IOWA CITY, IOWA — Northwestern (2-0) escaped Iowa City with a nail-biting 21-20 victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes (0-2). After a rocky start, the Wildcat rushers and strong defensive front led the team to victory once again.
The ‘Cats relied on a steady dose of runs wearing out the Hawkeyes’ defensive front while a couple of key conversions on fourth down swung momentum back toward Pat Fitzgerald’s squad after a disastrous start. Although the offense did not create many big plays, they charged to 143 yards on the ground behind a team-high 25 carries for 85 yards from Isaiah Bowser and two touchdowns from Jesse Brown.
Indeed, the ‘Cats ran the ball on nearly three quarters of their offensive snaps while Peyton Ramsey was conservative with the ball through the air, going 11-of-18 for 130 yards and an interception while rushing for an additional 26 yards.
Kyric McGowan proved to be Ramsey’s one reliable target throughout the afternoon, making five catches for 63 yards, including a few key third down conversions, charting a touchdown and averaging 12.6 yards per catch.
On the defensive end, Northwestern embodied a bend-don’t-break mentality, limiting Iowa to 77 yards on the ground and keeping the Hawkeyes out of the end zone after the first quarter and shutting them out in the second half entirely. Brandon Joseph anchored the secondary with two interceptions on the afternoon while linebackers Chris Bergin, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher led the tackling efforts with 12, 11 and 11, respectively.
Northwestern got off to a rocky start as the strong wind led McGowan to misjudge an early Iowa punt and fumble, giving the Iowa the ball on the NU seven. The Hawkeyes capitalized on the special teams error immediately with a Spencer Petras touchdown pass to Brandon Smith to give them the 7-0 lead 3:24 into the contest.
Early mistakes for the ‘Cats continued on the next drive when Isaiah Bowser fumbled the football out of the wildcat formation, allowing the Hawkeyes to take over at the Northwestern 45. Iowa marched into the end zone once more in only three plays, capped by a 15-yard touchdown rush from Tyler Goodson. The Hawkeyes extended their lead to 17-0 on the next drive with a chip shot from Keith Duncan.
The following Northwestern drive saw the ‘Cats rely on the ground game for 75 yards down the field in 16 plays with a McGowan jet sweep cutting the Iowa lead to 17-7 early in the second quarter. Iowa drove into Northwestern territory once more, but a pass-breakup from Earnest Brown IV lead to another field goal to make the Hawkeye lead 13.
Northwestern responded by relying on their rushing attack again on a 14-play, 79-yard touchdown drive highlighted by a fourth-down conversion at the Iowa 38, an Andrew Marty appearance and a one-yard touchdown run from Jesse Brown. With limited time in the half, Northwestern held up Iowa at the 34-yard line, resulting in a Caleb Shudak field goal attempt that ricocheted off the upright. The missed kick held the score at 20-14 at the half.
After trading punts to begin the second half, Joseph picked off Petras to give Northwestern prime field position and a burst of momentum, enabling another ground-heavy drive capped off by a two-yard rushing touchdown from Brown. His second score of the ballgame gave the ‘Cats a 21-20 lead, their first of the contest.
The score held into the fourth quarter, as the teams once more traded punts. Ramsey, who avoided big mistakes throughout the game for the most part, overthrew McGowan and was picked off by Jack Koerner on third-down rollout, giving Iowa phenomenal field position with eight minutes remaining in the contest. Ramsey’s mistake would not come back to bite Northwestern, though — three plays later, Joseph recorded his second interception of the game as Mekhi Sargent bobbled a Petras pass.
Northwestern was unable to capitalize on the turnover and handed the ball back to Iowa with 4:45 remaining. While it appeared Iowa was gaining momentum as time ran out, Northwestern’s defense took a stand and forced a turnover on downs. The ‘Cats proceeded to force Iowa to burn all of its timeouts with three straight runs but punted to pin Iowa inside its own 20. Gallagher ended Iowa’s final shot at a comeback by picking off Petras and sealing the win for Fitz’s squad in an absolute slugfest of a game.
Petras went 26-for-50 with 216 yards a touchdown and three interceptions. The Hawkeyes saw most of their offensive contributions from Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who caught seven passes for 84 yards.
The ‘Cats will host the Nebraska Cornhuskers (0-1) next Saturday at 11 a.m.