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Revisiting Northwestern’s shocking 2009 upset of Iowa, 10 years later

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With the struggling Wildcats about to face off with the Hawkeyes, let’s take another look at one of the greatest upsets of the Pat Fitzgerald era.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Now passing the midway point of this college football season, the ‘Cats haven’t quite met expectations. They take on Iowa this Saturday in a matchup that has consistently produced low-scoring yet tight games, with the two teams being about even in the win-loss column.

While NU might be a 9-point dog this week, history has shown that they’ve been able to overcome the odds against Iowa before. Ten seasons ago, Northwestern was able to secure a victory over the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes in Iowa City, ruining their hopes for an undefeated season.

First, some context

Entering the game, Iowa was 9-0, fresh off a 42-24 home victory of Indiana. The Hawkeye offense was led by Junior QB Ricky Stanzi and a talented receiving corps that included WRs Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and TE Tony Moeaki. Defensively, the Hawkeyes ranked in the top-10 in both YPG allowed and PPG allowed, and were chock-full of future NFL talent.

The Hawkeyes were a 15-point home favorite, looking to go 10-0 for the first time in program history. They sat at 4th in the BCS standings, and were among seven undefeated teams left in the country. They had their eyes set on at least a Rose Bowl appearance, and possibly even a spot in the BCS National Championship.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, entered the game 5-4, having lost by three scores against Penn State in Happy Valley the week prior. Northwestern was led by senior QB Mike Kafka and WR Andrew Brewer offensively, and DE Corey Wootten and DB Sherrick McManis, also in their final years of eligibility, on defense.

Kafka, however, was limited during the game due to hamstring injury, and split reps with QB Dan Persa throughout. Having won on the road against them the year prior, they had plenty of reason to believe they could beat the Hawkeyes again, despite the hype surrounding their highly-ranked opponents..

The Game

Though some of the other slugfests Pat Fitzgerald and Kirk Ferentz have authored took place under horrific weather conditions, it was a bright November afternoon in Iowa City for the 2009 contest. Kinnick was absolutely packed, ready to watch the Hawkeyes take revenge for 2008 and continue their phenomenal run against another seemingly mediocre opponent.

First Quarter

Just a minute into the game, Iowa’s Stanzi was able to find a wide open McNutt for a 74-yard touchdown. The following possession, NU went three-and-out and punted away back to the Hawkeyes. Iowa was able to march down the field once again, this time only securing a field goal with 9:50 left in the first quarter.

It was at this point that, according to the AP game recap, an Iowa team that had won a shocking amount of close contests through their first nine matchups, “looked like they might finally have an easy game.” The quarter ended with three straight punts, as the ‘Cats entered the second quarter down 10-0.

Second Quarter

After yet another Wildcat punt, NU was able to get the ball right back, with Jordan Mabin picking off a deep shot from Stanzi. Despite starting the drive in Iowa territory, Northwestern ended up punting from their own 37, managing to pin Iowa at their own six yard line.

Although NU was unable to capitalize off the turnover, being able to force Iowa into such poor field position allowed them to make a play that completely changed the momentum of the game.

On the second play of the ensuing drive, Iowa attempted a play-action bootleg. Immediately after faking the handoff, Stanzi was met in the end zone by Wootten, who knocked the ball out with a vicious hit, allowing teammate Marshall Thomas to recover it in the end zone for a touchdown.

This was a play that not only gave Northwestern their first score of the game, but one that also saw Iowa lose their veteran QB to an ankle injury that would cause him to miss the rest of the regular season. Stanzi was replaced by redshirt freshman James Vandenberg, who only had a handful of snaps at the college level thus far. It was an absolute game-changer.

Iowa’s next possession ended with their third turnover of the quarter, as Vandenberg was intercepted by Northwestern DB Quentin Davie. Ten plays later, Persa was able to find stud superback Drake Dunsmore in the end zone for their first (and last) offensive touchdown of the day.

On the following possession, NU forced their fourth takeaway of the quarter, a fumble that was yet again recovered by Marshall Thomas. After the Wildcats turned it back over, Iowa punted, taking the ‘Cats into the half up 14-10.

Third Quarter

Following an eventful second quarter, both defenses came out strong to start the second half. After a Northwestern punt on the opening drive, Iowa failed to convert on a 46-yard field goal attempt from Daniel Murray. Neither team succeeded in scoring for the rest of the quarter, each punting once more. Northwestern’s defense continued to shine, only allowing Iowa to gain 45 yards on 12 plays during the full 15 minutes of third quarter action.

Fourth Quarter

Northwestern started the final quarter of the game by capping off a 52-yard drive with a 47-yard field goal from Stefan Demos, sending the ‘Cats up 17-10 with 13:30 left to play. Neither team was able to get anything going offensively for the rest of the game, each punting twice before NU was able to seal the victory with a fourth-down stop with 1:16 left.

The Wildcat defense remained stingy, keeping Iowa’s offense off of the field for the majority of the fourth quarter. The ‘Cats were able to finish the game with a kneel, capturing the biggest win of their season and crushing any hopes Iowa had at a national championship bid.

The Aftermath

In Fitzgerald’s fourth year as head coach, he had finally secured his first ‘signature win’, leading NU to their first victory over a top-10 opponent since upsetting 7th-ranked Ohio State in 2004. The ‘Cats went on to win their final two regular season games against Illinois and Wisconsin, before falling to Auburn in overtime in the Outback Bowl.

Since this game, the Iowa-Northwestern series has been a tightly contested matchup nearly every year, with NU leading Iowa 5-4 in the series since 2010. Among all of the tight games between the two, this one still probably remains the most memorable — for Northwestern fans and Iowa fans alike.