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The Iowa Hawkeyes defeated Northwestern 20-0 at Ryan Field. Hawk Central

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Hours after it happened, it was still hard to believe that Iowa’s Tyrone Tracy Jr. made a catch surrounded by four Northwestern defenders — and somehow found his way into the South end zone at Ryan Field.

Yet the redshirt freshman from Indianapolis made it happen, spinning and sprinting for a 50-yard touchdown that changed the game … and ultimately the Hawkeyes’ three-year slide in the Northwestern series.

Iowa took the momentum and ran with it to the tune of a 20-0 blanking of Northwestern before 42,104 fans on a dreary homecoming day on the Chicago lakefront. A fitting jolt for a guy who says his job is to be "electric."

On the play, Tracy caught a third-and-10 strike from Nate Stanley across the middle. It should have been a 15-yard gain, enough for a first down. But Tracy emerged spring-loaded out of the tackle attempt of Trae Williams, and curled out around the Wildcats defense to reach pay dirt.

“When I stopped, the ball was already right there," Tracy said. "All I had to do was catch it, make a couple people miss. And two blockers did their thing, and I scored.”

Fifty magnificent yards, after Iowa had minus-three through its first eight frustrating plays — which included Stanley taking an 11-yard sack that preceded a rare missed field goal by Keith Duncan.

Once Tracy went for six, the offense could relax.

“It was a huge spark for us moving forward," said Stanley, who was 12 of 26 for 179 yards on a turnover-free offensive day.

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Suddenly, the injury absence of Brandon Smith didn’t seem like such a big story.

Suddenly, Iowa’s offensive struggles were glossed over for a minute.

Suddenly, Iowa had matched its biggest lead against Northwestern in three years.

That was all the overpowering Hawkeye defense needed, as it turned out.

Iowa wanted to put Northwestern's hopes on freshman quarterback Aidan Smith.

“We wanted to make them pass the ball," said Hawkeye safety Jack Koerner, who was a big part of that plan.

A lot of defensive coordinator Phil Parker's calls were to send safeties into the box as run support. That was an emphasis against a running game that had sliced through Iowa's defense during the past three Northwestern victories.

Northwestern finished with 64 rushing yards, and it was not for a lack of trying. Isaiah Bowser, who averaged more than five yards per attempt a year ago in Kinnick Stadium (31 rushes, 165 yards) had none of his 14 rushing attempts go further than six yards.

That's dominance.

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Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa was pleased with how often he was around the ball in a 20-0 win against the Wildcats. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

A.J. Epenesa was fantastic on run defense throughout the day, something he'll surely put on his pre-NFL Draft film.

That's been the knock on Epenesa, who led the Big Ten Conference a year ago in sacks with 10½. But this was probably his most complete game of the season. He was third on the team with five tackles, including four solos, as he seemed to be flowing to the ball with regularity.

Much of Epenesa's junior season has been filled with facing double teams. But he thought his "motor" was better Saturday, and that created more opportunities.

When Epenesa is around the ball, that's a really good thing for Iowa.

“Personally, I played better against the run. I made a couple plays against the run," he said, while also registering a half-sack, with Joe Evans getting the other half.

Still, Epenesa said, "I left a sack out there on the field. Those are things that have to be fixed.”

Four years ago, a young running back electrified a banged-up Hawkeye offense.

That man then was Akrum Wadley, a spindly sophomore in 2015 who sprinted for 204 rushing yards in a 40-10 Iowa win that defined that season.

On Saturday, exciting freshman Tyler Goodson certainly gave Iowa a boost. After being largely unused in the first half (with one carry for two yards), Goodson was like a hot shooter coming off the bench in basketball. Once he started hitting, the offense looked a lot better.

Goodson was the catalyst of an important, 13-play, 59-yard drive that produced Iowa’s insurmountable 17-0 lead.

Goodson’s shotgun-draw run of 12 yards on third-and-7 kick-started the march, and it was obvious Northwestern couldn’t keep up with the speedy freshman from Georgia. He uncorked another run of 12, plus others of nine and six, on the drive, which ended with Mekhi Sargent’s 1-yard TD run.

Goodson suffered a minor ankle injury on the drive but did return. His 11 carries for 58 yards don’t jump off the page, but he certainly has the octane the Hawkeyes need two weeks from now in Madison.

With the starting tight end out, a true freshman made his first Hawkeye splash.

The Hawkeyes gave rookie Sam LaPorta two first-half chances at a big play. It looked like he converted both times; but he actually got credit for it on the second.

LaPorta’s 41-yard gain busted Iowa out of its own end zone late in the second quarter, a massive boost in a field-position scrum. Stanley’s play-action toss caused LaPorta to make a leaping grab against a defender, then he squirted out to take the ball to the Iowa 47. That marked Iowa’s longest gain from a tight end this year, and served as an encouraging sign that the Hawkeyes could be reloading at that position pretty soon.

Earlier, LaPorta had a 34-yard catch wiped out after a questionable replay review that didn’t seem to show conclusive evidence of overturning what was ruled a juggling reception on the field.

LaPorta (6-foot-4, 242 pounds) was the third tight end Iowa took in its recruiting class of 2019 out of Highland, Illinois, but has been the only one of her three to play. He increasingly grew trust in Iowa coaches with starter Nate Wieting missing the game with an ankle injury.

Junior Shaun Beyer got the start in Wieting’s place and made an important grab of his own in the third quarter, picking up 11 yards on a fourth-and-8 that set up Iowa’s second touchdown.

“Sam’s been gaining ground. Shaun’s been gaining ground. This just kind of forced us to put them in the water," head coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. "And maybe that’s a good thing. When there’s nothing else, you’ve got to put a guy in there.”

There was always going to be a hole when T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant went to the NFL early. And the hole is still there. But perhaps with Wieting’s injury, a little more optimism was found Saturday about Iowa’s tight-end future.

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was pleased with the things he saw on offense and defense in the Hawkeyes' 20-0 win in Evanston. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Incredibly, Keith Duncan has either led the team or tied for the lead in points in all eight Hawkeye games this season. 

The junior placekicker scored eight points Saturday, with two PATs and field goals of 40 and 28 yards on a soggy day, overcoming a missed 46-yarder in the first quarter.

"The wind was a little bit different than what we thought it would be in warmups," said Duncan, who raised his national-leading total to 19 field goals (with other games in progress) on 22 attempts. He's also 18-for-18 on PATs, for a season total of 75 points. "I missed, but I thought it was my best kick of the day. ... I just played it a little too far right.

“But I really like how the unit and myself really recovered from that and put points on the board."

Where would Iowa be without Duncan?

Probably not 6-2 overall, 3-2 in Big Ten play entering November.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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