IOWA CITY, Ia. — For as wide-open as the Big Ten Conference’s West Division seemed, the best team turned out to be the one that was quietly and unconventionally the best all along.
Forget it, Wisconsin.
Forget it, sneaky-good Purdue.
And forget it for 2018, Iowa.
Northwestern has gone wire-to-wire and undoubtedly deserves to savor every bit of its first Big Ten West championship behind a gritty style without flash.
Sound familiar, Hawkeyes fans?
The Wildcats opened their season on a Thursday night in August in West Lafayette, Indiana, and used a workmanlike approach to grind out a West Division win against Purdue. The victory didn't seem that important at the time.
But on Saturday night, with three starting defensive backs and two kickers out with injuries, the Wildcats put the division away. This time, they took down Iowa 14-10 before 66,493 chilly and increasingly surly fans at Kinnick Stadium.
Northwestern made plays when it counted — like that clutch 32-yard connection from Clayton Thorson to Bennett Skowronek with 9 minutes, 27 seconds left in the game.
The coverage was good by Michael Ojemudia. The throw and catch were better.
Time after time, Iowa failed to come through.
“I don’t know if there’s an explanation at this point. Just been not enough," defensive end Anthony Nelson said. "That’s what it comes down to. We haven’t done enough.”
Those fumbles ... boy, couldn't have been a worse time.
As has been the theme of the season, the Hawkeyes still had a chance to win a game in the fourth quarter despite playing a shaky game.
But then, a streak that has spanned more than a year came to an end — and then repeated itself a few minutes later.
Trailing 14-10, Iowa's offense suddenly found a spark. Consecutive 10-yard completions from Nate Stanley to Nick Easley then Mekhi Sargent put Iowa at its own 49 with 4½ minutes to play.
Then ... Sargent became the first Hawkeye running back to lose a fumble in 490 rushing attempts. That remarkable string dated to James Butler losing a second-quarter fumble (after a video review) against Minnesota on Oct. 28, 2017.
Still, Iowa got a stop ... and again, a running-back fumble. This time, Ivory Kelly-Martin coughed one up at his own 42 with 1:34 to play.
Of course, Northwestern's defense pounced on both fumbles.
The Wildcats have been clutch in close games all year like that. Iowa hasn't.
So, the Hawkeyes are 6-4 overall, 3-4 in Big Ten play — with their first three-game losing streak as a program since 2014.
Meanwhile, Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats (also 6-4 overall, but 6-1 in the Big Ten and the owner of every key tiebreaker) will see everyone in Indianapolis in December.
Brandon Smith’s absence from the Iowa offense was notable.
The sophomore wide receiver did not play Saturday after feeling the effects of a helmet-to-helmet hit along the sideline last week at Purdue. There’s a good chance he’ll return next week at Illinois, according to coach Kirk Ferentz.
Although Smith was putting up modest receiving numbers (20 catches, 253 yards, one touchdown) through nine games, he had been playing almost every snap for Iowa. And Smith is considered the team’s best run-blocking receiver. So, it was a collective effort to try to replace the 6-foot-3, 219-pound Mississippian.
New snaps went to true freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr., who was playing in his third game of the season. He can play in four without burning his redshirt, under a new NCAA rule. Max Cooper and Kyle Groeneweg also got more run than usual.
Smith’s absence seemed to limit the targets that Nate Stanley had confidence in. Stanley targeted Nick Easley nine times, Ihmir Smith-Marsette eight.
Marsette had his best game as a Hawkeye, scoring Iowa's only touchdown on a pretty 28-yarder in the third quarter. He finished with four catches for 90 yards and three kickoff returns for 100 yards.
Iowa’s punting game was a net negative on Saturday.
Colten Rastetter’s four first-half punts for Iowa went for an average of 32.5 yards. Comparatively, Northwestern’s Jake Collins averaged 41 yards on his five first-half boots. In a battle of field position, those extra 8.5 yards per punt add up quickly. Iowa started three straight drives from its own 8-, 10- and 8-yard lines.
Rastetter’s short kicks have become better defended as the season has gone on. His line drive in the fourth quarter last week was caught on the run by Rondale Moore and set up a key Purdue touchdown, with that drive starting at Iowa’s 18. Rastetter, a left-footed junior, averaged just 35 yards a kick last week.
His average was 34.9 on seven boots Saturday.
"We could have punted the ball a little bit better a couple times," Ferentz said.
For the season, Rastetter came into this game averaging 40.9 yards per punt. But the way the punt game is trending, it wouldn’t hurt to give sophomore Ryan Gersonde a harder look this week if he’s healthy (and he appears to be, as a participant in warmups). Gersonde could even play in the rest of Iowa’s games without burning a red-shirt, leaving little downside to giving him a whirl.
That said, Rastetter did an excellent job on a key second-half punt.
But the job wasn’t done by special-teamer Josh Turner, who had a chance to down a Rastetter boot inside the Northwestern 5-yard line early in the third quarter with Iowa ahead, 3-0.
Turner was between the goal line and the ball, but seemed to lose his balance, and the ball dribbled into the end zone for a touchback. Northwestern took at that improved field position, from its own 20-yard line, to drive 80 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Little things matter, and they add up.
How about some parting thoughts from Pat Fitzgerald?
Northwestern is headed to its first Big Ten title game.
"This team has overcome a ton of adversity. If you start off the season the way we did with our quarterback (Thorson) coming off a major knee injury (torn ACL), it was a big deal. ... I'm proud of our leadership and proud of our seniors."