Post-Game Analysis: Iowa
by Jonathan Hodges

The Iowa Hawkeyes (3-2, 1-1) were finally able to get by the Northwestern Wildcats (2-4, 0-3) as they mounted a 17 point first half lead, watched as the 'Cats chipped away and eventually tied the game, but used an explosive fourth quarter showing to finish off Northwestern by a final score of 41-31 in a rocking Kinnick Stadium. The play of the game turned out to be early in the contest as NU QB Dan Persa had NU in the red zone but chose to throw the ball while in the grasp of an Iowa defender and consequently floated the ball to Iowa DB Tanner Miller who took the ball the other way for a touchdown. On the day, Iowa had 10 points off of turnovers, coincidentally (or not) the same as their winning margin.

Northwestern is now reeling with four consecutive losses, their longest such streak (and first 0-3 Big Ten start) since Fitz's first season in 2006 under very tough circumstances. They must now come home and regroup for their third consecutive night game, this time against the seemingly defense-only Penn State Nittany Lions. And NU will have to see if they can completely reverse the ownership triangle by knocking off a PSU team that has owned the 'Cats under Fitz (the remainder of the triangle: Iowa has owned PSU over the last decade but fell to them this year, and of course, NU and Iowa were the other part of that triangle).

First Half Summary

Things didn't start off so well for the 'Cats. Iowa drove quickly down the field but the Northwestern defense was able to contain them when it mattered in the red zone and thus only fell behind 3-0 early. The teams traded punts before the Wildcat offense really got humming thanks to the arm of Dan Persa that included a nice 32 yard diving catch from Kain Colter at WR. Northwestern had the ball first-and-goal at the Iowa seven when Persa made what may be the most costly and ill-advised throw of his collegiate career: in the grasp of an Iowa defender, Persa chose to try and throw for the end zone instead of taking the sack and going to second down (worst case, even if NU couldn't punch it in over the next two downs: go for a relatively short field goal attempt to tie the game at 3). His pass subsequently floated through the air (it appears as though Persa thought he could get more on the ball, but that seemed a stretch with a defender wrapped around his legs) and was caught by Iowa's Miller at the 2 and he had a wide open 98 yard path to the end zone from there. Although the 'Cats would fight valiantly to come back from that, it would prove to be just too much as it took at least 3 (if not 7) points off the board for the 'Cats and handed Iowa 7 without the NU D even stepping foot on the field.

NU's next drive was solid as well, but the 'Cats folded once entering the red zone with a sack on third down at the Iowa 20 and a false start on the ensuing field goal try, pushing NU out of range and forcing a punt. That was essentially the story of the game for the Wildcats: they moved the ball very well on offense but a handful of errors really burned them in the end.

Midway through the second quarter, NU's pass defense (or lack thereof) really started to show itself: Iowa QB James Vandenberg found WR Keenan Davis open deep on two consecutive plays, the second of which went for a long 47 yard TD, with no defensive back was within even 5 yards of the receiver after a complete breakdown in coverage. After the game, CB Demetrius Dugar (staring in place of the benched Jeravin Matthews) stated that there were numerous miscommunications in the backfield with guys not understanding what checks were being used and if they were in zone or man coverage. Fitz echoed this and put it on the coaches for not getting their players in a position to be successful.

NU did have an answer before the half, though, going on a stereotypically methodical drive of 13 plays featuring five first downs and capped with a Persa-to-Jeremy Ebert TD pass (their fourth such connection this season) to pull the 'Cats within 10. On Iowa's ensuing play from scrimmage, NU CB Dugar had a bit of a redemption with an INT, although the 'Cats were unable to capitalize thanks to a sack that put them behind the chains early on a first down. Iowa allowed time to run out and took a 17-7 lead into halftime, although NU was certainly working to reverse that early momentum in favor of the Hawkeyes.

Second Half Summary

Northwestern continued with their momentum by receiving the opening kick of the second half and churning their way down the field on 12 plays that included two third-down conversions (an area that NU vastly improved on from earlier in the season) and eventually hit paydirt and pulled within 3 thanks to an Adonis Smith run off of the option. The 'Cats forced a three-and-out and were in business again, driving down to the Iowa 30 facing third-and-one, but couldn't manage to get that yard on a Kain Colter option keeper, but Jeff Buzien hit the 47 yard FG (a career long) to tie the game at 17 after allowing Iowa to climb ahead by that number.

Unfortunately, on Iowa's ensuing drive spanning into the fourth quarter, they decided to go back to their bread and butter: the power running game coupled with play-action passing. They handed the ball off to Marcus Coker, who had been quiet for most of the day, and he ran the ball for 36 yards on the drive, including the final yard for the go-ahead score. On the ensuing drive, Northwestern once again moved the ball well; driving to the Iowa 23 yard line and facing a third-and-five, NU somewhat inexplicably put Colter on the field to run the option (with Schmidt, another questionable decision). Iowa rightly snuffed the play out and Colter's pitch attempt went past Schmidt and out-of-bounds for a costly six yard loss. Budzien's resulting 47 yard attempt was pushed just wide right this time (although it had the distance), and Iowa's lead remained at seven.

But, not for long, as the aforementioned unsightly Northwestern pass defense reared its ugly head once again as Iowa drove down the field on just three plays (two on passes) with the final blow coming on a 35 yard toss to a wide-open Marvin McNutt. This now gave Iowa a comfortable 14 point advantage midway through the fourth quarter, and with NU relying on long, methodical drives with the defense giving up big plays, one could rightly question if the 'Cats had enough time for a comeback. The pain wouldn't end there, though.

With NU hoping for yet another late two-score comeback against Iowa (like in 2010 and 2005), NU got off on the wrong foot once again with a false start (by Colter in the slot), and after an incompletion Persa had another costly turnover: this time a sack-fumble by Broderick Binns that may as well have ended NU's hopes for a fourth straight win in the series. The NU defense held (thanks to a couple of Iowa penalties) and Iowa resorted to a field goal, which was a small and inconsequential victory as Iowa would take a three-score lead. Persa would lead NU down the field but would come out due to a hand injury after he was hit as throwing the ball, but Colter finished the drive with a nice 18 yard pass to Drake Dunsmore for the score to pull within 10 (note that Persa has come out of the Iowa game with an injury in all three times he's appeared at QB for NU: twice with a hand injury on a hit after releasing the ball, both at Kinnick, and last year's infamous Achilles injury).

The Wildcats would try an onside kick (they would need to recover, score, and convert yet another onside try to even have a chance of tying this one with just under five minutes left in regulation) but failed to covert as Iowa's McNutt was virtually the only one standing to receive the kick; thankfully Matthews was able to chase him down and make the tackle, otherwise the 'Cats were close to yielding a TD return (which would have been a repeat of the 2005 Sun Bowl in which the 'Cats gave up two such scores). Starting at the NU 24, though, Iowa was able to ride Coker and use a fourth-and-one bootleg play from Vandenberg to punch it in for a game-icing score to put them up 41-24.

NU would have one last say as reserve QB Trevor Siemian would see action in his third game of the year and would quickly drive NU down the field for a score, his third TD toss of the year (and his career), this time to now-reserve WR Rashad Lawrence (coincidentally, Siemian's high school teammate) for a garbage time score to again pull within 10. But Iowa would get the ball once again on the onside attempt and gain a couple of first downs to run out the clock as the Hawkeyes could once again celebrate a home win over the 'Cats for the first time since 2002.

Player of the Game

Iowa DT Broderick Binns (3 tackles, 2 sacks for 8 yards, 1 forced fumble, 3 QB hurries)  Turnovers were the key factor in this game, and Binns forced both of them: it was he who was wrapped around Persa's legs to force the throw that would become a pick-six, and he had the sack-fumble in the second half as well. Those plays led directly to 10 points: Iowa's winning margin. In general, Iowa got decent pressure on Persa and although NU moved the ball well, forcing those big plays was the difference in the game.

What Happened

"In a departure from the recent low scoring affairs between these two teams, this may very well turn out to be a shootout."

This certainly came true as the teams combined for 72 points (the over/under was 53.5) and both defenses had their share of issues (although Iowa had a couple of big plays in their favor while the NU defense allowed a couple of big plays).

"The big question here is if they can force enough turnovers to make up for the yardage it looks like they will almost certainly yield; and the key to that will be regenerating the pass rush up front."

NU certainly gave up yards (224 yards and 2 TDs through the air) and the focus area was certainly a failure: no QB hurries and no sacks on the night. Both the lack of pressure up front and the huge breakdowns in the secondary contributed to the NU defensive failures against Iowa.

"The opportunity to put up points will be there, though, with Iowa's defense also performing at a lower level than it has in the recent past. Thankfully this task will fall into the capable hands of Dan Persa,"

The Iowa defense certainly looked more vulnerable than in recent years, and the 'Cats posted 495 total yards on the night. Unfortunately, Persa wasn't quite as capable as usual, committing the two turnovers that ultimately did-in the Wildcats and also not looking as stellar on the ground (gaining just 12 net yards after removing sacks after combining for over 150 yards rushing in his previous two games against the Hawkeyes). Although he did throw for 242 yards (76.9% completion rate) and a score, he wasn't able to make up for that costly error with big plays of NU's own.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

NU QB/WR Kain Colter (4-of-6 passing for 48 yards, 1 TD; 12 carries for 76 yards; 6 catches for 71 yards) Kain is certainly a "Kain-of-all-trades" as Fitz said, showing his skills on the ground (NU season long 37 yard run), passing (TD toss to Dunsmore), and receiving (nice diving 32 yard grab). He has nice speed, is rather shifty, and obviously has good hands to boot. He will be a nice weapon for the NU offense now and over the next couple of seasons.

NU 2-QB System: Unlike the Penn State quarterback conundrum, NU has done a nice job of mixing in Persa with Colter, using their strengths on most occasions (Persa has a 74.2% completion rate, 696 yards, and 5 TDs through the air on the year, while Colter leads NU on the ground with 370 yards, 5 TDs, and a 5.4 yards per carry average). They have effectively used them on the field simultaneously, and there look to be some tricks in the bag that can hopefully help NU for the rest of this season and moving forward, when Trevor Siemian may take Persa's place (he is a nice 11-of-16 for 170 yards and 3 TDs in limited time this year).

Things to Work on

Pass Rush

It's easy to point fingers at the coverage for some of those long bombs yielded this season, but the fact is that NU now ranks 77th nationally in sacks and continues to fall precipitously after generating zero sacks over the past two weeks. Without any pressure up front, opposing QBs can take all day to throw and almost always find an open receiver in the secondary. Although Vince Browne and Tyler Scott have shown flashes, neither have shown the ability to be a consistent pass rushing threat and, therefore, the NU defense hasn't been able to make opponents think twice about dropping back to throw a long ball.

Pass Coverage

OK, now on to the pass coverage, which was clearly lacking, and based on post-game comments has major communication issues (even after broaching that issue two full games ago). The stats are ugly: NU ranks 108th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 99th in pass defense (even with Army factored in) and things didn't vastly improve with Dugar replacing Matthews (although Dugar did have an INT). Hopefully the coaching staff can shore up the secondary and maybe communicate a bit better; fortunately they will be facing a much less formidable offense this coming week (and one without its best receiver, Derek Moye, who has burned NU over the past two meetings).


Northwestern was tied heading into the fourth quarter (the 32nd time in its last 35 games in which it was tied or in the lead at some point in the second half), but once again NU faded down the stretch with errors in all three phases (costly turnover by offense, defense allowing big plays, and special teams missing a field goal). On the season, NU has been outscored in the final quarter by a cumulative margin of 80-42 (after outscoring its competition 128-100 in the preceding three quarters). Although it isn't a complete physical breakdown, the 'Cats have certainly had mental mistakes in the final period that have cost them dearly.

Random Observations


Although the defensive backfield certainly deserves a majority of the blame with complete breakdowns in coverage, they didn't get any help from the Northwestern defensive front who yielded ZERO sacks for the second consecutive week (and, it's not like Vandenberg is as fleet footed as that guy NU faced last week who the DL had to worry about containing). Meanwhile, Iowa got plenty of pressure on Persa with 3 sacks and another 4 QB hurries (NU had none of those, either), including forcing both of his turnovers (one sack-fumble and one forced bad throw on a QB hurry). Even with NU carving up the field with their passing offense, Iowa showed what a good pass rush can do while the 'Cats showed why there are one of the worst teams nationally against the pass: breakdowns deep and no pressure at all up front.


Northwestern had significantly more total yards (495-379), way more first downs (29-17), dominated time of possession (38:23 to 21:37, including over 20:00 in the first half), and ran the ball fairly well (4.6 yards per carry); of course, they lost the game. Why? Two turnovers leading to 10 points while gaining just one takeaway (0 points). Going 3-of-5 in the red zone (being forced backwards and punting once plus one of those turnovers) while also missing another field goal. Also, the defense allowed 4 plays of 20+ yards, two of which went for long scores.

Third Down Conversions

After last week's horrid performance (allowing Michigan to convert 14-of-17 while NU only converted 4-of-11), Northwestern came back like gangbusters by converting 16-of-22 of their opportunities (72.7%) while allowing the Hawkeyes to convert just 1-of-7 (14.3%). That certainly helped the 'Cats get into the game (as they needed those long methodical drives). Unfortunately, the defense continues to struggle on fourth down; Iowa converted their only attempt and the NU D has now allowed conversions on two thirds of fourth down conversion attempts this year.

Final Thought

Northwestern now has its back against the wall with Persa and the rest of the seniors having to turn things around and win at least four of their final six games to reach a bowl. Things are certainly tough, but it is an attainable goal with three very win-able games remaining plus a couple of others that are toss-ups. The first of those is this week with Penn State coming to town: they are a tough defensive team that has yet to find an offensive identity, leaving NU with an opportunity to upset them in what looks to be their toughest road test yet this season. The 'Cats haven't been that far away in any of their four losses and just need to put some things together in order to come up with a complete game and a win.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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