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An opportunistic Northwestern capitalizes on turnovers and resiliency in massive win at Iowa

The Wildcats sent the Hawkeyes into an 0-2 hole while opening up doors to contend for the West division.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

IOWA CITY, Iowa — After two early turnovers in the first quarter, it appeared Northwestern forgot its juice at Ryan Field as it sank into a 17-point road deficit against Iowa. Back-to-back giveaways took the life out of the Wildcat defense as the game seemed almost out of reach as quickly as it began.

While two sobering fumbles rocked Northwestern early in the game, the turnover battle in the second half ultimately handed them the victory as the Brandon Joseph-led defense came up strong with three interceptions in the final two frames to secure a 21-20 win.

When Pat Fitzgerald rallied his team at the end of the first quarter, those two fumbles had led to 14 Iowa points. NU’s defense forced a three-and-out on Iowa’s first drive, but that was about the only positive of the opening 15 minutes. Kyric McGowan, filling in for an injured Riley Lees, muffed the ensuing punt, resulting in a fumble which set up a seven-yard Iowa touchdown. On the following drive, when it appeared Northwestern had finally begun to move the ball, Isaiah Bowser fumbled it away once again, setting up another Iowa score for the two-possession lead.

But Fitz knew his team couldn’t continue down the same path for the remainder of the matchup, so he used the short break following the first quarter to jumpstart the Wildcats.

“They kinda all looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s get it going, let’s go,’” Fitzgerald said. “We got the wind [in the second quarter], and I thought that helped.”

Time and again last season, NU cited turnovers and its inability to force takeaways as the reason for many of its losses. The Wildcat offense lost nine fumbles and 15 interceptions while the defense recovered only seven fumbles and seven interceptions. In the first quarter on Saturday, it looked like Northwestern had reverted to its 2019 self after a near flawless beatdown of Maryland in Week One.

However, after the first 15 minutes ran out, a new Northwestern team took the field in the second quarter, maintained control of the ball and climbed back into the game, trailing by only six at halftime. As soon as the ‘Cats cleaned up their own play, they began to take advantage of the Hawkeyes’ miscues.

“We knew going into this game it was going to be a four-quarter fight,” Peyton Ramsey said. “We knew we had a lot of football left to go and just had to regain some momentum. Offensively we came out flat, and we picked it up there in the second quarter and turned it around.”

Joseph picked off Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras twice — the first one led to a touchdown drive, and the second critically took back the ball after Iowa had moved into field goal range following a Ramsey interception. Blake Gallagher’s game-sealing interception tied the turnover battle at three and brought Northwestern to six interceptions on the year — one shy of their total from all of last season.

“It shows maturity,” senior linebacker Chris Bergin said about the second-half turnovers. “What we heard from our defensive staff on the sideline was ‘They’re beating us in the takeaway battle.’ Early on, they got two takeaways and got up on us, and we had to get it back. The takeaway battle is everything, and our defense took care of business when we needed to.”

In addition to proving their resilience, the Wildcats showed they can win in multiple ways. Not only can they blow out opponents like they did to Maryland, but they can stay composed and use their veteran experience to control momentum down the stretch and pull out close wins against talented divisional foes — something the 2018 Big Ten West Championship team excelled at throughout the season. NU managed just 92 yards in the entire second half, averaging 2.5 yards per play, but felt comfortable in crunch time.

Rather than having one player dominate, the Wildcats showed that each win will be by committee this year, with many new leaders stepping into larger roles.

When Lees left early with an injury, McGowan rebounded from his early fumble to lead all Wildcat receivers with five receptions for 63 yards, including several third down conversions and a rushing touchdown. Jesse Brown put the running backs on his shoulders at the goal line and finished the afternoon with two touchdowns, his first scores since 2017. And the redshirt first-year Joseph carried the secondary in its second consecutive game without Greg Newsome II.

Even without standout individual performances from players like Ramsey, who went just 11-of-18 for 130 yards and an interception, the Wildcats’ team approach to winning was effective enough to drop the Hawkeyes to 0-2 for the first time in 20 years.

Northwestern’s victory was not flawless by any means, but the team has proven in this early season that it can pull out wins when necessary, and in a year as uncertain as this one, that’s all Wildcat fans can ask for.

“You hope to improve, to get better, and I don’t want to say anything yet, but these are the games you got to win if you want to have a special year,” Fitz said.