It was a struggle.
On a rainy Saturday, Northwestern football once again left its supporters, especially the many alumni who had traveled a long way for the homecoming weekend, in dismay. In what was anticipated by some hopeful fans as the first winnable game after a losing streak against top-ranked opponents such as Wisconsin and Ohio State, the Wildcats (1-6, 0-5 B1G) were kept scoreless for the first time this season against conference foe No. 20 Iowa (6-2, 3-2 B1G). After losing 20-0, what also was kept at zero was the number of Big Ten conference wins this season.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald once again chose Aidan Smith, who had been held scoreless against Ohio State, over five-star transfer Hunter Johnson to start at quarterback. This was proven to be a questionable decision. Smith (18-for-32, 138 yards, 1 INT) threw his one interception on his second pass attempt of the game, setting the tone for the poor offensive performance for the entire game.
Despite the offense’s miserable start, Northwestern’s defense did show up early. On the first drive of the game, they gave the Wildcats hope by forcing a three-and-out, then followed up with a huge sack on Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley (12-to-26, 179 yards, 1 TD) on the drive after the interception. The sack led to a missed 46-yard field goal, and was perhaps the only highlight for Northwestern in the first half—everything just went downhill from there.
For the majority of the time, they struggled to move the ball down the field. Smith threw for only 38 yards with 11 attempts in two quarters, and two of his five completions were to JJ Jefferson (23 yards), who was injured after catching his second pass of the day and forced out of the game.
Without good passing options, Smith repeatedly attempted to run the ball, with minimal impact nonetheless. Besides the quarterback, Isaiah Bowser rushed for 22 yards in eight attempts in his second game back, oftentimes being the only choice for a disappointing Northwestern offense.
In past weeks, the defensive unit had sometimes managed to give the fans hope when Northwestern’s offense repeatedly fail to put the ball in the endzone. But this was not one of those Saturdays.
Northwestern’s defense kept giving up big yards when it mattered the most. Throughout the first half, no matter how much Iowa’s offense struggled the rest of the plays, the Hawkeyes always seemed unstoppable on 3rd downs, including a 50-yard receiving TD by freshman wide receiver Tyrone Tracy (2 receptions, 88 yards) with 8:38 to go in the first quarter.
On the drive that Iowa scored a field goal, the Wildcats allowed four third-down conversions, helping Nate Stanley with his stats line while letting their own supporters down. The lack of good plays was obvious to the team.
“We gotta play better,” Greg Newsome said about he and his fellow cornerbacks.
At the end of the half, Northwestern was behind 10-0 while trailing in almost all offensive stats. And if any Wildcat fans still had any ambition left for this game because the score seemed to be reachable, that hope was soon shattered.
Iowa scored a touchdown on a 59-yard drive, their first drive of the second half. Running back Tyler Goodson (11 rushes, 58 yards) accounted for 50 of those yards, repeatedly penetrating through Northwestern’s defensive line. Every time he broke through a tackle was a stab on every Northwestern fan’s wound, as they watched the game slip away. After running back Mekhi Sargent’s (15 rushes, 46 yards) 1-yard rushing touchdown, Iowa was up 17-0 with 5:23 left in the third quarter.
“We gotta take care of the ball, better, earlier, and obviously we gotta score points,” Fitzgerald said after the game.
Northwestern’s offense did exactly the opposite that in the second half, rarely getting into Iowa territory. In the few times that they did, opportunities were easily wasted. Notably, tight end Charlie Mangieri (2 receptions, 5 yards) dropped a pass on what would have been a first down about 25 yards away from the end zone with four minutes left in the third quarter. After Northwestern missed their best chance to score on a dreary Saturday, the result of the game was more than obvious.
The fans who left the game before the fourth quarter started didn’t miss much other than a few symbolic moments. Chants from fans of the opposing team have hung over Ryan Field for the second week in a row. While “OH-IO” was loud and clear last Friday, “Let’s go Hawks” overpowered any noise from the Northwestern supporters today.
Coach Fitz urged the fans to continue to support the players despite the team’s failure to live up to the expectations.
“I’m a fan first, too,” said the NU alum. “We have high expectations. We should have high expectations and we’re not living up to it. I would prefer instead of being negative just continue to support our guys.”
The chilling rain kept Evanston dismal Saturday afternoon. We can only hope that Northwestern football will see some sunshine next Saturday when they visit Indiana for their seventh conference game of the season.
Game stats and details provided by StatMonitr