Post-Game Analysis: Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, what a game.  In typical Cardiac 'Cats fashion, Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) came back from a 10 point fourth quarter deficit to upset the Iowa Hawkeyes (7-3, 4-2) for the third consecutive season, 21-17.  And in a bittersweet moment, although NU QB Dan Persa completed the game-winning TD pass to Demetrius Fields with just over one minute left in the game, he also ruptured his Achilles tendon after landing on it awkwardly following his pass, which will require surgery (tonight) and will keep him out for the remainder of the season (including the bowl game).  Best wishes to Persa in his recovery and hopefully he will be ready to go when the 2011 season kicks off.

The 'Cats started things off pretty darn well, forcing a three-and-out and quickly moving the ball down the field on the ensuing possession to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter with Persa punching it in himself.  He had 23 rushing yards and threw for 35, accounting for a total of 58 of the Wildcats' 62 yards on the drive.  The defense would continue taking care of business as well, allowing just 2 cumulative first downs on the Hawkeyes' next 4 possessions and forcing a punt each of those times.

In the second quarter, after taking over with rather good field position (the Iowa 40) after a shanked Iowa punt went just 12 yards, the 'Cats had an opportunity to take a two possession lead.  But a costly intentional grounding penalty on first down put NU behind the chains, and the 'Cats would later have to settle for a 40 yard FG attempt, which Stefan Demos missed wide right into the wind.

With under 3 minutes left until halftime, though, Iowa responded with a solid drive of their own that included a fourth down conversion at the NU 35 yard line.  The NU defense forced two consecutive incompletions, though, and Iowa had to settle for a FG, cutting the lead to 7-3 just before halftime.  NU took a knee after the ensuing kickoff and went into halftime with a somewhat surprising 4 point lead.  But everyone knew about the 'Cats' second half troubles, and everyone also knew that Iowa would find a way to respond.

And respond they did.  After Northwestern was forced to punt (after a play where it looked like NU had converted a third down, although it was ruled that Sidney Stewart had stepped out of bounds before his reception, making him ineligible), Iowa put together a systematic drive that started with 34 Adam Robinson yards on the ground and ended with 3 Ricky Stanzi completions, including one in the end zone to Marvin McNutt to put Iowa ahead, 10-7.

Another punt by NU, and Iowa had an opportunity to extend its lead - and did.  After picking up a first down on a run where Robinson lost the football but recovered, Stanzi found Derrell Johnson-Koulianos running open down the middle of the field and hit him for what would turn into a 70 yard TD pass to put the Hawkeyes up 17-7.  Northwestern's safeties were drawn in too close to the line of scrimmage after a Stanzi pump-fake, leaving Johnson-Koulianos in single coverage, which he beat with his speed.  History definitely looked like it was repeating itself for the Wildcats.

After trading punts, the 'Cats found themselves with decent field position, and despite getting behind the chains following a sack, Persa found Jeremy Ebert in the middle of the field for an 18 yard gain to get into Iowa territory.  Northwestern drove to Iowa 38 before the first turnover of the game came.  Persa hit Tony Jones in the middle of the field and Jones just couldn't hang on; the ball bounced out of his hands and right into the chest of awaiting Hawkeye LB Jeremiah Hunter, who gave Iowa their best field position of the football game.

Fortunately, the NU D had a response of their own; on an attempted deep pass close to the end zone, Brian Peters had good coverage over the receiver and grabbed the ball, giving the Wildcats a takeaway of their own: one that would turn the momentum in the 'Cats' favor.  Starting at the 15 yard line, NU would go on one of its signature methodical drives, moving it down the field in 13 plays.  And Northwestern capped it off with a 6 yard TD pass from Persa to Ebert that got the 'Cats right back in the game, down 17-14 with just over 6 minutes remaining in the game and with NU holding all 3 of its timeouts.

The Wildcats allowed a first down but then held, forcing an Iowa punt that would give Northwestern a shot at the game-tying or game-winning score.  And in a somewhat interesting move, Pat Fitzgerald brought the heat, sending returner Venric Mark to the line with everyone rushing the punter.  The move backfired, with punter Ryan Donahue getting the ball off and, unlike earlier in the game, not shanking it.  Instead, it rolled down to the NU 9 yard line, meaning that the 'Cats would have to drive 91 yards for the potential game-winning score.

But with just over 4 minutes to play, that's exactly what Northwestern did.  Persa, as he always seems to do, eluded pressure and found ways to move the 'Cats down the field, including a 22 yard scamper an third-and-four from the NU 15 yard line.  And when NU reached the red zone with a first down on the 20 yard line, Persa found a way to make the play of the game.  Iowa brought a blitz, something that they had rarely done for much of the game, and Persa jumped in the air to get his pass off over the rushing Adrian Clayborn.  Demetrius Fields found a way to sneak open at the goal line and hauled in the pass under pressure for the go-ahead score.  Unfortunately, Persa cam down strangely on his leg after that jump and experienced an injury that would end his junior season.

Now it would be up to the 'Cats' defense to prevent an Iowa TD and hold onto that 21-17 lead for the win.  And it would be quite an interesting series, despite the fact that it lasted just 1 minute and 16 seconds.  After gaining 8 yards and getting out of bounds on first down, Stanzi would throw two consecutive incompletions bringing up fourth down and a chance for NU to get the ball in a position to seal the game.  But Iowa sent TE Allen Reisner on a short out route that Stanzi hit for the first down.  The next series of downs required a third down conversion.  Then, NU had a prime chance at a stop after three straight incomplete passes and Iowa facing a fourth-and-10; a false start penalty would move them back 5 more yards (to their own 38) as well.  But, Stanzi somehow hit McNutt for a 23 yard gain to keep Iowa's hopes alive.

Next was an incomplete pass followed by a key Vince Browne sack that forced the Hawkeyes to use their final timeout.  Robinson would drop a short pass on third down to set up another fourth and long with 15 ticks left in regulation.  Northwestern took a couple of timeouts to prepare, and then Stanzi took the ball and went for broke, throwing up a Hail Mary to the end zone.  Thankfully, NU had defenders waiting in the end zone and Brian Peters was credited with the swat that broke up the pass, sealing the win for Northwestern.  NU QB Evan Watkins, who will be the starter for NU's final 3 games (including the bowl game) in the 2010 season, took a knee and Northwestern had earned its third straight win over Iowa (5th in the last 6 meetings) and a bowl-guaranteeing 7th win.

Much like the past two meetings, it was a relatively low scoring affair, but one in which the Northwestern defense took care of business for much of the game while the offense compiled a comeback for the victory.  Persa going down was certainly disheartening, but at least Northwestern fans had a chance to rush the field and celebrate with the 'Cats after a win over a highly ranked Iowa team (since the two prior victories came in Iowa City).

Player of the Game

Northwestern QB Dan Persa (32-of-43 passing for 318 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT; 14 carries for 78 yards, 1 TD after removing sacks)  There were many 'Cats who came up big on the day, but this honor belongs to Persa in what will be his final game of the season.  He accounted for 87.8% of NU's total offense on the day and all 3 TD scores.  And he led a 14 point fourth quarter for the Wildcats, including the game-winning 91 yard drive, after NU had failed to put together such a fourth quarter performance in three of the last four games.  Hats off to Persa who showed tons of guts yet again and will unfortunately have to root on NU from the sideline the rest of the way.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

Offensive Line: Despite giving up 4 sacks, the Northwestern offensive line generally held their own against a large and physical Iowa defensive front.  They provided Persa ample time to find his targets and/or move around to make a play and deserve some credit for the 'Cats' admirable comeback on the day, especially the way that they seemingly caved in against PSU just one week earlier.

RB Mike Trumpy:  He had 106 all-purpose yards to lead Northwestern on the day including 51 on the ground and 55 through the air.  His accomplishments include the 21 yard catch and run to set up the 'Cats' game winning score.  Although he didn't light it up on the ground, he did provide a reliable outlet for Persa and deserves a nod.

S Brian Peters:  Peters led the 'Cats with 10 tackles, had the game-changing interception, and another 2 pass break-ups.  He's been solid on the year and came up huge in this, Northwestern's biggest win of the season.

Fourth Quarter Performance:  In Northwestern's 3 losses on the season, the 'Cats fourth quarter scoring was 3 to 35 for their collective opponents.  The Wildcats found a way to get back to their old come-from-behind ways and outscored Iowa 14-0 in the final period of this game.

What to Work on

Evan Watkins:  Although Northwestern won, there is a lot of work to be done between now and the Wrigley Game next Saturday, since the NU starting QB job now belongs to sophomore Evan Watkins.  Persa was definitely the focal point of the NU offense this season, having accounted for 75.5% of the 'Cats' total offense and 77.4% of NU's touchdowns.  But, as any fan knows, now is the time to regroup and practice that much harder in order to refocus the offense around Watkins.  Things will likely look a bit different, but Fitz, OC Mick McCall, and the aforementioned new starting QB will find a way to make it work.

Random Observations

Third Downs

A big reason that the 'Cats won the game came on third downs: the NU offense converted over half of theirs (9-of-16), while the defense got off the field rather often, allowing Iowa to convert just 2 of their 14 opportunities.  NU therefore held Iowa to 7 drives of 20 yards or fewer and forced the same number of punts.


The turnover battle was tied, but Northwestern was the team that capitalized, generating their first points off of a turnover since the Central Michigan game (and, again, that after generating 53 points off turnovers through the first 4 weeks of the season).  And those points were indeed valuable, as they really shifted the momentum in NU's favor.

Returns (or lack thereof)

Interestingly, all 8 kickoffs (4 by each team) were with the wind and all 8 were touchbacks, meaning that there were 0 kickoff returns (for 0 yards) in the game.  The story wasn't much different on punts, with each team staying conservative in their punting (either going for a downed punt or a fair catch); NU didn't have any returns while Iowa had 2 returns for -1 yards.  In fact, the punt return yards (29 - 25 by NU's Peters and 4 by Iowa's Hunter) far outpaced the number of kick and punt return yards, something that few would expect from a typical football game.

Scoring First and Leading Late

For the 9th time in NU's 10 games this season, the 'Cats got on the scoreboard first (and scored on their first drive for the 6th time this season).  And for the 26th consecutive time, the 'Cats have been tied or held a lead in the second half of a game (led 25 of those times).

NU against the Odds

In the 'Cats' 5 games against Iowa under Coach Fitz, the oddsmakers have a cumulative line of 53.5 in favor of Iowa (with the Hawkeyes as a favorite in 4 of those games).  Over that span, Northwestern has won 4 (including every game where Iowa was favored) and outscored the Hawkeyes by a 19 point margin.

Bowl Positioning

The win over Iowa was huge for Northwestern's bowl positioning, to say the least.  7 wins essentially guarantees that the 'Cats will go bowling, and it actually secures a third consecutive season with a winning record, the longest such streak since 1958-60 (under Ara Parseghian).  Also, it will put the Wildcats ahead of any 6-win teams in the bowl pecking order.  Northwestern could move up as high as the Gator Bowl, but now has very realistic shots at either the Insight or Texas Bowls, with a last-resort being the TicketCity Bowl (formerly known as Dallas Football Classic).

Illinois' stunning loss to Minnesota keeps them at 5 wins, meaning that the 'Cats could take a commanding advantage over them with a win next week at Wrigley Field.  Also, Iowa is now tied with NU by record and they must still face the formidable Ohio State Buckeyes.  So, the 'Cats have a decent chance of getting selected before these two teams if NU can finish with at least one more win.

Also, Wisconsin and Ohio State continued with very strong performances and seem to be on the path to two BCS Bowl berths for Big Ten squads (Michigan State has one loss like those two teams as they had a bye this week).

Michigan did pick up their 7th win, meaning that they will likely be in a position to be selected before the 'Cats (assuming they finish with their current win totals and/or within one win of each other).  Penn State sits at 6 wins but faces an Indiana squad that was decimated this week.

The best thing that the 'Cats can do is beat Illinois, which looks like a realistic proposition (even with Persa out) since the Illini are currently on a two game losing streak during which they have allowed 105 points.  A win there would likely ensure that Northwestern stays out of Dallas (and, of course, Detroit) and will have a shot at a bowl as high as the Gator.

Final Thought

Coach Fitz just knows how to beat Iowa, and he has once again proved that he is a great late-season coach.  The team played an all-around great game and got big plays on both sides of the football.  Fitz is now within one win of his mentor, Gary Barnett, and within two of 3rd place (a tie that includes Parseghian) on the Northwestern all-time wins list.  Although this season has included multiple disappointments, this win was a nice exclamation point, particularly on Senior day, and will help propel the 'Cats to one of their most consistent runs in history.

Persa deserves a ton of credit for getting Northwestern to where they are, but it's time to quickly move on from his injury and to focus on the games that remain for the Wildcats in 2010.  Here's hoping the 'Cats have some more magic up their sleeves, especially at what should be a once-in-a-lifetime event next week at Wrigley Field.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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