Football: Wildcats’ reserves come up big in win over No. 21 Iowa


Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Joe Gaziano tackles an Iowa player. The junior defensive game was a key factor in Northwestern’s win over No. 21 Iowa.

Ella Brockway, Reporter


IOWA CITY, Iowa — When senior cornerback Montre Hartage left the third quarter of Saturday afternoon’s game between Northwestern and No. 21 Iowa, there was fear that the injury bug that has plagued the Wildcats throughout this 2018 campaign had returned, this time striking right in the middle of perhaps the most important moment of NU’s season.

The Cats had taken a 7-3 lead on the previous drive, but NU was already missing half of its secondary — senior safety Jared McGee and junior cornerback Trae Williams — with injuries suffered last week against Notre Dame.

As Hartage and senior linebacker Nate Hall left briefly with an injury later in the quarter, the message that coach Pat Fitzgerald has preached throughout this season didn’t change: next man up. It was the implementation of that philosophy, and its success, that powered NU to its division-clinching 14-10 win over the Hawkeyes.

“I have evidence that if the next guy steps up, we can win, so maybe they’ll listen even more as we go forward, cause we’ve had a lot of that this year,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “Today’s game was a prime example of it.”

Especially on late-down situations, NU’s reserves came up with a series of key defensive stops that kept the Cats in the game when the offense was quiet in the first half. Backup sophomore defensive end Earnest Brown stopped Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley on fourth-and-5 early in the first quarter to force the Hawkeyes’ first turnover of the game.

Junior cornerback Alonzo Mayo collected his first tackle of the season when he forced a Hawkeye rusher out of bounds on a third-and-19 in the second quarter, while backup junior cornerback Roderick Campbell broke up Stanley’s pass in the end zone on a third-and-11 in the third quarter, preventing Iowa from taking a double-digit lead.

“I’ve got the utmost trust in them,” junior defensive end Joe Gaziano said about the defensive backs. “They’ve been getting it done in practice all week, so I know that as a D-lineman I’ve got extra time to pass rush cause I know they’re locking it down up back.”

Redshirt freshman Cameron Ruiz, who filled in at cornerback after Hartage left the game, forced the first of two key fumbles that came in the fourth quarter. Ruiz, who also finished with two pass breakups, knocked the ball out of the hands of Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent at midfield with 4:34 left to play.

It was recovered by safety Travis Whillock, who finished with a game-high nine tackles playing in the spot of the injured McGee. The redshirt sophomore, who has missed the majority of the past two seasons batting injuries, had the team-high in tackles for the second straight game, after he racked up 10 last week against the Fighting Irish.

“It’s an awesome feeling,” Whillock said. “I just credit my coaches for having the confidence to put me in those situations and (be) confident in me to make those plays and do whatever I can to help this team win.”

A few minutes later, senior defensive end Joe Gaziano stuck out his arm and stripped the ball out of the hands of running back Ivory Kelly-Martin. Ruiz fell on the ball, gaining possession back and putting NU in a position to run out the clock and clinch the win and the Big Ten West title.

In a season full of obstacles, ranging from a challenging schedule and a winless non-conference record to an injury-plagued depth chart, NU will walk away with a Big Ten West title.

“No one is more frustrated than when we don’t have success than us. Nobody. They work relentlessly in everything that they do,” Fitzgerald said. “Our two cornerstones are the choice of an attitude and the choice of an investment. Investment is consistent hard work over time and it takes time.”

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