IOWA CITY, Ia. — Maybe it was the frigid temperatures. Maybe it was the lingering effects of two draining weeks that had Iowa in a fog Saturday. The Hawkeyes had to look for their own energy.
They didn't find it.
Stuck in a vintage Big Ten Conference grind, Northwestern threw the last punch at Kinnick Stadium. Bennett Skowronek’s diving 32-yard touchdown grab with just under 10 minutes to go was enough, as the Wildcats wrapped up the Big Ten West Division with a 14-10 win over Iowa.
The Hawkeyes’ ground game was stagnant again, and almost every drive stalled out otherwise. A Miguel Recinos 46-yard field goal and an Ihmir Smith-Marsette 28-yard touchdown grab were the only Iowa points.
Late miscues derailed any chance of a comeback. Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin each fumbled near midfield on Iowa’s final two drives, sealing the Wildcat win.
This is just the third time since the 1960s that the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) have lost three straight against Northwestern. With Wisconsin and Purdue falling earlier in the day, the Wildcats (6-4, 6-1) turned Kinnick Stadium into a postgame purple party. The win clinched their first division title.
Iowa, meanwhile, is stuck trying to figure out how to stop an extended skid.
"We’re just not doing what we’ve been training to do," defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. "and it’s pretty frustrating."
Here's what we learned:
Ground game blues
Iowa’s running game has lacked explosive plays all season, and that was the case again Saturday.
No back rushed for more than 27 yards. No carry went longer than 11 yards.
The two late fumbles put the cherry on top. There are three guys back there getting carries, but none of them are doing much right now.
Where's he at?
Noah Fant’s playing time has been a much-discussed topic all season — and Saturday again showed why. Iowa’s talented tight end had just three targets and one catch for zero yards.
“We try to feature our guys that are doing the best, whether it’s T.J. (Hockenson), Noah, our receivers," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We’re calling the game as we call the game.”
There were large chunks of drives where Fant, considered one of college football's best tight ends, wasn’t even on the field. Even in the red zone, where Fant is such a weapon, Iowa looked elsewhere.
“We’re playing the best guys that we feel are best for the situation that’s given,” Ferentz said."
The lone flicker
With Brandon Smith in concussion protocol following a hard hit late against Purdue, Iowa’s wide receivers had extra weight to pull.
The New Jersey native was one of the few offensive players who showed life Saturday, racking up a career-high 90 receiving yards and a touchdown on four catches. He had two of Iowa’s three longest offensive plays — a nice 36-yard grab along the sideline that was upheld after a review, and the 28-yard score that handed Iowa a 10-7 lead late in the third.
"Coach Brian Ferentz dialed it up. and we executed it," Smith-Marsette said of the TD. "The line gave Nate a great pocket. I executed my route, and Nate gave me a great ball in the back of the end zone."
It was the first spark from Smith-Marsette in quite a while. The sophomore wide receiver entered with just four catches for 25 yards in the previous four games combined. He hadn’t had multiple receptions in a game since facing Minnesota on Oct. 6.
Smith-Marsette also proved his worth again on special teams, averaging 30-plus yards on three kickoff returns.
Iowa didn’t do much with those, though.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.