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Football: Northwestern’s defense shines again, smothers Iowa

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Kyle Queiro celebrates. The senior safety recorded five tackles against Iowa.

Kyle Queiro celebrates. The senior safety recorded five tackles against Iowa.

Alec Carroll/The Daily Northwestern

Alec Carroll/The Daily Northwestern

Kyle Queiro celebrates. The senior safety recorded five tackles against Iowa.

Tim Balk, Gameday Editor

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Football


In the low-scoring slugfest many expected between Northwestern and Iowa on Saturday, the Wildcats’ defense blinked last.

“We knew this was going to be a battle,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We knew it was going to be a struggle. We were going to have to fight for every inch.”

After repeatedly stopping the visitors throughout the contest, holding Hawkeyes star running back Akrum Wadley to 83 yards in regulation and Iowa (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten) to a lonely touchdown and one 48-yard field goal, the barfight-style contest lurched into overtime.

After a score from the offense, the NU (4-3, 2-2) defense stood tall one final time. Defending from their own 25-yard line, the Cats snuffed out a pair of Wadley runs, forced an incompletion on second down and found a bit of luck on fourth. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley found wide open tight end Noah Fant — who dropped the pass, ending the game.

“Pretty fortunate there,” Fitzgerald said after the 17-10 NU win.

The Cats’ defense was more than merely lucky Saturday, though. And the Hawkeyes’ 10 points were the fewest NU has allowed in a Big Ten game since a win over Wisconsin on Nov. 21, 2015.

Though the Cats have generally been stout this season, even in trying moments like a humbling loss to Penn State in which they muted Nittany Lions star Saquon Barkley, the win over Iowa showed the defense at its best.

Much of Saturday’s success revolved around shutting down Wadley. NU had seen the dynamite rusher three times already, and Fitzgerald joked this week that facing the halfback year after year was the root of his graying hair. In his last visit to Evanston, Wadley rolled up 204 yards in a blowout Iowa win.

This time around, the senior never found a rhythm despite a heavy workload as the Cats muzzled him for four-plus quarters. Wadley’s game-high rush was 22 yards and he averaged 3.5 yards per carry.

“Iowa likes to run the ball, it’s no secret,” sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “We focus a lot on trying to make the ball cut inside of the defensive end.”

With Gaziano leading the way, NU’s defensive front also swarmed the big-armed Stanley. It rattled the signal caller on a pair of sacks, both from Gaziano, and freshman safety J.R. Pace picked off the quarterback in the fourth quarter.

“Today was just a great Big Ten defensive battle,” said Fitzgerald, who gave a vote of confidence to his stingy defense by running out the clock in regulation to send the game to overtime. “Two really good defenses. Two really physical football teams that just went toe-to-toe.”

Junior linebacker Nate Hall said the Cats’ defense is continuing to grow. He pointed to areas for improvement exposed in a blowout loss to Duke in September and even in its win over Maryland a week ago.

That continued development is a welcome sign for a team that will face a hulking Michigan State defense next weekend in what will likely be another grinder.

“We’re learning every week,” Hall said. “We’re eliminating mistakes week-by-week. And that’s obviously showing.”

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