Analysis: Iowa run defense can't stop Northwestern freshman, and pays the price

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Northwestern freshman running back Isaiah Bowser ran out the clock at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

His 4-yard gain on fourth-and-2 kept the ball out of Iowa’s hands and sealed a 14-10 Wildcats victory.

How fitting.

Iowa defensive lineman Brady Reiff (91) and Iowa defensive lineman Cedrick Lattimore (95) tackle Northwestern's Isaiah Bowser (25) during a Big Ten Conference football game on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Bowser bullied the Hawkeyes all afternoon, racking up 119 of his 165 rushing yards in the second half while Northwestern held the ball for 19 minutes, 30 seconds.

It was the worst performance against the run all season for an Iowa defense that entered play fifth in the nation in that category. Even Wisconsin All-American candidate Jonathan Taylor only gained 113 yards here in Week 4.

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“Maybe we didn’t hold ourselves to a standard like we usually do. I don’t know what happened,” Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said afterward.

“We knew they were a very hard-nosed team.”

The Wildcats aren’t Big Ten West champions by accident. They saw that the Hawkeyes were focused on keeping wide receiver Flynn Nagel blanketed, particularly on third downs. Nagel had 63 receptions entering play and a streak of at least one catch in 27 consecutive games. Iowa did end that streak. But Northwestern kept alive a more important one — seven Big Ten road wins in a row.

Iowa deployed six defenders near the line of scrimmage, banking on the fact that the Wildcats had not been a prolific running team. Northwestern averaged 94 yards on the ground in its first nine games.

It worked in the first half. Northwestern tried to pass the first five times it faced a third down. None were successful. The Hawkeyes led 3-0 at intermission.


The second half belonged to Bowser. The 216-pound rookie came into the game averaging 3.9 yards per carry. He was at 5.3 Saturday, bouncing off Hawkeyes right and left and even rumbling through a gaping hole for a 34-yard touchdown.

“The kid ran the ball really hard,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They stretch it out a little bit, so you’ve got to make some choices on how you want to fill those gaps. But when we did leave one open, they hit it pretty well.”

Northwestern grew so enamored with its rushing attack that it even kept the ball on the ground on a third-and-9 play in the second half. It gained 13 yards.

The Wildcats converted 7 of 13 third downs in the second half. They also made good on both fourth-down attempts. Both were rushes by Bowser.

“I thought coming into it they were going to be a heavy-pass team,” Iowa safety Jake Gervase said. “They had some stuff schemed up, some plays that were working for them in the run game. They kept coming back to them.”

And Iowa kept failing to stop it.

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A week ago, the Hawkeyes game-planned ways to neutralize Purdue star wide receiver Rondale Moore. That part worked. But Moore’s counterpart, Terry Wright, broke loose for three touchdowns in a 38-36 Boilermaker victory.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes took away Nagel only to inherit Bowser. It’s been that kind of a season.

“We were running to the ball, but we didn’t finish,” Hawkeye safety Geno Stone said. “They got most of their yards when we were in our dime defense. We were basically in coverage. They schemed us well. Next time we’ve just go to probably play a different coverage.”

Next time is a year away. This time the Hawkeyes came up four points short, on the heels of a six-point loss at Penn State and a two-point back-breaker at Purdue.

This was the pivotal three-game stretch for Iowa. Anyone could see that. The Hawkeyes went 0-for-3.

Epenesa, who had one of Iowa’s three tackles for loss Saturday, said the accountability needs to extend to every player on the roster. He pointed to a mistake of his own to illustrate his point.

Twice, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson called his own number on third downs and picked up the necessary yardage. One was a third-and-7 play late in the third quarter.

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“I got caught in a spot where I was kind of stuck in the middle when I should have gotten the quarterback,” Epenesa said. “I got there late, but they still got the first down. That’s an example of me not finishing, doing my job. I’ve just got to sit home, do what you’re trained to do.”