Slugfest alert: What to expect from Iowa vs. Northwestern

Chad Leistikow

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern may be the Iowa football fan base’s most annoying nemesis.

The Wildcats have a reputation for foiling some of the Hawkeyes’ best seasons. And as luck would have it, it's Northwestern time on the schedule again, just as No. 17 Iowa has assembled its third 6-0 start since 1960.

Most famously, Northwestern was a purple party crasher in 2009 — winning 17-10 as a two-touchdown underdog at Kinnick Stadium to injure quarterback Ricky Stanzi and the 9-0 Hawkeyes. The Wildcats also wrenched two of Kirk Ferentz’s most talented Hawkeye teams (in 2005, after converting a late onsides kick; and in 2008, after forcing five turnovers in Kinnick).

But to those who remember only the bad times vs. Northwestern, Ferentz would like to offer a history lesson.

“Not to be disrespectful, but I think sometimes we have a perception problem here,” Ferentz said. “Like, some people are living in the '80s.

“Things have changed there. I think a lot of people maybe fall victim to remembering Chuck Long throwing for 17 touchdowns in that one game (it was six), whatever year that was, '84 or '85 (it was the latter and a 49-10 win). They weren't very good.”

Ferentz’s point is that Iowa’s losses in this series often have come against good Northwestern football teams. And he’s right, times did change about two decades ago. That’ll be crystallized Saturday as the Wildcats, on Homecoming, honor their 1995 Rose Bowl team. More than 75 players from that roster will be on hand, as well as former coach/alleged Iowa hater Gary Barnett.

You remember Barnett, don't you? He circled Iowa as a program to emulate upon his arrival in Evanston in 1992. It was that season, after a 56-14 Hawkeye win, that then-coach Hayden Fry told Barnett, “I hope we didn’t hurt any of your boys.” Barnett would later say Fry's comment took the rivalry “to warp speed.”

Northwestern 10th-year coach Pat Fitzgerald played for that 1995 team, too. As you would expect, Fitzgerald dismissed talk of a personal rivalry — instead pointing to the implications in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division, with Iowa (2-0) alone at the top.

“I think there’s extra motivation because they’re in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the bottom line. They’ve put themselves in position by the way that they’ve played.”

A game of survival

No. 20 Northwestern’s season went from humming to humbling with a 38-0 loss last week at Michigan. The score isn’t reflective of a sudden defensive meltdown; Michigan scored 14 points on a game-opening kickoff return and second-quarter interception return.

The Wildcats nonetheless stand 5-1 overall (1-1 in the Big Ten), including a season-opening 16-6 win over Stanford — which has been one of the country’s best teams since.

Take a look at that score and what the 5-1 Cardinal did on Thursday night, demolishing UCLA 56-35. Holding Stanford to six shows how salty the Wildcats’ defense can be.

Northwestern is ninth nationally in total defense. It’s especially stingy against throwing teams, allowing just 4.5 yards per pass attempt. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker (he wears No. 18) is a star in the making.

“The thing that stands out to me about them,” Ferentz said, “(is) they obviously play very, very well on defense.”

Even though top Northwestern cornerback Matthew Harris is out with facial injuries suffered at Michigan, Iowa could be challenged in the passing game. Top receiver Tevaun Smith remains out with a knee injury, and banged-up quarterback C.J. Beathard will operate behind an offensive line that is missing both starting tackles.

That could mean another heavy dose of running back Jordan Canzeri, who set a school record in last week’s 29-20 win over Illinois with 43 carries (for 256 yards). Ferentz did say he’d “at least” get one more running back involved and possibly two in sophomores Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Akrum Wadley. Watch for Beathard to try to involve slot receiver Matt VandeBerg (held to two catches for 10 yards) a little more, too.

If Iowa, a slight favorite Saturday, can emerge from Ryan Field with a 7-0 record and Beathard in one piece, it will be set up nicely for the stretch run. A bye week and Oct. 31 game against woeful Maryland follows. Iowa has shown resiliency on the path to 6-0, winning four games decided in the fourth quarter.

“We have trust in our guys that we’re going to find a way no matter what the situation is,” tight end Henry Krieger Coble said. “We’re prepared to play in games that go the full 60 (minutes) every week.”

Stopping Northwestern

A few weeks ago, defensive end Drew Ott stated the Iowa defensive philosophy after a 10-6 win at Wisconsin: “If they don’t score, they don’t win.”

That might need to be the mentality again Saturday, even with Ott (torn ACL) out for the season.

Iowa ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, which will be tested by what Northwestern wants to do. The Wildcats’ Justin Jackson leads the nation with 150 carries. Northwestern easily leads the Big Ten at 51.8 rush attempts a game. With still-learning freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, the Wildcats are last in the Big Ten with 140.2 passing yards a game.

“We’ve got to get our run game going. That’s our bread and butter,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to be able to run the football, and Iowa will make it another challenging week.”

Against Michigan, Northwestern averaged just 2.4 yards on first down. That is something Iowa aims to duplicate, putting the Wildcats in third-and-long. The Hawkeyes allowed Illinois just 1.9 yards a rush last week.

“They’re a little bit like Illinois,” Iowa cornerback Greg Mabin said, “where they’re up-tempo, like to get the ball to their play-makers fast, like to spread us out.”

Odds-makers agree, this clash has all the makings of a Big Ten slugfest. They set the over/under at 41 combined points. Only Boston College-Clemson has a lower total on Saturday’s FBS menu.

If Iowa wins this one, it’ll have head-to-head wins over what are now considered the top two Big Ten West challengers in Northwestern and Wisconsin — and would likely enable the Hawkeyes to survive a loss and still reach the conference championship game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.

Beating a recent program nemesis would enable talk of a magical season to continue.

“When we get to the bye week, it’ll be nice to recover and rest a little bit,” Beathard said. “But right now, we’ve got Northwestern on our mind, and we’ll move on to the bye week when we get there.”


A look at Kirk Ferentz’s most agonizing losses against Northwestern; he is 7-7 against the Wildcats (the schools didn’t play in 2003 or 2004), including wins in three of the last four:

1999: Northwestern 23, Iowa 21. Year 1, Game 6 of the Ferentz era came down to the final seconds. Zak Kustok scored on a 2-yard keeper on fourth-and-goal with 4 seconds to play at Ryan Field. It was the Wildcats’ first Big Ten win since 1997. Ferentz’s first Big Ten win would have to wait until Oct. 7, 2000.

2005: Northwestern 28, Iowa 27. Coming off its 2004 Big Ten title season and miracle Capital One Bowl win, Iowa’s magic vanished in 2005. This was the king of all Northwestern losses, after being up 24-7 in the second half and 27-14 with just over 2 minutes to play. But Northwestern recovered a late onside kick and scored the go-ahead TD with 42 seconds left.

2008: Northwestern 22, Iowa 17. Iowa lost four games in 2008 by a total of 12 points. This one may have been the most painful, with the Hawkeyes committing five turnovers and losing at home in their Big Ten opener despite 159 rushing yards from Shonn Greene.

2009: Northwestern 17, Iowa 10. This one is seared into many Iowa fans’ memory banks. The Hawkeyes opened the 2009 season 9-0 and were on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They were No. 4 in the BCS rankings and led 10-0 at home until 5-4 Northwestern’s Corey Wootton sacked and injured quarterback Ricky Stanzi in the end zone for a fumble-recovery touchdown. 

2010: Northwestern 21, Iowa 17. The Hawkeyes entered Ryan Field as 10.5-point favorites, but the Wildcats rallied with 14 late points, the final TD coming on a 20-yard pass from Dan Persa with 1:22 play. Persa ruptured his Achilles tendon in the celebration, but the damage was done for the Hawkeyes.


WHO: No. 17 Iowa (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) AT No. 20 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1)

WHERE: Ryan Field, Evanston, Ill.

TIME/TV: 11 a.m., ABC (in Big Ten footprint), ESPN2 (otherwise)

LINE: Iowa by 1.5

WEATHER: Sunny with a high of 52 degrees. Temperature around kickoff will be in the mid-40s with 10-15 mph winds.