Wow. What a finish. I think I finally know how Iowa fans have been feeling most of this season. Northwestern has had some memorable games this season - scares against Eastern Michigan and Miami(OH), come backs against Purdue and Indiana - but even through all of those, I think today's win against formerly undefeated Iowa qualifies as the most memorable of the year.
I was asked during the live game thread if Northwestern winning out (including the Iowa victory) would make this season a success. My reply was that unless it was combined with a bowl win against a decent or good team, the answer is no. As thrilling as this victory is, it's merely one great moment in a season full of disappointments.
But we can talk about that later. For now, let's just bask in the upset glow...
Once again during a Northwestern game I saw a starting quarterback taken down by injury and replaced by an ineffective backup. Except, this time, that injury came on the other side of the ball. The biggest news from this game, aside from the final score, was the injury to Ricky Stanzi.
The injury happened in the beginning of the second quarter. Pinned down on their own 6 yard line, Stanzi took the snap in the end zone to attempt a pass. The Iowa defense, for some inexplicable reason, failed to cover Corey Wootton who rushed in from Stanzi's right side and took him down. Stanzi fumbled the ball and Marshall Thomas fell on it for Northwestern's first TD of the game.
Stanzi didn't get up.
He managed to walk off the field, which probably saved a few emergency rooms in Iowa City from having a new crop of admits. The update during the middle of the game suggested that Stanzi, who did not return, suffered some sort of ankle sprain. There was no information on how soon he would return to play, but it's not likely to be a season ending injury.
That's pretty much the only good news Iowa fans can take away from this game, as their Big 10 title hopes are now threatened and their chance at the BCS title almost certainly eliminated, barring a few losses on the parts of Florida, Texas, Alabama, and Cincinnati.
Stanzi was replaced in the game by redshirt freshman James Vandenberg, a substitution that changed the script of the game. Vandenberg showed his inexperience in a big way and the upset was on.
Read how it happened, after the jump...
We knew going into this game that Northwestern had historically performed well against Iowa, winning three of their last four contests. Even so, Iowa was a special team this year and Northwestern was, well, not. Iowa's defense was legendary and despite major injuries to their running game and inconsistency under center, they always seemed to find some fourth quarter magic to overcome deficits and get to a 9-0 record on the season. The collision of these two sets of facts led me to be completely unsure of what to expect from this game. Fortunately, it all turned out better than I ever could have hoped for.
Graham takes a look at the Big 10 defenses going into Week 10...
I recap the disappointing collapse against Penn State in Week 9...
Oh, did I mention, Northwestern is also bowl eligible now? It might only be a trip to Detroit, but at least we'll be playing football in late December / early January.
This game, like so many others, started out on a down note for the 'Cats. Northwestern came out of the gate sluggish, giving up a touchdown on a Stanzi-McNutt connection only a minute into the game. After a three and out, Iowa followed up their TD with a 39 yard field goal by Daniel Murray to take a 10-0 lead. It seemed as though the 1st quarter score would be predictive of Iowa's record at the end of the game, and I would be forced to watch a rout.
Most of Northwestern's early offensive struggles were due to the limitations of Mike Kafka. Kafka, who returned himself form an injury suffered during the Penn State game, was almost completely immobile. He was still able to complete passes at his effective clip, but the story of Northwestern's offensive line is one of inability to hold the pocket for any length of time. Without Kafka's scrambling ability, Northwestern didn't seem to be able to get much going.
After the first series of the game, Kafka was replaced by Dan Persa, he of the complete ineffectiveness against the Nittany Lions. Persa performed much better today than he did last week... Despite completing only 5 passes for 37 yards during the entirety of the game, he managed to use his legs and speed to gain several first downs for the Wildcats.
It's almost funny, in a way. Northwestern had two limited quarterbacks in this game - one who could throw but not scramble, and the other who could scramble but not throw. If only we could have fused them into one super quarterback.
Persa's legs combined with those of Scott Concannon, who had another excellent game, to generate 126 rushing yards, more between the two of them than both quarterbacks threw for combined.
The running game is one of the stories of the day. Iowa, in a change from most of the season, just could not seem to prevent Concannon from breaking off large runs. They also had trouble with the quarterback sneak, with the Northwestern offensive line pushing for yardage in several 3rd-and-short situations.
During the first half, Northwestern was helped by Iowa committing four turnovers. Two of these were interceptions (one from each QB) and two were lost fumbles. Despite these chances, Northwestern's hamstrung offense largely failed to capitalize, gaining only 14 points off all of the turnovers combined.
Northwestern's second touchdown was a nifty throw by Dan Persa to Drake Dunsmore, one of his few quality throws. That, along with a 47 yard field goal by Stefan Demos would comprise all of Northwestern's offense on the day.
But, it was enough.
Northwestern, in an almost mirror image of last week, entered the half leading 14-10. The third quarter was uneventful, a slug fast back and forth with the only play of note being a missed 46 yard field goal on a tough angle by Iowa's kicker Daniel Murray.
The fourth quarter was really where all the excitement happened - as it does in most Iowa games. The 'Cats started the quarter with Demos' aforementioned field goal to take a 17-10 lead.Iowa got the ball back but, between Brandon Wegher getting stuffed at the line on most run plays and Vandenberg overshooting his receivers, gave it right back to Northwestern after six plays.
This next drive featured perhaps the worst coaching move by Fitz I've seen all season. On 4th and 1 in their own territory, Northwestern simultaneously executed a perfect QB sneak for a first down and a timeout. The timeout wiped out the first down and forced Northwestern to punt. I'm not entirely sure what happened - it seems almost as though Fitzgerald panicked at the last minute and changed his mind, but the screw up was an incredibly bad break for the team.
Iowa managed to drive to midfield on their subsequent possession, but the game was almost ended by a Quentin Davie interception - except he couldn't hang on to the ball. Between that play and the botched fourth down conversion it felt as though the fates were aligning against Northwestern. Could they hold on? Would Iowa pull another rabbit out of their hat?
Fortunately, the answer was no. Kirk Ferentz had no more magic left. Northwestern ran down the clock to just over two minutes and Iowa, with no timeouts remaining, got the ball back for one last try. Vandenberg managed to gain a single first down before turning the ball over on downs as a result of several incomplete passes. After this, Northwestern took a knee and the victory.
Before I get into my complete impressions, a word about the officiating in the fourth quarter. There were several questionable non-calls, most for pass interference, on Iowa's last drive. I find this unfortunate, as I am always a believer in solid officiating - I'd rather not see the NCAA become the NBA, if you know what I mean. Personally, though, I don't think Iowa fans have a right to complain. Last week, Indiana was screwed out of at least two touchdowns and perhaps some pass yardage after questionable officiating. In that game, the breaks went Iowa's way, in this one they didn't. Perhaps it was referee karma.
So, what does this game all mean? Well, for Northwestern, as I mentioned above, it pretty much secures a bowl berth. It's not going to be a good bowl, and I won't really consider it much of an achievement after last year, but at the least we're not staying home in the winter.
Iowa has placed themselves behind the 8 ball for their conference championship and BCS hopes. If they manage to win out, their victory over Penn State guarantees a trip to Pasadena and a likely date with the Ducks. They can also still go to the Rose Bowl with another loss if Penn State comes back against Ohio State this afternoon. If, however, Ohio State wins out (including this afternoon) they will once again be Big 10 champions. Penn State could also secure the championship for themselves if they beat Ohio State this afternoon, AND defeat Michigan State and Indiana, AND Iowa loses to either OSU or Minnesota. Whew. Quite the muddled situation, eh?
As far as the BCS goes, Iowa is almost certainly shut out of the championship game. Their road was always difficult, given the dominance of Florida, Texas, and Alabama. Now it's almost certain that, barring everything in the rest of the season going right, they will be looking at the Rose Bowl as their best bowl option.
That's the way the situation looks right now but... you know what? I really don't care. I'm happy. This was an awesome game. I'm going to go enjoy the beautiful Chicago weather. See you next week for the Northwestern / Illinois rivalry game.
Go U! NU!