Hawkeye football mailbag: What's behind Pat Fitzgerald's mastery of Iowa?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

It’s Northwestern week for the Iowa football program, which means the unexpected should almost be expected Saturday morning at Ryan Field.

The Wildcats have a history of biting the Hawkeyes in the butt, and the subsequent pain is often felt for years to come. So, it’s no wonder a segment of Hawkeye fans that took part in our Facebook Live broadcast Wednesday were wary about Iowa’s chances in Evanston, even though the Hawkeyes are favored by 10½ points.

It’s difficult to pick the most painful Northwestern loss of the Kirk Ferentz era; there have been 10 of them. Maybe it’s 2005, when Iowa blew a 27-14 lead in the final 2 minutes, 10 seconds — with Northwestern recovering an onside kick on the way to a 28-27 stunner.

Pat Fitzgerald owns an 8-5 record against Kirk Ferentz, with wins in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

And that was the year before Pat Fitzgerald took over at Northwestern.

No coach has more wins against Ferentz than Fitzgerald. He is 8-5 against Ferentz and has added many pain-bank deposits for Iowa fans. Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) and Dan McCarney (Iowa State) are a distant second with five wins each against Ferentz.

Fitzgerald has upended some of Ferentz's best teams.

In 2008? Five maddening Hawkeye turnovers caused a 22-17 home loss, after Iowa led by 14 points.

In 2009? This one might top them all, with fourth-ranked Iowa owning a 9-0 record and leading Northwestern 10-0, until Ricky Stanzi was injured on a sack-fumble-touchdown. Iowa then lost, 17-10.

In 2010? On the same play he ruptured an Achilles tendon, Dan Persa flung a 20-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 left to rally Northwestern to a 21-17 win.

The hits have kept coming. The Wildcats carry a three-game win streak against Iowa into Saturday's 11 a.m. matchup. That list includes an overtime escape in Evanston two seasons ago (when Justin Jackson scored on third-and-9). Last season, the Wildcats celebrated their Big Ten West title at Kinnick Stadium after a 14-10 win.

How does Fitzgerald do it?

By making Iowa play ugly. By playing the full 60 minutes. And finding a way at the end.

Fitzgerald’s average margin of victory against Ferentz is 7.4 points; Ferentz’s over Fitzgerald is 19.8.

If history is a guide, the Hawkeyes’ best recipe Saturday is to put this out of reach before the fourth quarter begins.

OK, sorry to stir up all that scarring stuff.

Let’s move on to some other popular topics.

TOPIC: Is this finally the week for Oliver Martin?

The most asked-about player on the Hawkeye roster hasn’t been playing because Iowa has four very good receivers ahead of him. But now that Iowa is without its most heavily used receiver, Brandon Smith, for at least the next two games, Martin would be a sensible option against the Wildcats.

Speedy freshman Tyrone Tracy Jr. had been averaging 32 snaps a game as Iowa’s No. 4 receiver and will get the first crack at manning Smith’s “X” role. Kirk Ferentz said there won’t be any major schematic alterations. So, we should see Iowa rotating four receivers Saturday, and the best guess is Martin (who has been No. 5) will be the fourth. Stop worrying about Martin’s usage, and be thankful that the Hawkeyes have the receiving depth to offset Smith’s absence.

TOPIC: Is Nate Stanley unnecessarily exposing himself to more shots by running the ball more often?

No. In fact, I'm a proponent of making Stanley more of a running threat, as he was for a few rare zone-reads against Purdue (that gained 9 and 5 yards). He’s got a muscular, thick build (6-foot-4, 243 pounds) that has stood up to punishment. If getting Stanley more active boosts the beleaguered run game — heck, maybe he could scramble once in a while, too — that’s just one more thing for the opposing defense to think about.

Plus, Iowa’s second idle week is ahead. That offers Stanley more time for ice baths and recovery ahead of the November push.

TOPIC: Is it too late to fix the offensive line?

To fix it completely? Probably. There are physical limitations at guard. I like what we’ve seen from Mark Kallenberger in two starts; he’s ascending. And don’t forget, Kyler Schott could return from a foot injury at some point. But he shouldn’t be viewed as a savior for this unit. 

Where the O-line can make the biggest jump is tightening communication and pass protection. Left tackle Alaric Jackson's gradual return to form helps a lot. Losing either center Tyler Linderbaum or Tristan Wirfs, though, would be borderline disastrous. The Hawkeyes cannot depend on their run game, but with Stanley, they can throw effectively — as long as they can protect him.

TOPIC: Where could Northwestern expose Iowa the most?

The Wildcats are not as bad as their 1-5 record (0-4 in the Big Ten). They just haven’t found a quarterback. I’ll get more into this topic in this week's preview column, but the Northwestern running game is decent (it has rushed for 550 yards in Big Ten games, compared with Iowa’s 367), and 2018 Hawkeye killer Isaiah Bowser is also back from injury.

Also, Northwestern’s defense has created 13 fumbles. An ill-timed turnover or two by the Hawkeyes would be a fast recipe to another Wildcat butt-biter.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.