Last year, after Northwestern upset Iowa to ruin their undefeated season, I wrote a recap called "Just an Upset." The title of course, was a play on the infamous Iowa fan tradition of referring to nemesis Northwestern as just Northwestern (or, jNW). The idea behind the moniker is that Northwestern is so inferior of an opponent that they don't even deserve to be abbreviated in normal fashion. I've never really been bothered by the whole "jNW" thing. Rather, it's always amused me. This is because the mere fact that Iowa fans go out of their way to refer to Northwestern in a special fashion proves just how much we, and especially losing to us, matters to them. I appreciate the effort, really I do.
So last year, that article was... perhaps a bit inflammatory. But it was a big victory with Iowa undefeated at the time, and the consternation it caused amongst the Iowa fans made it all the sweeter for me. I knew then, that going into this game, Hawkeye fans were going to be out for blood. This made me a bit wary going into this weekend. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be near Ryan Field, for fear of... well... my bodily integrity. So by the time I got around to deciding to brave the elements and Evanston to attend the game, I ran into a problem. Grad student tickets were sold out. Seriously. And, I found myself lacking the roughly $200 it would cost to scalp a ticket online. It was quite the pickle.
Fortunately, I was saved. By a group of Iowa fans.
No, seriously. I had the pleasure of attending a get-together hosted by our very own Kyle McCann't for a group of BHGP folks in town to attend the game. The afternoon before this little shindig, though, I felt nervous. It probably didn't help that I had spent several hours perusing the Wikipedia entry on Jeffrey Dahmer, but really, I think mostly it was due to trepidation at venturing into enemy territory. I did wonder if Kyle happened to keep some vats of acid in his backyard reserved specifically for Wildcat fans... but the prospect of free pork and free beer convinced me to risk it.
I'm glad I did. It really was a fantastic time. Everyone I met was very nice and, really, quite hilarious. Sure I took some ribbing during the night because of my fandom, but they also picked on the Michigan fan there, so the abuse was pretty evenly distributed. And the best part was that it was through the kindness of Kyle and these folks that I was able to get my hands on a ticket to the game. Of course, this meant that I would be sitting in a section of the stadium that was basically all Iowa fans.
So, what was it like to go to this type of a game and be surrounded by Hawkeyes? Well, I figured that the best way for me to describe it would be through the use of visual aids. Visual aids I created with Paint.net. Oh yes, yes I did...
The day started out well enough. I met up with my newfound friends at the El station and we walked on over to Ryan Field. It was a bit nippy outside, but nothing out of the ordinary for November in Chicago. The sky suggested that we might experience some inclement weather, but because I forgot my long underwear, I was seriously hoping it would hold off.
We got into the stadium a few minutes into the first quarter and found our seats towards the top of the end zone. I have to say, I haven't seen Ryan Field this packed well, ever. Yes, a lot of this was due to traveling Iowa fans, but there was also a huuuge amount of purple on both sides of the field. I'm not entirely sure what the Northwestern athletic department has done to increase home attendance by over 50% this year, but they seriously need to keep it up. So this is a picture of us during the start of the first quarter...
What, you can't tell that's me? Oh come on. That's totally what I look like. Just ask anyone.
Both Hawkeye and Northwestern fans were excited for the game and I was even more so after Northwestern scored their first touchdown. This initial score didn't really seem to bother the Hawkeye fans in attendance, well at least not right away. Of course by the mid second quarter, many Iowa fans around me had grown angry. I'm kind of convinced that it was their anger that made the skies above us open up and start the rain. Leading by seven, I was cautiously optimistic.
While neither team's performance was spectacular during the first half - I'm looking at you Stefan Demos and your umpteen millionth missed field goal - I think the Iowa fans had the most to complain about. The first half drive chart for Iowa shows quite a few stalled drives. Until their last drive of the half which resulted in a field goal, Iowa had had all of one or two first downs in the entire half. Partly this was due to a good effort by the NU defense, but also to a lot of very untimely Iowa penalties.
And, Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi has been a pretty solid quarterback this season, but during this game, he looked a lot more like the 2009 vintage. During the first half he under or overthrew quite a few receivers who had beaten their defender. I would say that at least seven, and probably fourteen, points were left off the board for Iowa because of these incompletions.
So, the first half ended with Northwestern up by four. Perhaps you would expect that I would say that I was totally confident and feeling good about the game. Really, I think that was about the most nervous I've been at a football game in my life. Why? Because the third quarter was coming up. The god damned third quarter.
I'm not entirely sure what it is this year with Northwestern and the third quarter. But too many times, the team has turned in a solid first half, only to come out of the locker room and just implode. Stop me if you heard this before Wildcat fans:
Northwestern's first drive in the third quarter: Short completion, rush, rush, inconvenient penalty that kills the drive, last ditch 3rd down pass that is then dropped by the receiver, punt...
Opponent's first drive in the third quarter: Long rush, long rush for first down, Northwestern penalty that tacks on another 15 yards, long rush, long rush for first down, long pass, long pass for first down, touchdown.
Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? Of course, not all the games have gone this way, I mean in many of them we've actually gone three and out on our first drive of the third quarter, not even making it to a first down. When Marvin McNutt caught Stanzi's pass to give Iowa a 3-pt lead, all I could think was, "I've seen this movie before... Ugh..."
And of course, because I had seen this before, I knew the pain wasn't going to end. So it was no surprise to me when Northwestern held the ball for about two minutes before punting it away, and then just a few plays later let Derrell Johnson-Koulianos get wiiiiide open for a 70 yard touchdown to put Iowa up by 10.
This made the Iowa fans around me go nuts. I was not happy. And it was raining. A lot.
Northwestern got the ball back but, of course, because it was the third quarter, they couldn't even get into field goal range before handing it right on back to Iowa. At this point all I hoped was that somehow the Northwestern defense would come through and actually get a stop.... Because I knew if Iowa got into the end zone again it was pretty much over for the Wildcats. Somehow they managed to accomplish just that, and mercifully, the third quarter was over.
So what was I thinking as the fourth quarter started? Well, I wasn't really optimistic. The only thing that kept me from totally going off the emotion deep end was the knowledge that this was a game against Iowa. And for whatever reason, Northwestern has always seemed to have just a little bit of magic when dealing with the Hawkeyes. Of course, I wasn't really thinking that when the Wildcats first drive of the quarter ended in a Dan Persa interception (not at all his fault). At that time I was probably thinking something more along the lines of, "GOD F***ING DAMNIT!!" But, you know, close enough...
Fortunately for me and all of the purple fans in attendance, Ricky Stanzi decided to keep up his impression of his 2009 self. The very next drive he threw an interception near the end zone that probably changed the entire course of this game. I honestly have no idea what he was thinking. He had at least two open receivers at the corner, and instead he decided to throw into triple coverage. The result was an easy INT by Brian Peters. I practically felt the air drain out of the Hawkeye fans near me when this happened. And, in an eerily prescient moment, one of them softly said, "It's just like 2005..."
How right he was.
For those who can't remember back that far (it's okay, sometimes I don't remember where my keys are) the 2005 game also involved a come-from-behind win for the ‘Cats in terrible rain. I'm not sure what the players on the field were thinking on Saturday, but it was almost like a touchdown after that interception was inevitable. Northwestern marched down the field as though Iowa was Minnesota and Dan Persa threw a beauty of a pass to Demetrius Fields to complete the comeback. Iowa actually managed a decently long drive to try for the win, but just couldn't pull it out in the end, leaving the section I was in silent and defeated as the rest of the stadium rushed the field.
Of course, it wasn't all good... that last beauty of a pass that Persa threw? Yeah, it also resulted in him tearing his Achilles such that he is done for the season. Sigh.
I wish I could say something here to reassure Northwestern fans. But, I can't. I've got nothing. I'm hopeful about Evan Watkins for this game coming up - hopeful that a week to prepare plus the knowledge that ESPN Gameday and a football game at Wrigley Field will be enough to make him somehow fill Dan Persa's shoes but... I just don't know. Perhaps the only bright side of it is that Illinois definitely has no idea how to gameplan for the Northwestern offense now. Then again, Northwestern might have no idea how to gameplan for the Northwestern offense right now, so it might be a wash.
Before I end this recap, a note about the refs. There has been much talk, both on Iowa sites and Northwestern sites, about missed and bad calls. Both sides claim instances of holding that were overlooked, and Iowa fans seem to put much of the game on those and other non-calls. I'll say this much: perhaps there was some holding that wasn't called, but I don't think it was terribly lopsided. I don't have a problem with the somewhat controversial intentional grounding call that some Northwestern fans have objected to - after seeing the replay, it was correct. I do think that Northwestern benefited from one non-call... a pretty blatant instance of pass interference during one of Iowa's final drives.
Even with all that, that wasn't why Northwestern won. Northwestern won because Persa played the game of his life, because the team somehow rebounded in the 4th despite still falling victim to the third quarter curse, and because Ricky Stanzi had one of the worst games he's had all season. Add to that the inconsistent performance of Iowa's special teams (nothing new there, folks) and you have the final score. That's the reality.
All in all, it was a great experience from Friday through Saturday. I am sincerely grateful to my Iowa hosts for treating me so well and for, well, generally just being awesome. Hopefully I'll get to attend more games with them in the future, whether they involve the Northwestern-Iowa rivalry or not. Big Ten championship in Indy next year, anyone?
Until next time (at WRIGLEY!!)
GO U! NU!