Football: Northwestern can’t overcome offensive struggles in third consecutive loss


Alyce Brown/The Daily Northwestern

Andrew Marty stands in the pocket. The senior quarterback threw for a career-high 270 yards, but tossed three interceptions in a 17-12 loss to No. 22 Iowa.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


Tory Taylor took a second too long.

Right when the Iowa punter swung his leg up, the hands of Raymond Niro III came flying forward to deflect the kick. With the ball rolling towards the Hawkeyes’ end zone, the junior wide receiver got off the ground, sprinted to pick up the loose ball and raced to Iowa’s nine-yard line. Within seconds, Niro III put Northwestern’s offense back in business.

Through six drives, the Wildcats ran 35 plays for only 91 yards and no points. Two possessions earlier, senior quarterback Andrew Marty threw an interception. Now, NU had a prime opportunity to cut into a two touchdown deficit.

They eventually did. With a field goal.

“We had a lot of self-inflicted wounds down in the red zone,” sophomore running back Evan Hull said. “That’s a thing we just can’t have in those crucial situations.”

The two short runs and incomplete pass on that drive didn’t crush NU’s (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) comeback bid on Senior Night against No. 22 Iowa (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten). However, the Cats’ inability to finish possessions and find the end zone defined their 17-12 loss.

Of NU’s 13 possessions, just three ended across midfield. Two of those drives concluded in field goals, including the possession following Niro III’s blocked punt. Even though the Cats finally found the end zone late in the fourth quarter, the score came on a 31-yard screen pass from Marty to Hull.

Despite crossing more than 300 yards of offense for the first time in three games and holding Iowa to 361 total yards, it was not enough, as NU dropped its third straight conference game.

“At the end of the day, we got to score touchdowns, not field goals,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Good job on (senior kicker) Charlie (Kuhbander) for turning those opportunities into points for us and giving us a chance to stay in the game. But we can’t turn the ball over in the scoring zone.”

The Cats’ offense received a huge boost before kickoff with the return of leading receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. The graduate provided an early spark with a run of 24 yards in the first quarter, but it wasn’t enough as the Cats punted on their first four drives.

On the fifth, Marty — who earned the starting nod over sophomore Ryan Hilinski — sent a deep shot to the Kansas transfer, but it was intercepted by Hawkeyes safety Dane Belton.

After Iowa quarterback Alex Padilla led two touchdown drives in relief of starter Spencer Petras, NU finally found a scoring chance when Niro III got his hands on Taylor’s punt.

However, NU gained just five yards following runs from Hull and Marty and an incomplete pass. Facing fourth-and-four from the Hawkeyes’ four-yard line, Fitzgerald elected to trust the leg of Kuhbander — who nailed a 22-yard field goal — instead of trying to make it a one-score game.

“In my mindset, I just felt like we really psychologically needed points,” Fitzgerald said. “That was kind of on the edge of what I was comfortable with. Fourth-and-three… Fourth-and-two, I would have gone for it. Fourth-and-one, I would have gone for it.”

NU’s next scoring chance came in the middle of the third quarter. Down 17-3, Marty orchestrated a 94-yard drive to face first-and-goal from the Iowa six-yard line.

As Robinson Jr. found space in the end zone, Marty rifled a pass that fell incomplete. In reaction to what he felt was a missed pass interference call, a frustrated Fitzgerald put his head into his hands. Inadvertently, he stepped onto the field.

The Cats’ 16th-year head coach was quickly penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing his team outside the red zone. Marty then completed two passes for nine yards, forcing Kuhbander to come back out. His ensuing 30-yard try split the uprights.

In the fourth quarter, NU’s defense forced four consecutive punts. With just under 11 minutes remaining, it looked like Marty would finally lead the offense into the end zone after he hit junior wide receiver Malik Washington for a 16-yard gain deep in Hawkeyes territory. However, his throw to senior wide receiver JJ Jefferson was picked off for a touchback on the ensuing play.

“Obviously, today did not go the way I wanted it to,” Marty said. “I hold responsibility for a lot of the mistakes that happened and that’s something I’m gonna learn from.”

Following his only touchdown pass and another defensive stop, Marty had another chance to catalyze a scoring drive in the final two minutes. But when receiving the snap on own 24-yard line, the ball slipped out of his hands.

Even though he picked up the fumble and dropped back to his left, his long pass was underthrown and Belton reeled in the ball for a game-clinching interception and Marty’s third of the night.

The Cats’ offense still put up 363 yards. Marty threw for a career-high 270 yards and Hull reeled in a career-high 89 receiving yards. Washington and Robinson Jr. brought in 75 and 64 yards, respectively.

Despite this success, it took too long to find the end zone. With three games remaining in the 2021 season, NU will likely need to win out to earn bowl eligibility.

The key to earning it may rest with whether the Cats can cross the goal line.

“That’s something I’m going to learn from,” Marty said. “Just come ready for next week.”

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