In their most complete and shocking performance of the season, Northwestern (2-3, 1-1 Big Ten) went into Kinnick Stadium on Saturday and beat the Iowa Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1) by the score of 38-31.
Clayton Thorson and his three touchdowns — all to Austin Carr — as well as Justin Jackson led the way offensively for the Wildcats, who won their first Big Ten game of the season. The offense will get the headlines, but the defense — which sacked Iowa’s C.J. Beathard six times and pressured him all game — played a big role too.
The Wildcats got off to a hot start, holding Iowa to a three-and-out on the first drive of the game after winning the coin toss and choosing to defer.
Flynn Nagel returned the ensuing punt 47 yards to Iowa’s 5-yard line, setting up a quick Northwestern score. Clayton Thorson took a designed scramble behind some blockers into the end zone on 2nd down. But, more surprisingly, embattled kicker Jack Mitchell knocked the extra point right through the uprights to put the Wildcats up 7-0.
Iowa would score in very similar fashion a few minutes later. With a perfect pooch punt on fourth down, Beathard pinned Northwestern inside its own 1-yard line, leading to a short Hunter Niswander punt which Desmond King returned to the Northwestern 5. Two plays later, Akrum Wadley plunged into the end zone for a five-yard score to tie the game at seven points apiece.
The Wildcats responded immediately, thanks to a drive-starting 35-yard Jackson run that set the tone. A 4th down conversion on a short pass to Austin Carr set up a 25-yard field goal chance for Mitchell, which he promptly drilled to give the lead back to Northwestern, rewarding the coaching staff for their faith in the senior.
For the most part, Northwestern’s defensive front seven held the Iowa offense in check during the first half, as it got a lot of pressure on Beathard and forced a bunch of rushed throws. The Hawkeyes had to punt multiple times after quick three-and-outs, which gave the Wildcats great field position.
On the drive after Mitchell’s field goal, Northwestern went 54 yards on nine plays — capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass from Thorson to Carr — to take a 17-7 lead.
Both teams struggled on their next possessions, thanks to big hits on the quarterbacks. A rejuvenated Anthony Walker crushed Beathard on a 3rd down throw, forcing an incompletion, followed by a Northwestern drive which ended when Thorson stepped right into a sack.
Another weak Niswander punt led to another big punt return by King. A few plays later, aided by a Montre Hartage misplay on a 22-yard sideline toss to Jay Scheel, Wadley scampered into the end zone for his second touchdown of the day.
The Wildcats gave the ball right back to Iowa on a Justin Jackson fumble. Beathard capitalized on that mistake almost immediately. He led a quick drive which culminated in a nice 15-yard corner fade to Riley McCarron for a touchdown that put the Hawkeyes up 21-17 for their first lead of the day. The Wildcats headed into the half having given up 14 unanswered points in a row.
Northwestern’s second half start was almost as bad as its first half start was good. A three-play drive that lost three yards forced Niswander to punt, again, and McCarron returned it for 38 yards to the Northwestern 28-yard line. Weak punt coverage continued to take its toll on the field position battle for the Wildcats. However, Northwestern came up with a big defensive stand to hold Iowa to three points.
Down 24-17, the Wildcats mounted an immediate comeback. In just over five minutes, Northwestern went 74 yards down the field on 11 plays to tie the game up on an incredible Thorson-to-Carr touchdown, Carr’s second of the day.
Forced out of the pocket on 3rd and 8, Thorson pinpointed a pass to Carr on the far side of the end zone right along the sideline. Carr just got his right foot inbounds and the on-field touchdown call was confirmed after a brief review. Neither Thorson nor Carr put up huge yardage numbers on the day but when the Wildcats needed big plays, they came from that tandem, which combined for three touchdowns.
A promising Iowa drive then got blown up thanks to an Ifeadi Odenigbo sack of Beathard on 3rd down, so the Hawkeyes settled for their sixth punt of the day. Four plays later, Justin Jackson broke free. He rolled through the middle of the Iowa defense for a game-breaking 58-yard touchdown run that put Northwestern back on top, 31-24.
Northwestern’s defensive line continued to make plays on the next drive as another Odenigbo sack ended yet another Iowa drive. Then the Wildcats jumped into the driver’s seat. Thorson connected with Carr on a 25-yard touchdown pass (their third connection) with just over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter to give Northwestern a two-score lead. Simply put, the Hawkeyes had no answer for Carr, who was the best player on the field for either team.
But, the Hawkeyes wouldn’t go quietly into the late Iowa City afternoon. They drove down the field in under four minutes to get a one-yard touchdown run from LeShun Daniels, his first score of the day. In the end, though, Northwestern was able to hold on even as the offense stalled toward the end of the fourth quarter. A Trae Williams interception with 58 seconds remaining sealed the win.
- The battles upfront, on both sides of the ball, were won by Northwestern, for once. The defensive line, which ended up with six sacks, was in Beathard’s grill all day, either pressuring him or knocking him to the ground on most passing plays. Iowa’s pair of solid running backs, Daniels and Wadley, also weren’t able to get much going on the ground. Offensively, Thorson had all day to throw and Jackson had running lanes galore. You can’t ask for much more.
- Special teams was a mixed bag. The first quarter Nagel punt return gave Northwestern a big early boost but Iowa’s kick and punt returners had field days for the entire game. The Hawkeyes didn’t return any kicks for scores, but Desmond King and Riley McCarron combined for 115 yards on five returns (23 yards per). Big gains by King (32 yards) and McCarron (38 yards) set up scores for Iowa. The Hawkeyes essentially dominated the field position battle as a result.
- Austin Carr continues to be extremely reliable and productive and Justin Jackson had a big bounce-back game. Of Carr’s three touchdowns, one was fairly open because of a slick cut he made and two required extremely athletic plays on his part. The chemistry he has developed with Clayton Thorson is remarkable and extremely dynamic. As for Jackson, he showed what he can do with a somewhat useful passing game and solid blocking scheme. He tore up Iowa’s defense for 171 yards on 26 carries and a score.
- It looks like Anthony Walker is officially back. He has struggled with a lingering injury and some conditioning issues this season but looked explosive on Saturday and made a bunch of big plays. The Northwestern defense is a whole new animal with him playing well.
- Jack Mitchell, a week after his worst game as a college kicker, was perfect. He forced a few touchbacks on kickoffs, made all five extra point attempts and even drilled his only field goal. Not bad for a guy who was called out by his coach after the Nebraska game.
- Northwestern linebacker Brett Walsh was injured on a kickoff in the third quarter and stayed down on the field for over 10 minutes before being carted off. He gave a thumbs up to fans as he left and is at an Iowa City-area hospital and is conscious.