It was far from the high-scoring affair we saw in Iowa City last season, but it was a similar result nonetheless. Northwestern (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) used a tremendous defensive effort to take down Iowa (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) for a much-needed 17-10 win in overtime.
Neither team gave a significantly black and gold-clad crowd at Ryan Field much to cheer for throughout the first thirty minutes on Saturday.
That trend did not align with the rest of the afternoon. After Clayton Thorson’s quarterback sneak gave Northwestern the first score of the overtime period, the defense came up with the biggest play of the 2017 season, turning Iowa over on downs via a crucial fourth down drop.
It was quite a different end to what was a listless first half of football. The second quarter was capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass from Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley to Noah Fant for the first points of the game.
The two teams combined for seven punts and two turnovers on downs in the first half. Ballyhooed running backs Akrum Wadley and Justin Jackson averaged less than four yards per carry. Clayton Thorson threw for just 79 first half yards, and while his counterpart Stanley fared better, more than one-third of his first half numbers came on this throw to Matt Vandeberg.
Matt Vandeberg beats Alonzo Mayo for a 61-yard gain. Iowa's in business right now. pic.twitter.com/i4twZ0A7MJ— Caleb Friedman (@calebfriedman) October 21, 2017
Call the lack of explosive offense Big Ten football if you want. I’ll call it boring.
Pat Fitzgerald likes to describe his team’s playing style with a phrase coined by Woody Hayes. “Three yards and a cloud of dust.”
On Saturday, Northwestern effectively lived up to the legendary coach’s saying.
Not even the 1962 throwback helmets — from a team that averaged 32 points per game — could ignite the Wildcats’ fledgling offense which failed to score in the first half.
The absence of Butkus Award finalist Josey Jewell and starting safety Brandon Snyder could not mitigate Northwestern’s offensive shortcomings. Sacks, penalties, a porous offensive line and the inconsistency that has riddled this offense reared its ugly heads once again.
Then, like it often does, defense turned to offense.
Northwestern forced punts on the Hawkeyes’ first three drives of the second half, and Thorson created Northwestern’s longest play of the day on his own with a 21-yard run on third down. Redshirt freshman Jeremy Larkin capped that drive with a six-yard touchdown scamper, finding the corner of the end zone to tie the game with 7:19 remaining in the third quarter.
Two drives later, Northwestern took a 10-7 fourth quarter lead on Charlie Kuhbander’s 30-yard field goal. Freshman JR Pace intercepted Stanley as Iowa searched for an immediate response, but the Wildcats couldn’t get points despite a short field. Sparked by a few big gains from Wadley, the Hawkeyes marched back down the field. A false start on a fourth and inches deep in Northwestern territory forced Kirk Ferentz to bring out kicker Miguel Recinos, who nailed a 48-yard field goal to knot the game at 10.
Fitzgerald opted to play for overtime for the first time since South Bend in 2014, taking the ball out of his three-year starting quarterback’s hands by running the ball three consecutive times with 1:30 on the clock.
Fitzgerald’s decision looked awfully good after Jackson masterfully turned a short reception into a 24-yard gain on third and nine, and Thorson punched it in himself to give Northwestern a 17-10 lead in overtime.
It looked even better when Iowa’s overtime possession ended with a turnover on downs, sealing a huge conference win for Northwestern.
The Wildcats still have plenty of problems - the offense has yet to put together a full game and Thorson was sacked multiple times on third down. But for now, Northwestern is above .500 for the first time since Week One and just earned its most impressive win of the season.
Michigan State is up next.