I must admit, I haven't been to a true road game since 2002, when I saw Iowa finish a perfect Big 10 season at Minnesota. Since then, I've been to a couple of bowl games and non-Iowa games, and I went to NIU in Chicago earlier this season, but I haven't been in an opposing team's stadium since that fateful day.
Yesterday, I packed up a cooler of beer (in the end, completely unnecessary), fired up my car at 5:45 a.m., picked up my dad, and took off for Evanston. We made the mistake of following the "Stadium Parking" signs, which are obviously put there solely for the purpose of suckering the visiting and the gullible. Our car was 5 miles from the stadium, in a parking garage. The location and the time (it was 9:30, and we didn't have tickets) precluded any significant tailgating, so a school bus picked us up to get to the stadium.
Gameday atmosphere at Evanston isn't exactly the same as Iowa City (or anywhere else I have been, for that matter). Ryan Field is set in a residential neighborhood, much like Kinnick, but the surrounding houses don't join in the fun, or offer parking, or acknowledge the presence of the stadium in any way. The only significant tailgating I saw was from Iowa fans, who had apparently answered the troll's three questions and gained access to the parking lots around the stadium.
Yes, yes, I know, that's two Monty Python clips this week. Northwestern has turned me British.
We got some tickets ($50 apiece, 50 yard line, 60 rows up) and went inside. Make no mistake about it: Ryan Field is old. The interior is the concrete wall/exposes pipes catacomb you find at places like Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. The concession stands (which are essential here, given the complete lack of tailgating) are too small to hold all the available items, so you have to wander around asking where you can find a bratwurst. The bathrooms are smaller than your typical Iowa City bar. Lines are ridiculous.
I honestly didn't hear a discouraging word from a Northwestern fan the entire time I was there. Part of it may have been due to the sheer number of Iowa fans (about 40% of the fans in attendance were in black and gold), but the NU fans I talked to and overheard seemed to be as interested in Northwestern football as your typical Davenport resident is in the minor league baseball team; that is to say, they enjoyed the game and supported Northwestern, but the outcome had little to no impact on their lives. I'm not saying there aren't rabid Northwestern supporters out there, just that I didn't meet one.
For the majority of the first half, Iowa played as poorly as it had at any other point this season. By the 3:00 mark of the first quarter, NU had two touchdowns on the board, both on impressive drives, and Iowa had three yards of total offense. Our initial first down came on a roughing the kicker penalty at 14:00 of the second quarter.
But, at this point, Northwestern began to squander opportunities. A drive at 12:30 of the second quarter stalled at the Iowa 32, and the field goal was missed. Another drive in the last second of the half led to a blocked field goal. In between those two events, Iowa's offense stirred to life. Christensen, who was being verbally assaulted by the guy three seats down from me, still couldn't complete a 5-yard out route or a screen pass. KOK started sending his receivers on hitch routes, and JC started completing 20-yard passes to stationary targets far enough from the line of scrimmage to allow his typical fastball to be caught. With 1:30 to go in the half, JC hit Trey Stross (who finally looks healthy) on a fade for a touchdown. Iowa had been thoroughly manhandled in the first half, yet only trailed by seven with momentum. It was a gift from above.
Iowa opened the second half with a touchdown (a brilliantly-blocked 16 yard run by Albert Young), but NU answered with a field goal. Yet Northwestern continued to blow chances at points. Late in the third, the Cats got the ball at midfield, quickly moved to the Iowa 37, and Bacher threw a pass directly to Mike Humpal. After recovering a Christensen fumble at the Iowa 32, NU was called for a hold and conceded a sack before punting it back to Iowa. The Hawks, on the other hand, were finally firing on all cylinders. KOK continued to run hitch routes right from the NU playbook, especially with DJK and Stross. When Northwestern defensive backs started jumping the hitch pattern, Iowa unleashed the hitch-and-go, burning NU twice (once with DJK for 30; once to Stross for 53). Both of those passes led to touchdowns, giving Iowa the lead and silencing the douchebag who had been calling for torturing JC earlier. Bacher threw two more interceptions in the fourth, effectively burying any Northwestern chances.
It was an inspired performance by the defense, who gave up just three points to the vaunted Northwestern spread offense in the last 48 minutes. It was the best offensive performance of the year, surpassing even Syracuse. But this game might have meant even more than that. At the end of the game, the Northwestern fans were filing out while Iowa fans soaked in the win. The team met at midfield with KF (who apparently laid into his team at the half), then sprinted to the Iowa fans in the northeast corner of the stadium. They jumped into the crowd, sang along with the fight song, then re-formed The Swarm and stormed back to the locker room. It was the moment where this team began believing in itself, and where the fans (at least this fan) again believed in this team. This win sets up a run at a bowl game not played in Detroit, and it breaks a six-game conference road losing streak. But this win felt like 2000, like we finally see the light at the end of this tunnel. That, in the end, might be the most important result of this game.