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Despite the reemergence of Dan Vitale, Northwestern's offense struggles in loss to Iowa

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Toward the end of last season, then-freshman superback Dan Vitale exploded on the scene. In a win over Michigan State in late November, the Wheaton, Ill. native caught nine passes for 110 yards and in the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State, Vitale made seven grabs for 82 yards.

Coming into 2013, Vitale was pegged as one of Northwestern’s most important offensive weapons and it showed in week one. Vitale went for 110 yards against Cal, including a 53-yard reception from Trevor Siemian. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples even highlighted the former-high school running back in a story on college football’s most interesting and versatile positions.

But following his big game against Cal, Vitale went largely unnoticed in Northwestern’s six games leading up to Iowa. Over that stretch, Vitale averaged just 19.5 yards per game on 2.67 catches. He caught one touchdown pass, coming in week two against Syracuse.

Vitale has proven to be a matchup problem for defenses based on his athletic ability. Like most big-bodied pass-catchers, Vitale is too big and strong to be covered effectively by a cornerback and too quick for a linebacker.

Against Iowa, it seemed as though head coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall made a conscious effort to get Vitale—whose birthday was Saturday—back involved in the offense.

In a perfect display of his versatility, Vitale didn’t make his first impact against Iowa on a catch, but on a run. Going back to his high school roots where he ran for 1,340 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Wheaton-Warrenville South, Vitale took the ball from Kain Colter on a sweep and busted up the sideline for an 18-yard gain. That play—coming midway through the second quarter—was Northwestern’s first offensive play that went for more than nine yards.

Vitale also had a 31-yard reception that preceded his 10-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter. The 31-yard catch was the longest play of the game for either team.

But the birthday boy wasn’t only given praise from his head coach after the overtime loss.

“Danny?” Fitzgerald said. “I thought all but one play was outstanding.”

That one play came late in the fourth quarter. Driving and at the Iowa 30, Northwestern had a chance to take the lead with either a field goal or touchdown. On first down, Vitale was flagged for an illegal block when he cut Iowa defensive lineman Mike Hardy’s legs out from under him. The flag set Northwestern back 15 yards, negating Kain Colter’s eight-yard run. It appeared that Colter would have outran Hardy on the play, regardless of Vitale’s block. The following play, Mike Trumpy fumbled a pitch from Colter and Iowa took over in great field position.

Frankly, penalties and turnovers killed almost any progress Northwestern made on offense against Iowa. Vitale also committed a false start and the offense contributed three more penalties, totaling 55 yards. Along with Vitale’s illegal block, Northwestern committed three other blocking infractions: a personal foul and two holds.

To put it plainly, according to Colter, Northwestern’s offense held them back.

“We suck right now,” Colter said about the offense. “We’ve got to get better.”