Football: NU’s defense rises to the occasion

Colin Becht

It was a story Northwestern had seen over and over this season. The Wildcats jumped out to an early lead only to watch as their opponent rattled over a streak of unanswered points to take control of the game.

Only this time, the Cats rewrote the script.

The Cats did what they had said they needed to do all season, a value so critical it is emblazoned in the team pyramid seen all over the training facilities on Central Street. NU responded, rediscovering its early form to steal a 21-17 win over No. 13 Iowa.

Trailing 17-7 after blowing a 7-0 lead, the Cats scored twice in the fourth quarter while the NU defense, which appeared on the brink of collapse in third quarter, shut out the Hawkeyes for the final 21 minutes.

“I’m proud of our defense today, ” said coach Pat Fitzgerald. “They fought back. They had a couple of tough drives, a couple series that we were in position to make some plays and we didn’t.”

A week ago, the Cats lost their groove on both sides of the ball, allowing Penn State to score 35 unanswered points. NU failed to break the momentum, allowing the Nittany Lions to cruise to a 35-21 victory.

On Saturday, NU found itself in a similar position after the Hawkeyes opened the second half with two touchdown passes from quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the second score covering 70 yards on a completion to wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.

With the Cats once again needing to break a rapidly-growing momentum, junior safety Brian Peters intercepted a floating pass from Stanzi at the NU five-yard line and in doing so placed the Cats back in control.

“We lost because I threw a stupid interception, and they switched the momentum,” Stanzi said. “I didn’t see the right guy.”

Peters said NU was playing a three-deep cover, with him playing the post route in coverage.

“I thought I had good enough depth to discourage him from throwing it, and he still threw it,” Peters said. “Usually you don’t throw a post into a post player, but I’ll take it.”

Fitzgerald said Peters’ pick was the turning point of the game.

“That was big,” Fitzgerald said. “We regained momentum.”

Senior linebacker Nate Williams said the seniors on the defense made sure the energy was still high after the Hawkeyes had rattled off touchdowns on consecutive drives.

“Sometimes you come off, and guys’ heads are down and I squirted some water in some guys’ faces on the D-line,” Williams said. “They didn’t like that too much, but it got some things going.”

Following its initial touchdown, NU failed to score on its next nine drives and gained just 10 first downs. The Cats scored on their next two drives after Peters’ pick while Iowa gained only four more first downs and was unable to complete a last-minute drive to win the game.

“There were some tough spots that we had to try and fit the ball into, and they did a good job of defending,” Stanzi said.

Peters continued to execute following his interception, knocking down Stanzi’s desperation hurl to the end zone on fourth down. He also led NU in tackles with 10.

Beyond Peters the NU defense managed to get off the field when it had Iowa backed up on third down. The Hawkeyes converted just 2-of-14 attempts, leading to seven punts by Ryan Donahue.

“It’s (frustrating),” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Usually that gets you, third-down production.”

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