On a day when Northwestern football honored former head coach Ara Parseghian, who led the team to its only No. 1 ranking, the Wildcats topped the Iowa Hawkeyes 17-10 in an overtime contest that sent fans on an emotional roller coaster.
To put it simply, Saturday was a tale of two halves – and that pesky extra overtime period. Midway through what was once a boring game, the Iowa offense had produced 208 total yards compared to Northwestern’s 107. By the time the dust settled after overtime, the ‘Cats had outgained the Hawkeyes by 27 yards. Justin Jackson’s 93 rushing yards and Clayton Thorson’s 192 passing yards spearheaded the turnaround.
“We knew this was going to be a battle,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We were going to have to fight for every inch.”
The biggest play of the first half for the Wildcats was a 17-yard Clayton Thorson pass to Macan Wilson. Aside from that completion, the greatest Northwestern gain came from a 15-yard hands-to-the-face penalty on the Iowa defense.
Despite these struggles, the defense stepped up to keep the game scoreless for most of the half. After missing a couple of open receivers early in the second quarter, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley finally broke through the secondary with a 61-yard pass to Matt Vandeberg that set up a touchdown in the red zone. With less than a minute left in the first half, the Hawkeyes took a 7-0 lead.
After the Iowa kickoff, Thorson took a knee to end an ugly offensive half for the Wildcats.
“Our defense was playing well, and the offense had to pick it up,” Thorson said.
At the start of the second half, the unlikeliest of players – punter Hunter Niswander – sparked a momentum-shift in Northwestern’s favor. While the Wildcat offense began the third quarter with a three-and-out, Niswander inspired the defense with a booming punt down the field. The ball rolled all the way to the Iowa 2-yard line for a whopping 80-yard punt—good for the longest in the Big Ten this season by 11 yards.
On the ensuing Iowa possession, the defense got a quick stop to give Thorson and co. great field position, and the offense finally showed its teeth. Thorson put together a few first-down passes to complement runs from Justin Jackson, and backup running back Jeremy Larkin punched in a touchdown for the Wildcats on a 6-yard run to tie the game at 7-7.
Late in the third quarter, the stout Northwestern defense forced a quick punt before the offense turned the ball over on downs after Fitzgerald decided to go for it on 4th and 7. As Iowa held possession early in the fourth, sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano came up big with a sack and a tackle on a quarterback sneak to force another Hawkeye punt.
“I think that we’re a more cohesive unit,” Gaziano said about the front seven on defense. “We’ve got waves of guys who can come out and make good plays.”
After an 18-yard pass to Bennett Skowronek during the next Northwestern drive, Thorson kept the ball himself for a fourth-down conversion that led to a Charlie Kuhbander 30-yard field goal. On the resulting Iowa possession, the Wildcats seemed to take control when cornerback JR Pace intercepted Stanley, but Northwestern failed to come away with points after Macan Wilson dropped a pass from Thorson on fourth-down.
As the clock winded down with Northwestern up 10-7, Iowa drove to the NU 30 before taking a timeout to set up a play on 4th and inches. The Hawkeye offensive line jumped early, though, forcing a 48-yard field goal attempt that Miguel Recinos nailed through the uprights. With 1:30 to play, Pat Fitzgerald decided to play for overtime, running out the clock with a few Justin Jackson runs.
Many – including NBN – criticized Fitzgerald’s decision to wait for OT instead of giving Thorson and the offense the chance to drive down the field. After the game, Fitz cited having to play into the wind as the main reason for not taking the chance in the final minutes of regulation.
The Wildcats would have the ball first, and, after a few unproductive plays, Thorson completed a huge pass to Justin Jackson, who juked a few defenders before taking the rock to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Thorson did it himself on a quarterback sneak good enough for the score.
“He willed his way to get what he got done,” Fitzgerald said about Jackson’s 23-yard reception in overtime. “He made some great players miss.”
After giving the ball back to Iowa, Northwestern sealed the win when Noah Fant dropped a pass from Stanley on fourth-down.
That winning feeling! 😊🏈🎉 pic.twitter.com/bIBgTAB4ew— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) October 21, 2017
“We always know it’s going to be a fight with Iowa,” Jackson said. “It was just about getting the last punch.”
Thorson emphasized the importance of this win setting the tone for the remainder of the season, and junior linebacker Nate Hall said that a win against Iowa was particularly special for the seniors.
“I thought this was one heck of a Big Ten football game,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re a Big Ten fan, you had to enjoy today.”