Iowa 41, Northwestern 31: Ding Dong, The Wicked Witch Of The Northwest Is Dead

I won't lie: I was nervous until this game until the clock struck 0:00 (or at least until Iowa was finally able to run out the clock).  Visions of past Northwestern comebacks danced in my head (particularly their improbable come-from-behind win in 2005, which involved an onside kick recovery); their hold over Iowa has been so strong over the last half-decade that I refused to believe this particular incarnation of jNW was dead until the clock made it official.  But the monster is dead, the monkey is off our back, the spell is broken -- pick your metaphor, at least for this year, they're all true.  For the first time in four tries, Iowa's victorious over Northwestern.  And God it feels so good.

Flipping the script.  For a while, this game felt like an ugly mash-up of the last few Iowa losses to Northwestern.  Sprint out to an early lead, then watch as jNW methodically came back?  Check (2008, 2009... kinda 2010).  An Iowa quarterback throws an ill-timed, momentum-changing interception on an underthrown ball?  Check (2009, 2010).  Watch the Iowa offense stall out after early success?  Check (2008, 2009).  And so on.  About the only thing that was missing was a significant injury to a key Iowa offensive player (and thank god that didn't happen). Needless to say, when jNW punched in the tying score to even up the game at 17 apiece after roughly the billionth patient, time-consuming dink-and-dunk drive featuring untold third down conversions, I was not exactly brimming with optimism and confidence.  After all, for the most part the fourth quarter has been nothing but a source of pain and frustration against Northwestern: dating back to their win in 2005 (and the beginning of their run of dominance), the Wildcats had outscored Iowa 44-17 in the fourth quarter.  Until last night, Iowa hadn't scored a single fourth quarter point against our purple oppressors since 2007.

But a funny thing happened when the game got tied: the Iowa offense decided to Hulk up and take over the game. Their next four drives went: TOUCHDOWN, TOUCHDOWN, FIELD GOAL, TOUCHDOWN, END OF GAME.  They simply refused to let Iowa lose this game.  The offense's eruption was both unexpected and long overdue: as I noted earlier this week, the biggest culprit in Iowa's losing skid against Northwestern has been an offense that has resolutely failed to produce up to expectations and take advantage of poor jNW defenses.  For three quarters, they were on pace to produce another underwhelming performance but in the fourth quarter everything finally started clicking: the linemen opened up gaping holes, Coker pounded jNW defenders, and Vandenberg shredded them over the top.  This wasn't the familiar script for an Iowa-Northwestern game... and thank god for that.

Welcome to the record books, Marvin.  Finally, after weeks of waiting (and no small amount of coverage by BTN on their broadcasts), Marvin McNutt at last officially etched his name into the Iowa record books after snaring his 21st career touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, tying him with Tim Dwight and Danan Hughes.  With any luck, he'll have the record all to himself after next week's game against Indiana.  But it's worth taking a moment to reflect on how amazing and remarkable this accomplishment truly is for McNutt.  Do you realize that three years ago he was a back-up quarterback transitioning to wide receiver?  (In fact, it was almost exactly three years ago that Marvin made his first career reception, in mop-up duty against Indiana.)  Do you realize that he tied the all-time Iowa record in two and a half seasons as a full-time receiver?  Do you realize that he did that despite playing alongside one of the greatest and most statistically proficient receivers in Iowa history (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos)?  Do you realize that he did that despite playing in an offense that loves to run, run, run the ball?  Seriously: two and a half seasons.  He has 21 touchdown grabs in thirty-one games as a primary receiver.  He has been a truly spectacular player for Iowa over the last three years; hopefully he gives us a few more highlights to celebrate over the second half of the season.

A few more words about the offense.  We've said all year that the onus is going to be on the offense to carry this team, so it was gratifying to see them do just that, particularly a week after their miserable outing against Penn State and against a jNW team that has historically led to a lot of below-average offensive performances.  Last night saw an Iowa offensive attack that was both productive (379 yards, 34 points*) and explosive (a whopping 7.6 yards-per-play average).  It was also a well-rounded attack: Vandenberg had a nice stat line (14/22, 224 yards 2/1 TD/INT), but Marcus Coker also had a good day (22 carries, 127 yards, 2 TD; 1 catch, 15 yards) and, more importantly, for perhaps the first time all year looked like the Marcus Coker everyone loved so much last year.  He ran decisively and with great power and aggression.  It certainly helped that the offensive line was (finally) able to open up some nice-sized holes for him, but this Coker was a far cry from the tentative, uncertain (and, apparently, injury-afflicted) Coker we saw in the early weeks of the season.  More of this Coker, plz.

There were some quibbles with the offense, of course.  Those two three-and-outs really didn't help a gassed defense that badly needed to stay off the field (particularly the one in the third quarter, when momentum was squarely on Northwestern's side).  If you're going to have a quick drive that doesn't give the defense much of a breather, at least have it end in points -- like, for instance, the 3 play, 72-yard drive in the second quarter that took all of 1:42 and ended in a 47-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Davis.  And tight ends remain utterly absent from the passing game, which is still kind of confounding.

* Yes, Iowa scored 41 points; 7 of those points came via Tanner Miller's pick-six, for which the offense can hardly claim credit.

But about the defense... While the main point of my argument about Iowa's struggles against Northwestern was that the offense has too often failed to produce in these games, the secondary point was that the Iowa defense has rarely been as bad as many people seem to think they've been against Northwestern.  Unfortunately, last night they really were as bad as everyone seems to think they usually are against Northwestern... and yet they also weren't. It was a very strange performance to try and analyze.  On the face of it, the statistics are absolutely awful: jNW scored 31 points (most against Iowa in a non-OT game since Wisconsin last year), amassed 495 yards of offense (most against Iowa since Missouri racked up 512 yards of offense in the Insight Bowl last year), ran an absurd 92 plays (42 more than Iowa!), had an almost 17-minute edge in time of possession (38:23 to 21:37), and converted a ridiculous 16 of 22 third downs on the way to gaining 29 first downs.  Just looking at those numbers, it's hard to see how Northwestern didn't run away with this game.  (Well, okay, you could just look at their defense's inability to stop Iowa and that would pretty much explain it, but work with me here.)  

For a good chunk of this game, the Iowa defense struggled to stop the jNW offense as much as they ever have.  Not only were they bleeding points -- they just couldn't get off the field.  Northwestern had FIVE drives of 10+ plays that lasted for 4-6 minutes apiece.  That's, uh, not good.  Not at all.  And yet even in the midst of all that bending, there was less breaking than you might have expected.  Three of those 10+ play drives failed to end in points for Northwestern: one ended in Tanner Miller's 95-yard interception return (one of the most exhilarating plays in recent memory), one ended in a punt**, and one ended in a missed 47-yard field goal.  And, yeah, that's sort of the point of the bend-but-don't-break defense: force a team to be patient and run a lot of plays and wait for them to inevitably screw up... but I think we can all agree that you're not always going to be able to count on a 95-yard pick-six, a missed field goal, and the other team to punt from your 34-yard line, yeah?  (Actually, so long as we're just talking Big Ten games, we really might be able to count on that last point...)  Sometimes it's actually nice if your defense can just get a stop and force the other team off the field.  

And yet... there were actually some encouraging things to take out of last night's showing by the defense, too.  While watching Northwestern nickel-and-dime us to death with quick passes to Drake goddamn Dunsmore Jeremy goddamn Ebert and option runs with Kain Colter was utterly maddening, the defensive line had probably their finest game of the season.  Dominic Alvis, Mike Daniels, Lebron Daniel, Steve Bigach, and Broderick Binns combined for 23 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble (and recovery), 3 sacks, and 4 QB hurries.  Binns was the most disruptive force he'd been since probably 2009 and Alvis had the best game of his young Iowa career.  They also generally did a much better job keeping outside contain than they'd done in past games.  Their efforts were directly responsible for at least ten points for Iowa: pressure on Persa forced him into the poor throw that Miller intercepted and Binns' strip-sack of Persa in the fourth quarter led to a field goal.  All in all, that's a good day at the office.  They were aided by the fact that Persa was clearly hobbled -- he looks like, at best, 75% of the player he was against Iowa last November -- but all credit to them for still going out there and making plays against him.  We suspected it would be a rough day for the defense, given their struggles all year and the absence of three regular contributors (James Morris, Anthony Hitchens, and Thomas Nardo), and it was a rough day for Iowa on that side of the ball -- but there were also some notable bright spots, mainly along a surprisingly disruptive and active defensive line.  

** In 10 plays and 5:01, jNW somehow went just 48 yards and then decided to punt from the Iowa 34-yard line.  Welcome to Big Ten football.

Bizarro results.  The win over Northwestern continued an unusual run of results we've seen this year.  Iowa lost to Iowa State for the first time since 2007, having won three in a row from 2008-2010.  They also lost to Penn State for the first time since 2007, having won three in a row from 2008-2010.  But they beat Northwestern for the first time since 2007, having lost to them from 2008-2010.  The bad news is according to that pattern, we're also due to lose to Indiana next week.  You could also interpret the results as simply mirroring 2007's results: so far we've beaten the same teams we beat in 2007 and lost to the same teams we lost to in 2007, which would mean we're due to lose to Indiana and Purdue (ugh), but beat Michigan State and Minnesota.  What does it all mean?  Well, nothing.  It's just a strange coincidence at this point.  Iowa's success or failure against Indiana next week will have a lot more to do with whether or not they have a hangover from this win than any sort of trend concerning results that involve three entirely different teams.  

You rock, Iowa fans.  Finally, I already praised the fans in attendance last night for their excellent efforts in pulling off the black-and-gold striping and the card stunts last night in a separate post, but I just wanted to give them another pat on the back.  Kinnick looked incredible and the atmosphere seemed amazing.  Job very well done, folks.

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