It’s easy to say that this Big Ten football season is not normal. With no fans or bands in the stand cheering on their teams, only eight conference games, and even Rutgers somehow pulling off a Big Ten win, there’s almost nothing regular about this season. And yet, something beautiful has returned in 2020. Something that Evanston missed dearly last year, and whose return has been heralded by spiking blood pressure and eyes glued to screens.
That’s right. The Cardiac ’Cats are back.
Northwestern football (2-0) beat Iowa (0-2) in a stunning 21-20 win at Kinnick Stadium, pulling off the victory after falling behind 17-0 early in the first quarter. Led by senior running back Jesse Brown, who scored two touchdowns in the victory, and first-year defensive back Brandon Joseph, who notched his first two career interceptions, the ’Cats pulled off a complete team victory, as head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game.
“Obviously it was one of those kind of games,” Fitzgerald said in a postgame press conference. “Just really proud of our guys proud of the resiliency part of the response, part of the job they've done to this point … really proud of the guys, really proud of the resiliency here on the road, a little surreal without any fans here in one of the cathedrals of football.”
The ’Cats were led in their effort by a dazzling running package, with junior running back Isaiah Bowser picking up 85 yards and graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey scampering for 26. Buoyed by this running game, Ramsey had a quiet but solid passing game, going 11-for-18 with 130 yards and just one interception. The real star of the day, however, was Brown; Brown, who was given the special number 1 jersey as someone who exemplifies the best of NU football, scored two touchdowns in his first scoring performance since 2017.
“We knew it was gonna be a physical game, and that's right up Jesse's alley,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s tough, physical, and that's what we knew it was going to be and he was hitting the hole … there were some creases there against the Hawkeyes, there's not very many. But there are some creases there that we tried to get to, sometimes we were successful and sometimes they were. So credit them, but you know, really proud of Jesse.”
Senior wideout Kyric McGowan also added a rushing touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, the ’Cats back seven continued to thrive and show just how deep they can go, picking up three interceptions, all three coming in the second half. The aforementioned first-year Joseph performed well with two interceptions, but the real stars of the day was the deep senior linebacker core: Paddy Fisher, Chris Bergin and Blake Gallagher all finished the day with double-digit tackles (11, 12, 11) and Gallagher ended Iowa’s final drive with a clutch interception.
“We had an opportunity there to put the game away, and that was kind of our mindset going into [it],” Bergin said after the game. “Momentum is a powerful, powerful tool, and we felt like we had it there in the second half, thanks to our offense and Peyton. And so we just kind of rode that momentum and tried to create takeaways, and we did and that's what we talked about. That's what we preach.”
At first, it looked like the luck had run out on the ’Cats after their 43-3 win over Maryland. Senior wideout Kyric McGowan muffed a punt early in the first quarter, giving the Hawkeyes great field position to take a 7-0 lead. On the ensuing possession, Bowser fumbled the ball and allowed Iowa the chance to capitalize; they did with another touchdown, and by the end of the first quarter, the Hawkeyes led the ’Cats 17-0.
The ’Cats, however, refused to quit and began to chip away at Iowa’s lead–McGowan got the ’Cats on the board with a quick touchdown, and the defense held to keep Iowa to just another field goal. After Brown scored his first touchdown just before the end of the half, the score sat at just 20-14.
The second half then became a battle of defenses; after Northwestern scored its third and final touchdown, both the ’Cats and the Hawkeyes traded drives, resulting in interceptions, punts and stops galore. The defense for the ’Cats shined, locking Iowa down with three takeaways and holding them to no points.
“I think we've got pretty good depth back there,” Fitzgerald said. “It's tough to be young and talented in the Big 10 with the receivers, the quarterbacks, the explosive offenses that we see. They’re growing up right now in front of all of us and I'm really proud of them.”
With the win, Fitzgerald picked up his 101st win, which like his first ever win as a head coach, came in an away game at Iowa. Although Fitz and Iowa have never been on the best terms (Fitzgerald broke his leg against Iowa in his ‘95 Rose Bowl campaign), Fitzgerald spoke warmly of Kinnick Stadium, saying he hopes to see it filled with fans soon.
“I hope that I never come back to Kinnick without fans because we miss them,” Fitzgerald said. “I know they're hostile, and I know they don't like me, and I get all that, but college football at Kinnick Stadium just isn't the same without these great Hawkeye fans. And so my hope is that we can all fight through this pandemic together, and hopefully in ‘22, or whenever it is that we come back, we're all back together and you guys are just showering me with pleasantries.”