NU shocks No. 4 Iowa on the road 17-10

Danny Daly

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Shortly before Saturday’s kickoff, Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips said he had a good feeling about the Wildcats’ chances and predicted a “fun afternoon.” Just more than three hours later, a jubilant Phillips was outside the tunnel to NU’s locker room, bear-hugging coach Pat Fitzgerald after one of the program’s most monumental victories of the last half-century.

NU overcame an early deficit to stun No. 4 Iowa 17-10 in front of a sold-out crowd at Kinnick Stadium. The Cats became bowl eligible with the win, simultaneously ruining the Hawkeyes’ perfect season and dashing their national title aspirations.

“We fully expected if we could put together 60 minutes of Wildcat football in all three phases, we’d have an opportunity to compete,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re starting to play our best football of the year.”

Both teams dealt with injuries to their starting quarterbacks, as NU’s Mike Kafka did not play the full game and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi suffered an apparent high ankle sprain in the second quarter. The injury is expected to sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. Stanzi was helped off the field and into the locker room, and he later emerged on crutches in his street clothes.

Redshirt freshman James Vandenberg took Stanzi’s place, completing 9-of-27 passes for 82 yards and an interception in his first collegiate action.

“It’s one of those bittersweet situations where you just have to step in,” Vandenberg said. “I wasn’t able to make enough plays to get us a victory.”

Just like two weeks ago against Indiana, NU (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) found itself in a hole before its offense even took the field. Sophomore wide receiver Marvin McNutt made a double move to get behind the secondary on third down, and Stanzi hit him for a 74-yard touchdown pass to put the Hawkeyes (9-1, 5-1) ahead 7-0. They added a 39-yard field goal on their next possession, following an NU three-and-out.

On offense, the Cats were sputtering. Kafka started under center, though he was clearly still hampered by a tweaked hamstring that knocked him out of last weekend’s loss to Penn State. He passed up multiple opportunities to scramble in open space and connected on fewer than half of his passes while alternating with backup quarterback Dan Persa.

The defense needed to step up to let NU get back in the game, and coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s unit responded. The Cats forced four turnovers in the second quarter and scored their first touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone by senior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas on the play that knocked Stanzi out of the game.

“Our defense never felt like we were against the wall at any point,” junior linebacker Quentin Davie said.

NU took a 14-10 lead six minutes later, driving 46 yards after an interception by Davie. Persa, who assumed signal calling duties for the next quarter-and-a-half with Kafka watching from the sidelines, capped it off by connecting with sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore for a four-yard touchdown. The Cats took the four-point edge into halftime.

The teams held their ground in a scoreless third quarter. Persa injured his hand, and Fitzgerald sent Kafka back out with about 18 minutes left.

NU extended its lead to seven with a 47-yard field goal by junior kicker Stefan Demos early in the fourth quarter, and the defense kept Iowa from advancing beyond midfield the rest of the way to preserve the 17-10 victory.

For a team that had won four games after trailing with 15 minutes to go – often in dramatic fashion – not finding a way to win came as a shock to Iowa.

“The entire game, no one thought we were going to lose,” sophomore safety Tyler Sash said.

The gametime temperature in Iowa City, Iowa, was a 62 degrees, balmy for November. It was even warmer on the field, since the newly-installed Kinnick Stadium turf heated up with the sun beating down on it.

That played to the Cats’ advantage as the game wore on. The players were well-conditioned from weeks of intense practice, helping them prevail in a close game after coming up short in others. NU won the time-of-possession battle by nearly nine minutes and had the ball the majority of the time in every quarter.

“We run, run, run in practice,” Davie said. “We’re running on and off the field, play after play.”

The win validated NU’s hard work throughout the season during those grueling workouts, helping the team overcome a number of obstacles and establish itself as a dangerous opponent.

“It’s the process, going through the whole entire season, the ups and downs, the way that we stayed the course, stayed together and responded to adversity,” Kafka said.

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Read a liveblog of the game on Cats’ Corner.