IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was a topsy-turvy game that ended with Iowa’s football season turned upside down Saturday.
Northwestern kept its poise through a series of changes in momentum to hand the Hawkeyes a 38-31 loss before a homecoming crowd of 67,047 at Kinnick Stadium. It was a shattering setback for an Iowa team that had plans for a repeat title in the Big Ten West, and it happened because the Hawkeyes repeatedly lost their discipline, making one horrible play for every spectacular one.
“This team is capable of so much more. We just need to start showing it on Saturday,” Iowa wide receiver Riley McCarron said.
“You can’t just have a sense of urgency one quarter and then not the other.”
Iowa (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) fell behind 17-7, rallied to take a 24-17 lead early in the third quarter, then watched helplessly as Northwestern reeled off three touchdowns to go ahead 38-24 with 12:06 left. The Hawkeyes responded with a 46-yard pass from quarterback C.J. Beathard to Jerminic Smith to set up LeShun Daniels’ 1-yard touchdown run.
But on Iowa’s final possession, with Beathard under pressure, he rolled right and threw a pass that Wildcats cornerback Trae Williams intercepted in front of his sideline. That sealed an improbable victory for Northwestern (2-3, 1-1), which entered the game 12-point underdogs and with the Big Ten’s weakest offense, averaging just 16.3 points per game.
“Kinnick and the Hawkeyes, they knock a lot of teams out in the first round here in the first 15 minutes,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “For us to weather that storm and then not to flinch after they went on a 17-0 run, I thought showed some maturity from this group.”
More coverage from Saturday's loss
- McCarron moves in for VandeBerg despite Iowa’s pass game problems
- Iowa takeaways: The run defense still stinks
- Leistikow: Hawkeyes lose their composure, control of their season
- Beathard must lead to get Hawkeyes back on track
Iowa isn’t knocking anyone out these days, except for themselves. The Hawkeyes lost here two weeks ago to North Dakota State, then barely won at Rutgers last Saturday. The troubling trends revealed in those games resurfaced this weekend.
Northwestern ran for 198 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown burst by Justin Jackson in which he sliced right through the heart of Iowa’s defense. Iowa is averaging 210 rushing yards allowed in its past three games.
“I’ll put most of that on the linebackers, filling gaps, playing off the defensive line. If they screw up, we’ve got to make them right,” Hawkeyes middle linebacker Josey Jewell said.
“Last year, we had a couple guys, if you screw up but you have people behind you making the plays. This year, a couple times now, we haven’t made those plays. A guy screws up, there’s not a guy behind him to make the adjustment, to make the tackle sometimes. So we need to focus on that. We all need to go 100 percent on every play, get 11 hats on the ball.”
The Wildcats also got three passing touchdowns from quarterback Clayton Thorson to star wide receiver Austin Carr, leading Iowa cornerback Desmond King to make this damning admission: “They really outcoached us a little bit in the passing game.”
King, who was credited with two pass breakups, later tried to backpedal from that comment, saying: “They came with a mindset to win this game and we just, I guess, wasn’t ready.”
That’s not much better.
On offense, Iowa allowed Beathard to be sacked six times by a Northwestern team that entered play with six all season. Five came on third-down plays and forced the Hawkeyes to punt.
“In the end, you should be more than able to handle a one-on-one on your own. That’s where we need to be better,” Hawkeyes guard Sean Welsh said of the pass-blocking breakdowns.
And then there were the penalties — six, costing Iowa 70 yards. Northwestern was flagged only once, for five yards.
“We're not good enough to dig out of those kinds of situations, especially when we put ourselves in a hole,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We've got to make sure if we're in a hole it's because the defense put us there, not ourselves.”
Between the sacks and the penalties, it was difficult for Iowa to establish its ground game, which worked so effectively in last year’s 40-10 blitzing of the Wildcats. That was one of nine consecutive Big Ten regular-season victories that the Hawkeyes reeled off, a streak snapped Saturday.
Iowa tailback Akrum Wadley ran for two early touchdowns but finished with only 35 yards on 14 carries. Daniels added 72 yards on 17 carries. Iowa’s net rushing total was just 79, though, factoring in the 42 yards that Beathard lost while being wrestled to the ground.
“I do believe we should have ran the ball more, but sometimes it happens like that,” Wadley said. “Mental mistakes set us back, and that just knocks out rhythm.
“We shouldn’t be losing like this.”
WATCH: Chad Leistikow, Mark Emmert recap Iowa's loss to Northwestern:
The Register's Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert look back at the Hawkeyes' loss to Northwestern and what went wrong.