WOW. Coach Fitzgerald notched his first "signature win" as the Northwestern Wildcats (6-4, 3-3) upended previously unbeaten and BCS No. 4 Iowa (9-1, 5-1) by a final score of 17-10 in Iowa City on Saturday, putting the Hawkeyes' Rose Bowl hopes in serious jeopardy.
It was a game dominated the the Wildcat defense, who finally met high preseason expectations, and featured a huge game-changing play by DE Corey Wootton as he sacked and stripped the ball from Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi in the end zone, which was recovered by NU for a touchdown. Stanzi injured his ankle on the play and did not return, and the 'Cats took the momentum and ran from there, scoring 17 unanswered points and quashing Iowa's offense on the way to victory.
The game started off in ominous fashion for Northwestern football, with Iowa's third play from scrimmage going 74 yards for a touchdown (a Stanzi toss to WR Marvin McNutt) as NU's secondary coverage broke down. On the Hawkeyes' second drive, they tacked on a field goal, and things didn't look promising for NU's upset bid.
Despite being down 10-0 with Iowa driving once again, NU took its fate into its own hands early in the second quarter. CB Jordan Mabin grabbed an interception from Stanzi near midfield, and although NU didn't score on that drive, it allowed NU to punt and pin Iowa at their own six yard line and set up what would happen next.
After NU stuffed an Iowa run up the middle on first down, the Hawkeyes decided to run a play action naked bootleg on second down. According to postgame interviews, DE Corey Wootton (who fully participated in all practices leading up to this week's game for the first time this season), recognized this play from film and knew the QB would be unprotected.
This knowledge directly led to one of the defining plays of the season, for Northwestern, Iowa, and the conference. Wootton went directly after Stanzi, who was in the end zone, and made a solid, clean hit on him that forced a fumble and caused him to catch and sprain his ankle. NU's Marshall Thomas recovered the ball for a touchdown and Stanzi would not return to the game due to his injury.
Northwestern cut the Iowa lead to three and Stanzi's loss put redshirt freshman James Vandenberg into the game at quarterback, a guy who had only played a handful of garbage-time snaps at the collegiate level. He proved that on the next series as his very first pass attempt in the game was intercepted by NU LB Quentin Davie.
The Wildcats would then respond by driving in for a touchdown capped off by a Dan Persa touchdown pass to Iowa native WR Drake Dunsmore, giving the Wildcats a 14-10 lead.
Iowa would end a fourth consecutive drive in a turnover with a controversial Brandon Wegher fumble on the ensuing possession. NU's Persa would throw an interception on the next drive, but the Wildcat defense would hold Iowa to a three-and-out as the 'Cats watched the clock tick down to zeros with NU holding a four point halftime lead.
As anyone who has followed college football in 2009 knows, Iowa has come back from deficits in eight of their previous nine games this season. Those Hawkeye fans in attendance were eagerly awaiting another such comeback: One that would not come.
The Northwestern defense finally lived up to its preseason billing, holding Iowa to just 132 total yards after Stanzi's injury and allowed the Hawkeyes to enter NU territory just one time (which led to a missed 46 yard field goal in the third quarter).
Despite facing a team that prides itself on running the football and had done a good job of that on many occasions this season, NU held Iowa to just 65 net rushing yards (2.4 yards per carry) on the day. This forced Iowa to try and pass the ball, something Vandenberg did not do very well, completing just one third of his 27 pass attempts.
Another wrinkle in the game came when Dan Persa injured his hand on a hit right after he made a throw in the second half. Persa had been taking most of the snaps since Mike Kafka was playing through a hamstring injury and was obviously limited (Kafka had no QB runs outside of sacks and short QB sneaks). This forced Kafka to come back in and either throw or hand off, taking a major piece of NU's attack (the QB run) away as NU looked to milk its lead.
But the 'Cats would put together one last scoring drive from the end of the third quarter into the early fourth, capped off by a 47 yard Stefan Demos field goal that put NU up by a more comfortable margin of seven. The rest of the way, NU managed just two first downs, but that proved to be just enough to hold the lead until the clock struck zeros.
It might not have been pretty, but Coach Fitzgerald likely wouldn't have it any other way, as the defense held Iowa scoreless for three quarters and Northwestern secured its biggest win under Coach Fitz, one that also made NU bowl eligible in 2009. The 'Cats have now won three straight in Iowa City and Fitz seemingly has Iowa's number: He is now 3-1 against the Hawkeyes.
Player of the Game:
NU DE Corey Wootton (3 tackles, 1 sack and forced fumble) Wootton finally made his presence known in the 2009 season, providing the game-changing play of the day, knocking the ball loose in the end zone and knocking Stanzi out of the game. Thomas would recover the fumbled ball for an NU touchdown, and Iowa would not be able to muster up much of an offensive attack after the big play.
Northwestern Honorable Mentions:
QB Dan Persa (5-of-9 passing for 37 yards with 1 INT and 1 TD, 17 carries for 67 yards) Persa's running allowed NU to move the ball well in the first half, with Kafka effectively prevented from running thanks to his hamstring injury. Persa also had the touchdown pass that gave NU the lead in the second quarter, a lead that the Wildcats would not surrender.
QB Mike Kafka (10-of-18 passing for 72 yards, 2 carries for 4 yards) Despite being immobilized with the aforementioned leg injury, Kafka did what it took for NU to pull off a win, finishing out the game at quarterback after Persa was sidelined with an injury to his throwing hand. He even added on two key first downs on QB sneaks.
Defense: The entire defense deserves a nod for shutting down the Iowa running game and then making sure that Iowa's backup quarterback never got the passing game going. Mabin and Davie had interceptions, Wootton had the key sack, Thomas had two fumble recovery, and Brad Phillips led NU with 10 tackles and added a forced fumble of his own (the second straight year Phillips forced a fumble from an Iowa running back).
What to Work on:
Health: They key to NU's continued success will be the healing of Kafka's hamstring and/or Persa's hand. There are also some lingering injuries on defense that have affected the 'Cats' efforts, like Brendan Smith's and Brian Peters' hands and Ben Johnson's hamstring. If NU can get healthy, NU can vastly improve its bowl positioning efforts down the stretch.
Secondary: As mentioned above, some injuries have forced NU to play either less experienced guys (like redshirt freshmen Jared Carpenter and Ricky Weina) or injured players (Smith and Peters). Even so, NU has left some receivers wide open (like McNutt's long TD) on blown coverage, something that must be corrected with dangerous opponents still on the 'Cats' slate.
Continuity: Too many times 'Cats fans have seen NU win a huge game just to drop the next. Northwestern must keep the momentum going next week against a suddenly resurgent Illinois team if they want to gain more respect.
This game warrants a special section for "excuses" that fans of a certain recently vanquished team may begin to throw around.
Our QB was injured: Yes, Stanzi went down, and the offense very much faltered after that. But, NU was playing with its backup almost the whole way, at least until he was injured, forcing NU's injured starter to tough it out, despite missing a key component of NU's offensive gameplan: the QB run. All that not to mention the fact that injuries are a legitimate part of football that every team must deal with.
Penalties: A key penalty was a holding call that negated a potential Iowa TD run. The fact is that both sides had penalties called on them, and, in fact, NU had one more penalty and 15 more penalty yards in the game. Also, NU had a very questionable personal foul called on Sherrick McManis as the ballcarrier lowered his head into McManis' helmet. There were also some potentially questionable "no calls" as well.
Penalties are part of the game, and it's funny how calls only become "questionable" when a big play is called back. Also, there is plenty of incidental contact in the game of football, and people get even angrier when pass interference flags get thrown all over the place. If a team puts itself in a position where one penalty makes that big of a difference, that means they haven't taken care of their own business somewhere else.
Top 10 Upsets: Northwestern has had three top 10 upsets this decade: this game, the 2004 upset of Ohio State in Evanston, and the 2000 upset of Wisconsin in Madison. If one uses Iowa's BCS ranking (No. 4), then this was the highest ranked opponent that NU has defeated in a true road game.
Six Wins: NU has now notched at least six wins in the past three seasons and in six of the last seven years. NU's sixth win of 2009 also makes the 'Cats bowl eligible for the third straight season.
Turnovers: In my preview, I stated that the team that wins the turnover battle would likely win the game. The 'Cats won the battle with four takeaways to only one giveaway. All four of Iowa's turnovers were in the second quarter.
Third Down Conversions: NU converted 50 percent of its third down tries (9-of-18) while Iowa converted just 29 percent of theirs (4-of-14).
Stefan Demos: NU's kicker continued his solid field goal kicking, hitting a 47 yarder and taking his season total to 14-of-16, with his only two misses coming on blocks.
With NU becoming bowl eligible, now the bowl talk begins. The top four teams in the conference are pretty much solidified: Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin will take the top four bowl spots. The only question is if the Big Ten will get two BCS bowl spots, which very much depends on what teams in other conference do down the stretch to see who gets into the top 14 of the BCS rankings.
The possible bowl destinations for Northwestern are (from top to bottom in selection order): Champs Sports Bowl (Orlando, FL), Alamo Bowl (San Antonio, TX), Insight Bowl (Phoenix, AZ), or Pizza Bowl (Detroit, MI).
Northwestern needs a seventh win to solidify its bowl position, particularly since no Big Ten team has yet been eliminated from bowl contention. A lot depends on what happens over the next two weeks with virtually every game playing a role in determining where Big Ten teams will be spending their respective holidays.
What a great win for the Wildcats. Coach Fitz now has his signature win, and for those that love to hate Iowa, how perfect it was to watch NU ruin Iowa's perfect season.
With new life in their season, Northwestern must continue their momentum as they head into Champaign to face an Illini squad with momentum of their own heading into the game. There is time to celebrate, sure, but it will be back to work very soon for NU as they face two tough opponents to finish the regular season.