IOWA CITY, IOWA — Northwestern has won the Big Ten West.
On a day where both Purdue and Wisconsin — the two teams closest to the Wildcats in the standings — both lost, Northwestern beat Iowa 14-10, out-slugging the Hawkeyes in a low-scoring, physical affair on a below-freezing afternoon at Kinnick Stadium.
Despite a mostly poor afternoon from quarterback Clayton Thorson, Isaiah Bowser carried the load and then some, posting the best game of his young career on the day Northwestern clinched the West. Bowser rushed for 165 yards on 31 carries, including a key 34-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Thorson, who went 15-of-30 for 122 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions on the day, redeemed himself in the fourth quarter, when he delivered a strike to Bennett Skowronek that will go down as one of the most important plays of the season, if not program history. Streaking down the Northwestern sideline, Skowronek laid out for a 32-yard, lead re-claiming, touchdown grab that was nothing short of spectacular.
Paddy Fisher and Joe Gaziano forced fumbles on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to secure Northwestern’s first-ever Big Ten West title. Amid a season in which the defense dominated when the offense couldn’t, Northwestern’s two best defensive players poked the ball loose in order to tighten their grip on a trip to Indy.
In a matchup that was close throughout, the game began inauspiciously for Northwestern. Iowa return man Ihmir Smith-Marsette took the opening kick back to the Iowa 47. The Kinnick crowd was ready to roll, and Smith-Marsette got them energized from the game’s very first play.
Iowa proceeded to go three-and-out, though, and, unfortunately for those who love offense, the rest of the first half went much like Iowa’s opening drive did — controlled by the defenses and drives derailed by penalties.
Twelve first-half possessions resulted in nine punts, one turnover on downs, one Miguel Recinos 46-yard field goal and a Northwestern “drive” that consisted of three Thorson kneel-downs leading up to halftime. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley’s 37-yard pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson was the only play over 20 yards in the half.
Northwestern began the second half with a Thorson interception, on a play where Thorson missed Flynn Nagel in the middle of the field. On the following possiession, the Wildcats’ defense got a much-needed stop in their own territory, though.
Bowser continued to roll after that stop, ripping off several solid gains before breaking a 34-yard touchdown run to give Northwestern a 7-3 lead in the third quarter. Bennett Skowronek drew a key pass interference penalty on the drive.
Thorson threw another interception on the next drive, however, and this time, the Northwestern defense couldn’t stop the Hawkeyes. Smith-Marsette beat Alonzo Mayo badly on a 28-yard touchdown strike after Montre Hartage left the game with an apparent leg injury.
Without kickers Charlie Kuhbander and Drew Luckenbaugh, punter Jake Collins missed a 38-yard field goal that would have tied the game at 10 in the fourth quarter.
Regardless, Northwestern did what it had to do in Iowa City, and it won the Big Ten West. Unreal.