EVANSTON, Ill. — Noah Fant caught a pass and stepped untouched into the end zone late in the first half of Saturday’s football game.
What was so remarkable about that 7-yard touchdown?
It was the first time Iowa had scored first all season.
Half of the audience wore Hawkeye gold. And that half left muttering after a sputtering offense produced a mere 74 yards in the second half to fall to 4-3 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten Conference.
Gone are any hopes of a Big Ten West title. Iowa must turn its attention to bowl-eligibility now, needing two wins in its final five contests, beginning with a 5:30 p.m. home game next Saturday vs. Minnesota.
Leistikow's First Word: Plenty of blame, frustration within Iowa's latest loss
“I don’t have the answer right this second,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of an unusually anemic Iowa ground game that churned out 53 yards in the first quarter and a mere 36 after that, averaging 1.8 yards per attempt in that span.
“I can’t pinpoint it,” Hawkeye tailback Akrum Wadley said when asked the same question. “We shouldn’t be losing like this, especially to that team. … It’s embarrassing.”
Wadley gained 90 yards on 26 carries, including an early 22-yard burst that pushed him past Ronnie Harmon and into ninth place on the Hawkeye career list with 2,336 yards. Things looked easy then. It seemed a matter of time before the elusive senior broke a big gain.
But it never happened. Iowa took a 7-0 lead into halftime after Fant’s touchdown, set up by a beautiful 61-yard connection from quarterback Nate Stanley to wide receiver Matt VandeBerg.
“I just ended up beating him on a post,” VandeBerg said. “We were waiting for a spark, I guess.”
The spark didn’t stick.
“They outplayed us in the second half,” VandeBerg added.
Iowa’s defense gave a sturdy effort despite the injury absences of star middle linebacker Josey Jewell and free safety Brandon Snyder. The Hawkeyes began the second half by stuffing Northwestern for three plays and forcing a punt. That punt, by Hunter Niswander, ended up traveling 80 yards to the Iowa 5. After Wadley produced one first down, Iowa’s drive stalled on two Nick Easley dropped passes.
Northwestern scored the tying touchdown on the ensuing possession. When Iowa got the ball back, Wadley again ran for a first down. Then the Hawkeyes decided to open up the playbook, losing yards on three consecutive plays. So much for VandeBerg’s spark.
Iowa gained a paltry 16 yards in the entire third quarter; the game had devolved into a slog.
“They came out and played a bunch of different coverages. We knew they were going to try to do that,” Stanley said after completing 19 of 33 passes for 223 yards with a touchdown and an interception. “It’s still hard to prepare for a team that has so many looks.”
Iowa did tie the score late on Miguel Recinos’ career-long 48-yard field goal, an attempt necessitated after half of the offensive line jumped offside on what would have been a fourth-and-inches play.
Northwestern (4-3, 2-2) got the ball first in overtime and scored on a 1-yard Clayton Thorson quarterback sneak.
Iowa had a chance on a fourth-and-3 play moments later. It was the same one that produced Fant’s touchdown. This time, the sophomore tight end looked for running room before looking the ball into his hands. He dropped the pass, dropped to his knees and was immediately consoled by Stanley as the Wildcats rushed onto the field to celebrate their win.
“You’ve got to play through those and nobody’s more disappointed than him on that,” Ferentz said of Fant. “But we don’t lose the game on that play. There’s a lot of plays you can go back and look at.”
Fant bravely faced a group of reporters afterward, the crush of the loss visible on his face.
“I framed the ball, started looking into the defense to see where I could get a crease at and didn’t focus on the ball and dropped it,” Fant said.
“I have to bring that in,” he said of the one that got away. “It’s crazy how that works. One play can be a touchdown, the other can be a dropped pass for the game.”
That was the story of the Iowa offense Saturday. One easy touchdown, one tough-luck drop, not nearly enough in between.