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Northwestern football showing signs of life with competitiveness, but still unable to get over the hump

Very close, but still quite far.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

When two football teams combine to score zero points in a half, and 17 altogether, you start to question some things.

Will either team ever actually score?

Where did the staples of the modern offense go?

Why did I willingly choose to cover this matchup?

What happened to the game I love?

Those thoughts provided comedic relief during a slog of a game at Wrigley Field Saturday, a contest featuring 339 total yards, three non-garbage time plays of 10-plus yards and 14 punts. To the credit of both teams, the second half became more exciting: the floodgates really opened with all sides finding the end zone, including Northwestern doing so to tie the game with 1:50 left on a Brendan Sullivan touchdown pass to Cam Johnson.

While the Wildcats roared back against one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, that drive proved all for naught. On the ensuing possession, Deacon Hill led the Hawkeyes on a seven-play, 37-yard scamper to get Drew Stevens into field goal range; a 23-yard hole shot completion to Kaleb Brown was the dagger for the ‘Cats, giving Iowa a legitimate chance to win. Kirk Ferentz’s side did just that, escaping a hideous affair courtesy of a 52-yard bomb from his kicker.

From a purple-and-white lens, it can be easy to view Saturday’s affair as Northwestern falling victim to Iowa’s signature brand of play, or simply giving plaudits to a kicker for stepping up. But, those perspectives miss a larger point — that even though they battled, the Wildcats still haven’t been able to materialize all the way through.

Offense on either side was as hard to come by in this one as facing Cubs ace Justin Steele, so it’s not like NU’s O was significantly worse than Iowa’s. Still, Brian Ferentz’s unit outgained Mike Bajakian’s in offensive success rate (by 15% no less) and first downs. Considering that it was announced that Ferentz — notoriously one of the worst coordinators in college football — would not return at the end of the season, it’s alarming to internalize that Bajakian’s actually group performed worse.

There’s little question that Phil Parker’s defense stifles virtually any opponent, and it did so countless times on Saturday. Yet, altering the angle reflects continued offensive futility for the Wildcats.

The possession that unquestionably stung the most for David Braun was an 18-play, 66-yard drive that yielded zero points. After a fourth-and-1 conversion from Anthony Tyus III (which came on a toss — an interesting call when you need one yard) and Bryce Kirtz drawing pass interference on Cooper DeJean, Northwestern had first-and-goal at the Iowa 2. Bajakian called four runs up the middle, and the Hawkeyes responded every time, hardly surrendering an inch and keeping NU off the board.

Maybe it was the faulty turf down near home plate — which sparked several stoppages, and was conspicuous from all the way up in the press box. Maybe it was an Iowa defense that’s cogent and stout. But, the responsibility ultimately falls on the OC for not finding a way to punch the ball in. Frankly, I didn’t despise trying to push the pile up the middle with Sullivan or another ball-carrier, but working in a pass (e.g., play action) or some type of deception (a zone read) could have worked better.

The blame for Northwestern’s frustrating loss doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of its offense, though. NU’s defense had lapses throughout four quarters, which gave Iowa prime opportunities to claim an advantage.

Cornerbacks Garnett Hollis Jr. and Theran Johnson were flagged for PI three times in the opening quarter, with all of such penalties giving the Hawkeyes a new set of downs on third down. Further, Northwestern was assessed for sideline interference — which Braun explained was for making contact with an official — granting Iowa 15 more yards. It was another game with far too much laundry for the ‘Cats, who posted seven penalties for 71 yards; meanwhile, Iowa had just three calls for 30.

Moreover, Braun’s defense failed to make stops in some key situations. The Wildcats were continually victimized by Iowa’s PA Boot concept utilizing its tight ends, including on Addison Ostrenga’s touchdown pass. As mentioned earlier, the corner route to Brown against NU’s Cover Two effectively won Iowa the ballgame.

Throughout nine games, we’ve learned that Northwestern is a rather tenacious team that a) won’t give up and b) largely won’t get blown out against most opponents; both of those are unquestionably demarcations of improvement. However, those traits won’t fully manifest themselves unless they translate into wins. Saturday proved especially painful for the Wildcats’ Big Ten West title hopes, with Wisconsin and Indiana both falling to 5-4 and 3-3 in conference play. A win in the Friendly Confines would’ve not only put NU in that same standing, but also would’ve erased Iowa’s slim lead.

Now, Northwestern has three games left in 2023 to qualify for a bowl game and to finalize the chapters of “writing its story,” as Braun has consistently put it. At 4-5, where NU is would’ve been incomprehensible a mere two months ago, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But in order to avoid having a promising season come to a premature end, the Wildcats will need to begin putting together consecutive games of execution on both sides of the ball. That hasn’t happened so far this year, and altogether for a program that hasn’t won two straight games since the midway point of the 2020 season.

That win over Purdue in West Lafayette three years ago didn’t just spark the team’s last winning stretch: it also was NU’s last road win. At 14 games, Northwestern possesses the longest losing streak on the road in the country.

Will Braun’s troops demonstrate continued resolve and finally snap that in a pivotal showdown in Madison, Wisconsin next weekend? Can the Wildcats collectivize their individual unit flashes and emerge victorious multiple Saturdays in a row, departing the pendulum they’re on?

Until those two facets become reality for Northwestern, the team can’t transcend from unexpected Cinderella to intimidating division or conference contender — despite playing in Wrigley, those are elements for which you can’t blame a curse or fan interference.