Improbable finish courtesy of defense (Column)

Tania Ganguli

Ladies and gentlemen, this Northwestern win was brought to you by the Wildcats’ defense.

“We did some things pretty horrific to our defense,” coach Randy Walker said.

And still, it was the defense that made that spectacular two-minute drill possible.

Things like two 3-and-out stops to start the game, giving Iowa excellent field position and setting up two touchdowns. There were also those two interceptions at critical moments – one on NU’s 26 and the other late in the game as NU, down by 13, approached the red zone.

But the defense didn’t let terrible field position and untimely turnovers break its spirit. It had the leadership and the training to hold on, and it did.

The performance was quiet – Saturday was the first time all season NU had fewer turnovers than its opponent – but that second-half toughness that has become typical of the Cats’ defense showed up in a big way. The defense kept the Cats in the game, holding Iowa to a field goal in the second half, so the team could reclaim it late.

“This team never stopped believing,” linebacker Tim McGarigle said.

Almost everyone else did. Don’t believe anyone who says they thought this was possible. A touchdown, then an onside kick. Clearly that’s all that could have saved the Cats with fewer than five minutes left in the game. Then Basanez threw his second interception to seemingly seal the Cats’ fate. Only he didn’t.

For 57 minutes the Hawkeyes’ offense out-played, out-coached and out-hustled the Wildcats. And for three minutes the magic dust, or something, kicked in and Baz and his offense put together thrilling drives, the defense made impressive stops and Randy Walker out-coached the genius coach Kirk Ferentz. Tyrell Sutton punched in an improbable touchdown with 2:10 left and the win seemed possible. Likely even.

Six points. Onside kick.

That’s when a safety became a safety net. When the Cats had a chance to retain possession with an onside kick, it was two defensive backs who made that possible.

Safety Reggie McPherson plucked the ball midbounce as cornerback Marquice Cole blocked for him.

It was a play that needed the kickoff to bounce in the perfect place, the perfect number of times and needed McPherson to be in the perfect spot when the time was right to pick it up. That is incredibly unpredictable during practices. “Sometimes we couldn’t get it against air,” Walker said.

And it all worked.

With everything then going their way, suddenly the Wildcats seemed unstoppable.

“I have a lot of faith in Brett,” defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “When Reggie recovered that onside, I knew there was no chance we weren’t going to punch it in.”

This wasn’t same the team that had floundered for three quarters.

Every other time this year that the Wildcats have trailed after three quarters, had fewer first downs and fewer rushing yards than an opponent, they have lost.

Maybe they saw the downward spiral they could have fallen into by losing this game. Lose to Michigan, lose to Iowa and then face a tough game at Ohio State. If they’d then lost to the Buckeyes, the Cats would have gone to Champaign, Ill., 5-5 with a bowl game on the line (Sound familiar?). Maybe they realized their defense had held Iowa to one-eighth of the points they’d allowed in the first half and wanted to pick them up with a little run support.

Whatever it was, they wouldn’t let the opportunity they’d just received go to waste. Cofield knew it, Basanez knew it, and when freshman Eric Peterman turned to fellow receiver Ross Lane and said, “Make a touchdown,” he must have known it, too.

Instead of a must-win at the Shoe, they now go into Columbus, Ohio, with nothing to lose.

Lose the game, and they weren’t supposed to win anyway.

Win it, and – what was that McGarigle said about believing?

Sports Editor Tania Ganguli is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]