Iowa gets payback against Northwestern with punishing defense, mistake-free offense

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — If you wanted to know how Iowa’s defense was performing in the fourth quarter Saturday at Ryan Field, you could have peered through the raindrops at a scoreboard that said: “Northwestern 0.”

Michael Ojemudia just looked at his coach, the hard-to-please veteran defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

“He was smiling at the end,” Iowa’s senior cornerback said of Parker. “If he smiles, you know you’re doing something right.”

The No. 19 Hawkeyes did everything they needed to do to dispatch the Wildcats 20-0 before a homecoming crowd generously announced at 42,104.

The offense gained only 12 first downs, but it committed no turnovers. It allowed just one sack of quarterback Nate Stanley and hung on to the football for 33 minutes, 31 seconds. There was one big play for a touchdown — a 15-yard pass that wide receiver Tyrone Tracy somehow corkscrewed into a 50-yard scamper down the Hawkeye sideline. And one lengthy drive that ended with a Mekhi Sargent 1-yard touchdown plunge.

What else did they need?

Parker’s fired-up squad did the rest.

Northwestern (1-6, 0-5 Big Ten Conference) is down in the dumps this season. Iowa’s defense made sure to keep it that way.

“The defense came out with a focus that, whatever hits us, we’re just going to bounce back. Because it’s going to be a big game for us whether someone says it or not,” Ojemudia said, referencing three seasons of narrow losses to the Wildcats.

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent picks up some of his 46 rushing yards in the first half against Northwestern on Saturday. He later scored from the 1-yard line to help the Hawkeyes polish off the Wildcats 20-0, ending a three-year skid in the rivalry.

Last year’s 14-10 Northwestern win at Kinnick Stadium was particularly galling. That gave the Wildcats the Big Ten West title, a possibility the Hawkeye players learned at halftime that afternoon, when they were leading 3-0.

“That was a really big hit for us that we lost that game, because it was totally winnable,” said Ojemudia, who had three tackles and two passes broken up Saturday. “So this year, we kind of wanted to make it a statement win for us.”

The Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2) scored 10 points in each half Saturday, becoming more cautious as the game went on. Iowa gained 78 of its 123 rushing yards after intermission. It was no offensive display to write home about. But the Hawkeyes knew it didn’t have to be.

The goal, senior guard Landan Paulsen said, was simply to enter a bye week with a two-game winning streak, and not worry about what the Wildcats had done to the Hawkeyes in the recent past.

“From the outside, it’s Northwestern and, yeah, they have not as good a record as they would hope, but they’re a good team,” Paulsen said. “It really is a great feeling to come out with a win and to get No. 6. That was our focus this week.”

That makes the Hawkeyes bowl-eligible for a seventh consecutive season. It keeps them squarely in the hunt for a Big Ten West crown, with a visit to Wisconsin on Nov. 9, followed by a home game against unbeaten Minnesota.

Sargent picked up 46 yards on 15 carries. Last season against Northwestern, he was making his first career start and finished with just 27 yards and a costly fumble.

He saw progress.

“I think we played smarter football and tougher overall,” Sargent said.

“Momentum was steady. We knew that we weren’t going to come out of here with an easy victory.”

Iowa’s defense earned its second shutout of the season (previously blanking Rutgers 30-0) and the first by a visiting team at Ryan Field in 20 years. It was a satisfying outcome for a group coming off its worst showing of the fall in a 26-20 victory over Purdue last Saturday.

“It gave us the confidence as a team. Because the Purdue win was an ugly win. And I wouldn’t say this is a pretty win, but it’s definitely a win that we’re going to sleep well with at night,” Ojemudia said.

For validation, Ojemudia could just look to Parker, in his 21st year on the Hawkeye staff. Ojemudia said Parker was his usual intense self during the first three quarters, even lighting into his veteran cornerback over a missed tackle at one point.

There weren’t many of those. Northwestern gained only 202 yards on its 67 plays, a measly 3 yards per crack. Even Parker had to admit that’s close to perfection.

“I know coach Parker is happy, and that’s really all the defensive guys care about,” Ojemudia said. “At the end of the game, he was definitely proud of us, the way we played.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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