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Facing adversity from all angles, Northwestern responds in best of ways

The Wildcats didn’t panic. They didn’t break. And then they finished.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Pat Fitzgerald loves to talk about not necessarily throwing the metaphorical punches, but responding to them.

And for nearly every successful punch Iowa threw, Northwestern had a response in a potentially season-saving 38-31 win over its arch-rival, Iowa, at Kinnick Stadium.

Given the way this season has gone, a shift in momentum late in the first half created the sense that Northwestern would fall apart once again. After a brilliant quarter-and-a-half, Justin Jackson — he of three career fumbles — put one on the ground. The most dependable man on the team had let his team down, at least momentarily. Iowa would score to take its first lead of the day, 21-17. Despite out-gaining the Hawkeyes, Pat Fitzgerald’s team went into halftime down four.

The response wasn’t immediate. To open the second half, Northwestern ran a set of three ugly plays and gave up a huge punt return to Desmond King, which set up the then red-hot Iowa offense at the Northwestern 28. Things seemed to be slipping away.

But then the Wildcats responded.

In the shadow of its own goalposts, the defense came up with a huge stop and forced an Iowa field goal, making it 24-17. Northwestern still needed on offensive response, though, especially after the offense had essentially come to a complete stop after an inspiring start to the game.

That unit’s response? Oh, just the best three-drive sequence Northwestern could have possibly hoped for: three touchdown drives in a row, all covering at least 75 yards. It was the most impressive display from that side of the ball in recent memory.

“The difference was the way we were able to finish in the second half,” Fitzgerald said. “For us not to flinch after they went on that 17-0 run, I thought, really showed some maturity from this group.”

One of the most mature players on the team, senior wideout Austin Carr, was right in the middle of it all, catching two of his three touchdowns on the day in that second half, including an absolutely spectacular one on a play that looked like certain doom on 3rd and 8.

“It came back down to regrouping as a family on the field,” Carr said. “Many times when we were in the huddles either as a team or a defensive or offensive unit, Coach Fitz is reminding us that it’s about us, 11 against 70,000, and proving them wrong when they say we’re not good enough to beat their team.”

Lost in the middle of that scoring, though, was something the Wildcats had to respond to emotionally, and not something any of the players could have anticipated: the scary injury to backup linebacker Brett Walsh. The injury, which occurred on the kickoff directly after the first of the three touchdowns, resulted in a lengthy delay in the game. Walsh was on the Kinnick Stadium turf for nearly ten minutes before he was put on a stretcher and eventually a cart to be taken to the hospital.

Northwestern could have been shaken. Instead, it didn’t allow a yard on Iowa’s ensuing drive, allowing the offense to get right back to work and score again, which it did, this time courtesy of one of the most impressive runs you’ll see all season. That was Jackson’s big response, one of the most steady players in college football coming through at an incredibly uneasy time.

“There’s an amazing brotherhood and chemistry and love on our team, and I don’t think that’s unique to Northwestern, but that’s the backbone of who we are,” Fitzgerald said. “I just brought them up and gave them a quick update on what I was given from the doctors... I was just transparent and told them what the doctors told me.”

Still, the adversity of just one day was far from over. Just minutes later, bottles and other various items started raining from the stands after a facemask penalty on Iowa coupled with an unsportsmanlike conduct call that moved the Wildcats 30 yards upfield.

“It was fun,” Jackson said with a smile. “Obviously you don’t get to be in an environment like that all the time. [Iowa fans] were upset and we were upset that we thought we didn’t get some calls, but you just gotta keep playing.”

That’s precisely what the Wildcats did. Kinnick was turning into a madhouse as the third quarter came to a close and “I-O-W-A” chants rained down from the homecoming crowd. Northwestern did the best thing to quiet such a storm: score its third and final touchdown to give itself a two-touchdown cushion, 38-24.

But Iowa was never one to stop fighting either. The Hawkeyes struck back to get within a touchdown, scoring on a short run after Jerminic Smith burned Trae Williams deep.

After the teams combined for three straight punts, Northwestern’s defense found itself in a familiar position: on the field with the game on the line, a position the unit had already failed in twice this season.

And Williams, who has been targeted by every opponent he has faced since joining the starting lineup, responded, coming up with the game-sealing interception.

“Trae...comes in every day, works hard, so I knew he was gonna make a play,” Walker said. “Everybody believes in him.”

That belief was rewarded today.

Today, there were also responses to bigger issues this season. And yes, issues remain, and perhaps new ones emerged — the special teams coverage units were downright awful — but the response to the big-picture issues facing this team was truly impressive. It was a response that was necessary for the Wildcats to win at a place they hadn’t won at since 2009.

There’s Anthony Walker, who posted his first double-digit-tackle game of the year. He was flying all over the place and looked like his All-American self from the start, recording a tackle for loss on Iowa’s opening play and then a near-sack on third down of the same drive (fellow linebacker Joe Jones was credited).

His unit held Iowa to 79 yards on 41 runs, fewer than two yards per carry for one of the nation’s premier rushing attacks.

“I think everybody did their job,” Walker said. “I think we came ready to play, ready to tackle, ready to be physical, and that was from the start.”

There’s the much-maligned defensive line and perhaps the even more disappointing Ifeadi Odenigbo. The defense registered six sacks of C.J. Beathard and got constant pressure. Odenigbo had four sacks, by far the most impressive performance of the season and probably of his career. He also delivered the soundbite of the post-game press conference:

“Patience is a virtue. It showed, because I worked my ass off for this game.”

Fitzgerald had a similar message regarding the man now in fifth on the all-time career sacks list at Northwestern.

“Ifeadi was like a lot of our older players who weren’t happy with how they played in the first month. I think his practices over the past couple of weeks have been much better.”

There’s even Jack Mitchell, who held onto his starting job, knocked through his lone field goal and converted all five extra points. It’s nothing to be overly impressed with necessarily, but considering where this team’s kicking game was last week, it was crucially important nonetheless.

And quietly, Clayton Thorson played an extremely impressive game. He threw for three touchdowns, ran for a fourth and played his best football when he needed to. When the Wildcats ripped off those three straight touchdown drives, Thorson was pulling the strings, going 8 for 9 for 89 yards and two touchdowns during that span, a rating of over 152 on the NFL quarterback scale (where 158.3 is perfect). On the day, his NFL QBR was 144. He wasn’t perfect. But when his team needed him most, he was pretty darn close.

And then there’s the secondary, led by two extremely young cornerbacks, and one in particular — Williams — that was as up-and-down as anyone on the team through four weeks.

So it was only fitting that Williams responded from perhaps his biggest down to unquestionably his biggest up on a day where the team as a whole did the same over and over.

“All I can think of is it was third and six and they called a timeout, and I remember going up to the defense and saying, ‘This is where championships are made,’” Odenigbo said.

Northwestern’s nowhere near a champion in the traditional sense. But today, Northwestern was the champion of Kinnick Stadium. And that’s the only thing that matters.