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Northwestern 21, Iowa 17: Wildcats Win Illinois Class 8A Title With Last-Minute Comeback

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At least I'm pretty sure that's what happened yesterday, based on the surroundings and the post-game celebration.

* BHGP = fun; Ryan Field = anti-fun.  So roughly 90% of this weekend's BHGPalooza in Chicago was great fun -- basically everything but that godforsaken game.  It was excellent to meet so many readers, regular posters and lurkers alike, and to put faces to so many usernames.  I'd surely omit someone I met if I tried to list everyone, given my massively inebriated state on Friday (brought to you by unofficial FOTP Jeremiah Weed's Sweet Tea Vodka) and my general haze of disbelief and depression on Saturday, so I'll just say thanks to all for making this weekend quite a bit of fun. On the other hand, squarely atop my list of "things that fucking suck" is attending games at Ryan Field, which is a complete and utter shithole.  In terms of atmosphere, aesthetics, concessions, accessibility, and ease of movement, it's an absolute joke.  It's not often that another stadium makes Jack Three Times look good, but Ryan Field certainly manages that dubious feat.  I haven't been in a stadium that craptacular since I was in high school.

* It's the defense's fault... So for the third time in four games and for the fourth time overall this season, the Iowa defense once again gave up a backbreaking, game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter (yes, the Indiana drive didn't technically win them the game -- but only because Belcher dropped the pass in the end zone).  We noted it with concern the first timestressed over it a little more the second time, and thanked the football gods for the break we received the third time, but after the fourth time... Fool me once, shame on me.  Fool me twice, shame on you. Fool me four times?  Fucking hell.  So who's to blame -- the schemes?  The players?  Evil Wizgerald's spells finally taking effect?  In raw form, the stats say that Iowa's defense got gashed by Northwestern (419 yards of total offense), but almost half of those yards came on the final two drives; for 49 minutes, the Iowa defense held them to seven points and a bit more than two hundred yards of offense.  It wasn't easy to watch the Iowa defense consistently give up the short gains, but they were still more or less keeping things in check.  And then things went to hell.

So what changed on those last two drives?  For one thing, those short gains started turning into really big gains -- they had five plays of 20+ yards on those drives, after having zero plays of 20+ yards earlier in the game.  Most of those gains weren't the result of Northwestern suddenly outscheming the Iowa defense as much they were the result of Iowa players being out of position or making sloppy attempts at tackling.  Are the coaches to blame for not improvising changes on defense or on more solidly drilling the players in the fundamentals?  Are the players to blame for forgetting what they've been taught?  It's probably both, but it doesn't really matter -- it's just bad and there's no easy answer in sight.  The only thing we can be grateful for is that neither Terrelle Pryor nor Adam Weber are well-known for their patience and accuracy.  On the other hand, the defense was from the only culprit in yesterday's demise... 

* It's the offense, stupid.  Much gets made of the inability of the Iowa defense to stop the Northwestern offense, but in the current five losses in six years streak, the defense has given up 28, 21, 22, 10*, and 21 points -- that's not terrible.  In those same five losses, the offense has managed just 27, 7, 17, 10, and 17 points -- that really is terrible, especially since we're talking about the Northwestern defense here, not some hallowed Ohio State unit. Entering this year's contest, Northwestern's Not Quite Purple People Eater defense had given up 20 or more points in six of their eight games this season, including to such noted high-powered offenses as Vanderbilt, Central Michigan, and Minnesota.  Conversely, the Iowa offense was averaging 30+ ppg this year and had been held under 30 points only three times all season -- against Arizona, Penn State, and Indiana.  Yesterday, of course, Iowa scored a whopping 17 points.

So what the fuck happened?  We have no wide-ranging answers for the series as a whole (unless Pat Fitzgerald has developed a 24-hour wonder drug for his defense that he only breaks out for Iowa games -- don't put it past him), but the struggles yesterday were only the continuation of a trend that started a week ago in Bloomington. Ricky Stanzi posted good statistical numbers in that game (22/33, 290 yards, 1 TD), but anyone watching the game could tell that he was far from sharp -- passes sailed or were off the mark a little too often.  Those problems were only worse yesterday; he air mailed multiple open receivers, threw passes just out of reach, and threw one terrible interception that gave Northwestern a lifelline in a game that was slipping away from them.  He was not good.  Nor was he alone: the offensive line gave up three sacks, by far the most they've conceded since that disastrous Arizona performance, and Marvin McNutt, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, and Paul Chaney had multiple drops.  The only offense players who can hold their head relatively high are Allan Reisner, whose six catches for 66 yards included multiple instances where he utterly bailed out Stanzi, and Adam Robinson, who had a relatively quiet 100+ yard day (22 carries, 108 yards), but who had only four carries after Iowa opened up a 17-7 in part on the back of the 45 yards he gained on those two scoring drives.  

Ken O'Keefe's playcalling had its flaws, too -- you can pick out more than a few cases where we ran when we probably should have passed and vice versa -- but without better execution from Stanzi, the receivers, and the offensive line, it won't matter what he calls.  The Iowa offense still won't be scoring points and will still be putting far too much pressure on a defense that frankly can't handle it.  After the Wisconsin game, we said  that for once the offense was going to have to win games for Iowa and even though the defense made us look foolish by pulling out their best performance of the season against Michigan State the following week, the sentiment seems pretty damn true after the past two weeks -- only a fortuitous drop from Damarlo Belcher has kept Iowa from going 0-2 in those games.  The offense has scored all of three touchdowns in the last eight quarters -- against the vaunted defenses of Indiana and Northwestern. You won't win many games with that level of production, particularly with a defense prone to springing leaks at the worst possible times.  

* Don't forget, 7 points in last year's loss came via the WOOTENOCALYPSE.