Missing two stars, Iowa defense misses on two crucial plays that lead to Northwestern win

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — No Josey Jewell. No Brandon Snyder.

Two big problems for the Iowa defense.

The Hawkeyes held up well for much of Saturday’s 17-10 overtime loss to Northwestern at Ryan Field. There were large stretches of the game where one hardly noticed the absence of Iowa’s top two defensive captains. Certainly, the Wildcats seemed unaware at times that there was a hole in the middle of the Hawkeye defense.

Oct 21, 2017; Evanston, IL, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Ben Niemann (44) tries to tackle Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) during the second half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

But two plays will sting the Hawkeyes for a long time. On a day when Northwestern converted only four third downs in 16 chances, two came while attacking the missing heart of Iowa’s defense.

Both came with the Hawkeyes playing a nickel package.

Both led to touchdowns.

“Maybe as big (of a play in the game) as any was the quarterback scramble on whatever it was, third-and-forever,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. “We didn’t blow that. The guy just made a really good play. That’s a tough deal.”

The guy in question was Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson. The play in question was a third-and-15 at Iowa’s 49-yard line. Thorson dropped back to pass, found no one open and took off toward a suddenly empty middle of the field, a trio of Hawkeyes seemingly caught out of position.

Thorson gained 21 yards. Six plays later, Jeremy Larkin scooted around end from six yards out to tie the score at 7-all.

Does Jewell, an all-American candidate and the leading tackler in the Big Ten Conference, chase Thorson down from his middle linebacker spot to prevent that sequence from happening?

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Iowa will never know.

The Wildcats got possession first in overtime, and Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson hurried Thorson into a second-down incompletion. The result was a third-and-9 from the 24-yard line, one stop away from the Hawkeyes forcing a field-goal try.

Iowa again put an extra defensive back onto the field, and Ben Niemann — normally an outside linebacker but replacing Jewell in the middle Saturday — shifted into the slot. At the last second, a teammate came up behind Niemann and took his spot, motioning him to the middle of the field.

Big mistake.

Thorson dumped a pass to tailback Justin Jackson, who eluded Niemann and not only zipped forward for the first down, but plowed all the way to the 1-yard line. Thorson then scored what would be the game-winning touchdown.

Again, with Jewell and Snyder in the game calling out defensive signals, does that play happen? Another agonizing question that will never get answered for a Hawkeye team forced to contemplate a third close loss in Big Ten Conference play.

“I was supposed to be lined up where I was originally, and we just miscommunicated in the back end. Then I came sprinting in, trying to find the running back. I guess that was the uncovered man. I tried to run back out, got picked and it was just me and him in the open field,” Niemann said. “I have to make that play. It was bad communication, but it comes down to me, regardless.

"I was there, I just didn’t make the tackle.”

Jackson sensed immediately that he had caught the Hawkeyes at a disadvantage.

“I knew the guy had me in man and that he kind of got lost in the wash,” said Jackson, a senior. “So as soon as I caught it, I didn’t know exactly where he was in relation to me. I didn’t really know how far I was from the first down. So I figured, just get the ball and turn up.”

Jewell had started 37 consecutive games at middle linebacker. Along with Niemann and Bower, also seniors, the Hawkeyes hadn’t had to worry about a substitute starting linebacker for two years. Kevin Ward, Iowa’s special-teams captain, got his first start in Jewell’s place and made a career-high four tackles.

Iowa’s defense played well in the absence of two starters. The Hawkeyes shut out Northwestern in the first half and allowed the Wildcats to gain only 4.1 yards per play.

But there were moments when Jewell and Snyder were clearly missed.

Cornerback Manny Rugamba said Iowa “had a few mishaps” involving communication.

The Hawkeye defense was on the field for 17 minutes, 21 seconds in the second half. Eventually, that duration caught up to them. Especially in those two crucial moments that were enough to spell the difference in a closely contested game.

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“Being honest, I think we got tired at times,” said Niemann, who made 11 tackles.

Defensive end Anthony Nelson didn’t feel that fatigue was an issue.

“We love to have the pressure on us and just step up and make the plays that we can make to get stops,” Nelson said.

Ferentz wasn’t ready to say that his offense had let his defense down.

“That’s how football goes,” he said. “If we had held them to one less point in regulation, we win the game. Bottom line is you either play good enough to win, or you don’t.”

Did the defense play well enough to win Saturday?

Nelson pondered the question.

“We obviously didn’t do enough today,” he said, “and we have to do better moving forward.”

With or without Jewell and Snyder — two players who might have made the two plays that could have preserved an Iowa victory.