Football: Beating Iowa would all but seal Northwestern’s division title, but a loss isn’t devastating


Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Clayton Thorson celebrates a touchdown against Iowa in 2016. Thorson and the Wildcats return to Kinnick Stadium for a pivotal contest on Saturday.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Northwestern senior quarterback Clayton Thorson has a black-and-white vision for Saturday’s critical road matchup against Iowa.

“They’re a team that we’ve got to beat in order to go to the Big Ten Championship,” he said this week.

On one hand, from Thorson’s perspective, it’s understandable why he would consider this a must-win game. The Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) are also contending for the Big Ten West title, are No. 21 in the College Football Playoff rankings — the Wildcats (5-4, 5-1) are not ranked — and are 10-point favorites as of Thursday.

But Thorson’s assessment is wrong.

Incredibly, NU — despite losing all three of its nonconference contests and beating bottom-feeders Rutgers and Nebraska by a combined six points earlier this season — can lose one of its remaining three games, such as this weekend’s, and still maintain the driver’s seat in the division race.

Having beaten Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2) and Purdue (5-4, 4-2) already, the Cats thus hold head-to-head tiebreakers over both, and would continue to hold first place even if they picked up a second conference loss. And given that NU’s final two opponents, Minnesota and Illinois, are a combined 3-9 in the Big Ten so far, the contest in Iowa City seems the most likely place where the team would fall back on that one-game cushion.

All three West teams with winning conference records face road tests this week; the Boilermakers will face struggling Minnesota, but the Badgers will travel to Penn State as nearly double-digit underdogs. Next weekend, Wisconsin and Purdue will play in a game that will realistically eliminate one of the two teams. The Hawkeyes, though they essentially must win out to have a chance, finish with two very favorable matchups after this visit from the Cats.

Nevertheless, NU’s first-ever trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game is far from assured — in fact, they haven’t even locked up a bowl berth yet — and junior defensive end Joe Gaziano said that lack of certainty is still fueling the team.

“Our team has a limited life, and we’re only guaranteed 20 more days, which is hard to come to realize,” he said. “You have to each week go out and play knowing that in the back of your mind and knowing that if we don’t play the right way … that these seniors could be walking off the field with a bad taste in their mouth.”

Iowa’s defense will challenge the Cats’ offense by frequently employing a 4-2-5 formation that loads the secondary with defenders, forcing opponents to run longer-developing passing plays and giving time for disruptive defensive ends Parker Hesse and Anthony Nelson to get to the quarterback. Per the holistic statistic S&P+, the Hawkeyes rank 18th in the nation in both run defense and sack rate.

On the other side of the ball, Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley is having a solid season and his offensive line protects him with the coordination of a “concert pianist,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. That passing success has helped Iowa overcome a sluggish running game by converting third downs at the second-highest rate in the Big Ten (47 percent).

“When you watch them on tape, fundamentally they’re incredibly sound,” Fitzgerald said. “Their technique is outstanding, they’re very consistent, typically their execution is at a very, very high level and that’s in all three phases.”

On top of it all, a crowd of nearly 70,000 is expected in cramped Kinnick Stadium, known for its close proximity between the stands and team benches as well as its hot pink visitors’ locker room, which Gaziano said is intended to “try to get in your head.”

But Gaziano said, in another vein, he and the Cats are also looking forward to the excitable atmosphere.

“When the crowd’s bringing energy, we can feed off that no matter who they’re rooting for,” he said. “We like being the enemies as well as we like being the favorites.”

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