Forman: Iowa City more like Paradise City after signature win

Matt Forman

IOWA CITY, Iowa ­- Pat Fitzgerald knew his team could compete with any opponent in the country if it played solid, three-phase football for 60 minutes. That was evident against Penn State last week, at least for three quarters.

Still, no one believed Northwestern could do the unthinkable and knock off undefeated No. 4 Iowa. After all, the Wildcats were playing on the road in front of 70,000 fans, looking for their third consecutive win at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa has won 85 percent of its home games over the last six seasons.

Even when NU had the ball and the lead with three minutes left on the clock, it still felt like the Cats’ backs were against the wall. Iowa media members were calling for a blocked punt return for a touchdown, or a forced fumble or some other kind of miracle. Through nine games of the season, something like that should have been expected – before Saturday, Iowa had outscored its opponents 73-14 in the fourth quarter, while NU had been outscored 72-44 in the final period.

But it happened. And when it did, no one could believe it. Everyone was speechless.

“It hasn’t set in yet,” junior linebacker Quentin Davie said. “I can’t rank (the win) because I haven’t gotten that feeling yet.”

Emotions and reactions are the only fitting way to describe the Cats’ 17-10 victory over the Hawkeyes, a win that senior defensive end Corey Wootton described as the “biggest of his career.”

When James Vandenberg’s final pass attempt fell incomplete, Iowa native Ashton Kutcher, who was standing on the sidelines, covered his face and ripped off his hat. One Iowa fan slammed his hand on a video camera case and another screamed, “I don’t believe it.” NU players swarmed the corner of the stadium to sing the fight song with a contingent of fans that made the trip from Evanston. Fitzgerald hugged Athletic Director Jim Phillips as tears fell from his eyes. Then Phillips hugged Fitzgerald’s wife, Stacy. Injured senior safety Brendan Smith held his casted hand in the sky and yelled, “We did it.”

For NU, Iowa City might as well be Paradise City. And Kinnick Stadium is Ryan Field West.

This is where Fitzgerald’s vision became a reality. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Cats sing “Guns N’ Roses” for the next few days: “Take me down to Iowa City where the grass is green and everything’s pretty. Take me home.”

For good reason. The importance of this win cannot be understated. NU defeated the conference’s top team on the same day Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana lost. The Cats became bowl eligible for the third straight year. It was the school’s first victory over a top-five team since 1959, when Ara Parseghian led the Cats to a 14-10 victory over none other than the Hawkeyes on the road. That game wasn’t the signature win for the ’59ers, as the team beat No. 2 Oklahoma the week before, but it helped Parseghian make a name for himself.

Coaches build their resumés on signature wins, and Saturday’s victory gives Fitzgerald something to hang his hat on. He also put his stamp on Iowa.

“Coach Fitz will never say it’s a big win for him,” senior quarterback Mike Kafka said. “But it’s a real big win for coach Fitz. He’s been really telling us this is one of the games on his list that he really wanted. We went and got it for him.”

Good thing. During Fitzgerald’s four-year head coaching career, NU’s only win over a ranked team came last year against No. 20 Minnesota. The program’s last win over a top-10 team on the road was nine years ago, a double-overtime thriller at Wisconsin. Both of those things changed Saturday.

Fitzgerald wouldn’t have wanted the upset win to come any other way than with Dan Persa playing half of the game under center. Fitzgerald has built his program on players like himself – ones who may not be the most physically imposing or the best athletes, but those with the biggest desire to win. The coach lauded Persa when he called the sophomore quarterback “the ultimate competitor.” Simply said, Fitzgerald loves it when he can beat one of the nation’s top teams with his backup quarterback. It shows the type of players he recruits and the type of program he runs.

“This is a great program win,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s obviously critically important to show the direction to all those recruits throughout the country that absolutely Northwestern’s for real and you better get on the boat right now because the ship’s leaving the shore.”