Football: The Wildcats show resilience in 17-point comeback win against Iowa


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Three Wildcats team up for a tackle. NU held Iowa to 104 total yards in the second half.

Andrew Golden, Gameday Editor


IOWA CITY, Iowa — Coach Pat Fitzgerald had seen this scary movie before. In fact, he watched the same film over and over again last season.

With just over 1:43 remaining in the opening quarter, Northwestern’s defense walked off the field. The scoreboard read 17-0 in Iowa’s favor, and it looked like another spooky nightmare for the Wildcats on a warm Halloween afternoon.

NU played from behind often last season. But Saturday, it exhibited a quality that it failed to show last year: resiliency.

The Cats (2-0, 2-0 Big Ten) clawed their way back into the game slowly, but methodically, with a bruising rushing attack, clutch third-down conversions and crucial late stops from its defense to eke out the 21-20 win over Iowa (0-2, 0-2 Big Ten).

Last season, NU might have given in when things got rough. But Saturday’s win made one thing clear — this year’s team is built differently.

“What a resilient win by our guys,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously, not the way we wanted to start, but sometimes things happen.”

Early on, the Cats dug themselves into a hole with two costly turnovers and penalties that are uncharacteristic of a typical Wildcat team. Fitzgerald said he brought the squad together on the sideline after the first quarter, telling his players to settle down because football isn’t won in one quarter.

In 2019, the Cats were 1-7 when they lost the turnover battle to their opponent. They were 1-8 when they didn’t score first.

But this time, NU evened the turnover battle by the end of the game and relied on a mix of players who made big plays down the stretch.

The Cats’ second-quarter performance offensively was vital as the team cut the deficit to just six points at halftime. Fitzgerald admitted the wind played a factor in their offensive game plan, forcing the team to run the ball.

NU’s offense took 26 snaps in the second quarter and 23 of them were runs. Of the team’s 143 total rushing yards, 102 came in the second quarter. Senior running back Jesse Brown led the backfield two rushing touchdowns during the 15 minute period.

“We always had a mindset that we were the best team on the field. We’ve got talent on the front, out back, out wide,” Brown said. “We’re gonna use our playmakers to get things rolling.”

The momentum the team garnered in the second quarter also came from clutch third-down conversions both on the ground and in the air.

NU’s average third-down yardage on Saturday was 7.7 yards, but the team converted 10 of its 19 third downs. Graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey only threw for 130 yards, but completed four passes of 10 yards or more to keep drives going.

The momentum generated by the offense carried it into the second half and rubbed off on the defense. In just his second career start, redshirt freshman safety Brandon Joseph made his first career pick midway through the second half to get the defense in on the comeback, and picked up his in the fourth quarter with the Hawkeyes driving.

When the offense was struggling late in the game, the defense picked up the slack, and senior linebacker Blake Gallagher picked up the game-clinching interception. After giving up 20 points in the first half, coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s group was stout in the second, allowing only 104 yards. The senior linebacking trio of Chris Bergin, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher all finished with at least 10 tackles.

“Our defense last year through and through was resilient. We carried that over into this year,” Bergin said. “We kept fighting possession after possession… we just learned a lot through the quarantine (and) through the offseason last year.”

It wasn’t the perfect game for the Cats. There were certainly rooms for improvement. But the team made enough plays when it had to.

Saturday’s win proved this team learned from last season how to fight through adversity. And Fitzgerald knows victories like these will help the team as they continue to improve and stack wins.

“When you look in the rearview mirror of the season, you hope these type of one-point wins end up being reasons why you end up having a special year,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been doing this long enough (to know) that these are the games you gotta win if you wanna have a special season.”

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