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Iowa loses 17-0 lead and falls to 0-2 after second-half clunker against Northwestern

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald made it clear how much confidence he had in his defense, or perhaps how little he thought of Iowa’s offense, with 11 seconds left in the third quarter Saturday.

The Wildcats had just taken a 21-20 lead in a quiet Kinnick Stadium, and had a fourth-and-2 at Iowa’s 44-yard line. Instead of being aggressive, Fitzgerald sent out his punter. Did he know he already had enough points to beat this group of Hawkeyes?

He did.

Northwestern gained only 27 yards in the fourth quarter, but Iowa wasn’t able to take advantage of its possessions and lost by that 21-20 score. It dropped Iowa to 0-2, after a 24-20 loss at Purdue a week ago. The Hawkeyes hadn’t started a season 0-2 since 2000.

“We’re really close,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. “We’ve just got to keep pushing.”

Petras, making his second start, threw the first touchdown pass of his career in the first quarter, a 7-yard toss to Brandon Smith. But he also threw the first interceptions of his career, three of them, in the second half.

Petras started the game by completing 9 of 11 passes. He finished the game 26 of 50, for 216 yards.

Petras said Northwestern started dropping eight defenders into pass coverage, and was intent on taking away wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the second half. Smith-Marsette led the Hawkeyes with seven catches for 84 yards.

“They disguised things really well,” Petras said.

“Credit to Northwestern today. They played really well. They got us.”

Northwestern senior running back Jesse Brown bends backward over the goal line for a touchdown against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

It was the third consecutive time that Northwestern has won at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa has led at halftime in each of them.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes built a 17-0 lead and then watched the Wildcats start controlling the clock.

In last week’s 24-20 loss at Purdue, Iowa forced two turnovers but got just three points from them. In the opening minutes of Saturday’s game, the Hawkeyes jumped on a muffed punt at the Northwestern 7-yard line and got a fumble recovery at the Wildcats’ 45-yard line.

The first turnover came because Iowa sophomore Terry Roberts alertly gathered the football along the Northwestern sideline, just before it would have gone out of bounds. The second came on a terrific play by defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who jarred the football out of the hands of Wildcats’ quarterback Peyton Ramsey, then crawled to his right to fall on it first.

But those fantastic individual plays would have amounted to little if Iowa’s offense hadn’t turned both opportunities into touchdowns, which it did with that 7-yard Petras pass to Smith and a 15-yard run by Tyler Goodson.

Smith leaped just inside the far sideline to snare his touchdown.

“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Petras said. “He’s competitive, aggressive, and when the ball’s in the air, he’s going to get it.”

Iowa had won five consecutive games when it recovered two or more fumbles, dating to a 13-7 loss to Nebraska in 2012.

But Fitzgerald didn’t alter his game plan, even facing a 17-0 deficit. He wanted to run the football behind a big, veteran offensive line, and it eventually paid off.

Iowa sophomore running back Tyler Goodson rumbles into the end zone in the first quarter against Northwestern on Saturday.

The Wildcats went on two long, second-quarter drives that seemed to wear down Iowa’s defense, which is thin at the tackle and linebacker spots. Sophomore Seth Benson got his first career start at middle linebacker and came up with a team-high 13 tackles. Defensive tackle Austin Schulte is out, meaning the Hawkeyes are trying to get by with a three-man rotation there, led by Daviyon Nixon.

The Wildcats gained 102 yards rushing in the second quarter, holding the ball for 12 minutes and 7 seconds on the touchdown drives. Iowa’s lead was just 20-14 by halftime.

“That second quarter was on the defensive line,” Nixon said after recording 11 tackles, three of them behind the line of scrimmage.

Iowa’s defense forced one more turnover, getting a Jack Koerner interception at the Northwestern 36-yard line with 8 minutes and 5 seconds remaining. It was the perfect opportunity for a Hawkeye offense that seemed to need great field position in order to be effective and can always fall back on all-American kicker Keith Duncan.

But Petras was picked off for a second time on third-and-4 from the 30-yard line. His pass hit tight end Sam LaPorta’s fingertips and bounced into the arms of the Wildcats’ Brandon Joseph.

Petras said it was the inaccuracy, more than the velocity, that caused the turnover.

“I put it just a little too far out in front of him,” Petras said. “It’s a game of inches.”

It’s also a game of yards, and Iowa had only 104 of them in the second half. Northwestern held the ball for 33 minutes and 33 seconds and the Hawkeye defense suffered as a result.

“We did a good job of hustling to the football,” VanValkenburg said. “We’ve just got to be a lot more physical next week.”

It was reminiscent of Iowa’s first game. Twenty points aren’t going to cut it this season.

“We’ve got to finish,” Nixon said. “We’ve got to get back to being Iowa.”

Iowa hosts Michigan State, which is coming off an emotional win over Michigan, at 11 a.m. next Saturday.

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