Northwestern is in the midst of its worst losing streak since Pat Fitzgerald's first year as Northwestern head football coach. That season, the Wildcats lost six straight games at one point and finished the year 4-8. Like 2006, Northwestern started this season 2-1 before dipping into a losing streak. After Saturday's loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City, the Wildcats have lost four straight games and have fallen to 2-4.
The Hawkeyes jumped out to a 17-0 before the 'Cats eventually tied the game at 17. Iowa, however, took control throughout the second half, and the 'Cats never caught up, falling 41-31 at Kinnick Stadium. Here's a look at the best and worst of Saturday's game from Northwestern's perspective:
Jeremy Ebert's big day: Even as his team struggles, Northwestern wide receiver Jeremy Ebert continues to post big numbers for the 'Cats. Against Iowa, Ebert completed a career-high 13 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. This performance follows an 11 reception, 86 yards receiving performance last week against Michigan. After starting the year slowly without Dan Persa under center, Ebert has surged in recent weeks, and now has 39 catches for 431 yards and six touchdowns this season. With Northwestern only halfway through its 2011 campaign, Ebert is on pace to break his career highs in receptions (62) and receiving touchdowns (eight), both of which he set in 2010.
The option run: Much of Northwestern's success offensively was sustained through the option run, which was executed pretty well both with Dan Persa and Kain Colter at quarterback. Colter, however, excelled running the option, and the statistics show it: Colter rushed on 12 occasions for 76 yards, and also set up a number of successful carries by Wildcat running backs, including a touchdown run by Adonis Smith. Although Colter nearly had one disastrous pitch in the second half - Iowa nearly recovered the ball, but Northwestern maintained possession - the option run worked well for the 'Cats against the Hawkeyes, and will continue to play a role if Colter continues to receive snaps at quarterback.
What can't Kain Colter do?: While Colter deserves accolades for his support of Northwestern's ground game, he was perhaps most impressive as a component of the passing game. The sophomore was originally a receiver at Northwestern, and on Saturday we saw exactly why. Colter finished the game with six catches for 71 yards, including an amazing 32-yard diving grab. Overall, Colter's versatility was on display against Iowa: he threw a touchdown, caught six passes and ran for 76 yards. If Colter continues to play so well in so many different positions, he will surely continue to have some role - or multiple roles - as the season enters the homestretch.
Dominating the stat game: Northwestern may have lost the game on the scoreboard, but they won the game in the boxscore. NU racked up 495 yards of total offense, while Iowa only gained 379. The 'Cats held the ball for 38:21, while Iowa only held possession for 21:37. Northwestern faced 22 third downs and converted 16 of them; Iowa was only 1-7 on third down. Unfortunately for the 'Cats, the only thing that matters is that Iowa had more points than Northwestern on the scoreboard.
Iowa's pregame card-trick: This doesn't have much to do with the actual game, but Iowa's pregame card stunt was awesome.
Dan Persa's interception: Northwestern's Dan Persa rarely makes bad decisions. That's why his interception in the first quarter of this game was so uncharacteristic of the senior quarterback. On first and goal from the Iowa 7-yard line, Persa dropped back to throw, danced around a few Iowa defenders and attempted to loft the ball to the endzone. Unfortunately Persa was hit simultaneously as he threw the ill-advised pass, which would have already been a very difficult throw, even without the pressure. Persa's pass fell into the arms of Iowa defender Tanner Miller at the 2-yard line, and Miller proceeded to run the interception all the way to the endzone for a Hawkeye touchdown. The play was a 14-point swing at most, but clearly the momentum has swung drastically in Iowa's favor after what had been an impressive Northwestern drive. Persa's interception was probably the worst decision the quarterback has made on the field in his playing career, which is a credit to his skills as a decision-maker. But the interception obviously cost Northwestern in this contest.
Not many answers for play-action: Throughout the game, Iowa consistently ran play-action passes, and consistently these play-action passes worked. Both James Vandenberg touchdown passes came on play-action passes, and on both of these touchdown passes the receivers were wide open. Northwestern's pass defense has been a weakness of the team so far this season, but statistically, all things considered, they were not in worst form against Iowa. Jeravin Matthews's benching is a small testament to the unit's struggles so far this year. The two play-action touchdowns, however, fooled Northwestern's linebackers and secondary, and gave the Hawkeyes two critical scores.
The quarterback carousel: No Northwestern quarterback played particularly poorly on Saturday, but when three different quarterbacks take snaps, it's a bad sign. On Saturday, Dan Persa expectedly took the majority of snaps, completing 31 passes on 40 attempts for 246 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Kain Colter also received a number of snaps at quarterback, running the ball most of the time but also completing two passes, including a touchdown, on four attempts. And with the game basically out of reach at the end of the fourth quarter, Trevor Siemian made an appearance and actually played well, throwing the ball for 52 yards and a touchdown. There's obviously no quarterback controversy for Northwestern, but one could easily foresee one on the horizon for next season. Both Siemian and Colter look like potential starters in 2012; true freshman Zack Oliver could also be in the mix. While Northwestern will clearly have options at quarterback next season, some may argue that a quarterback carousel right now only serves to disrupt the Wildcats' offense.
The battle for bowl eligibility: Another loss means that Northwestern is in danger of failing to make a bowl game for the first time since 2007. The Wildcats can only afford to lose a maximum of two more games to make a bowl, and this would mean defeating at least Penn State, Nebraska or Michigan State. Though Northwestern has winnable games remaining on the schedule - Indiana, Rice and Minnesota - we also have to remember many expected the 'Cats to take care of Army earlier this year. In other words, no game's outcome is a certainty - even when the Wildcats are the underdogs, which they will likely be against Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan State.