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Northwestern's fundamental issues exposed by Iowa

When you can't stop the run, run the ball or take care of the ball, you can't win

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Illinois -- There was one drive that provided all you needed to know from Northwestern's Saturday afternoon destruction at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes. 12 plays, 80 yards, 6:24.

The result on the scoreboard was a touchdown that put the visitors ahead, 23-10. The result, psychologically, though, was that Iowa could do whatever it wanted, even if Northwestern knew it was coming. Here was the play-by-play of the drive:

24-yard run, 7-yard pass, 2-yard run, 8-yard run, 13-yard run, 4-yard run, 4-yard run, 5-yard run, -3-yard run, 8-yard pass, 6-yard run, 2-yard run TD.

If you can't stop the run, you can't win. It's one of the most basic tenets of football, and it's especially true in the Big Ten, where hard-nosed football reigns. And Saturday, Northwestern was soft. At the line of scrimmage, Northwestern was dominated. The Wildcats knew Iowa would try to pound the run and they couldn't handle it. Missed gap assignments, whiffed tackles and pancake blocks were plentiful. Akrum Wadley, who came into this game with 221 career yards, ran for 204 and four touchdowns. As a team, the Hawkeyes ran for nearly 300 yards. Winning games in any conference -- let alone one that emphasizes running the ball -- is tough when you give up 294 yards on the ground, 293 of which came from guys not named Jordan Canzeri, who went down with an ugly injury early.

"Poor execution, guys not fitting right and too many one-man breakdowns," Dean Lowry listed after the game. "If you want to beat Iowa, you've gotta stop the run...there's no excuses in how we played today."

But it wasn't just the inability to stop the run that proved Northwestern's struggles with Iowa. The offense was abysmal, and it started with drops. Even Christian Jones, Northwestern's most reliable wide receiver, dropped multiple passes. When asked what changed in Northwestern's 10-point second quarter, Pat Fitzgerald half-laughed, half-scoffed and said simply, "It seemed like guys caught the ball for [QB Clayton Thorson]." While Thorson struggled again with ball security and completed under 50 percent of his passes, there were multiple occasions where his targets just weren't open. And when they were, his passes were dropped.

Perhaps the aspect of this game flying most under-the-radar, though, and a worrisome trend that has emerged in the past two games, is that Justin Jackson isn't getting the ball even close to enough. And yes, teams have to throw to get back into ball games, but at the 11:40 mark of the second quarter, Jackson had two carries and the game was still within nine points. That's not a big enough margin to abandon the game plan. He finished the day with a measly 10 carries. The guy that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the offensive attack this year -- and by far the best skill position player on this team -- has 22 carries in the past two games. If you worried that he would burn out from so many carries early in the year, you should now worry that Northwestern's offense is simply losing its identity and its competence all at once.

Even handing the ball off sometimes proved too difficult for Saturday's version of Northwestern. What effectively ended the game, fittingly, was a fumble on the most basic play in Northwestern's playbook, the read-option.

"It just looked like fundamental [mistakes] today," Pat Fitzgerald said.

It didn't just look like that. It was that.