressive individual performances interspersed with negative ones to something entirely different.

There could be a Wildcats victory to discuss.