Football: Northwestern’s defense falters in lopsided loss to Iowa


Alyce Brown/The Daily Northwestern

Iowa’s Kaleb Johnson scores a touchdown. The Hawkeyes scored on every series of the game’s first half.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

IOWA CITY, Iowa. – Entering Saturday’s contest, Northwestern and Iowa’s storylines felt similar.

Both teams sat in the basement of the Big Ten West. Both entered on losing streaks – the Wildcats with six straight losses, the Hawkeyes with three. Both have struggling offenses. Both are under fire from fans for the decision to retain coaches rather than fire them. 

But the matchup between Iowa and the NU emerged as a battle of contrasts.

A vibrant Iowa City crowd of yellow and black cheered and leapt to its feet, while a small crowd of purple sat sullenly in a corner of the stands. An ever-moving, seemingly unstoppable Hawkeyes’ offense met an error-prone Cats’ defense. Iowa’s nationally-ranked defense stymied an NU offense that seemingly had no key in the ignition. 

“We’ve got to find a way to win a game,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Nobody likes the way this feels right now. This is not why you do what you do.” 

The Cats (1-7, 1-4 Big Ten) fell to the Hawkeyes (4-4, 2-3) by a 33-13 score, giving Iowa fans something to cheer about as the program hit .500 and tallied another Big Ten win. 

The Hawkeyes’ offense – notably, one of the nation’s worst – ended up becoming the story of the game. Iowa’s 33 points marked a new season-high, and its most since November 2021. The Hawkeyes appeared seemingly unstoppable, scoring on each of their four series in the first half. 

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras looked effortless under center, going 21-for-30 while tallying 220 yards. He seemingly had no trouble, connecting on wide-open pass after wide-open pass. Highlights like Petras’ opening score and wide receiver Arland Bruce IV’s 23-yard touchdown run late in the game had Hawkeye fans on their feet, bringing electricity and momentum to Kinnick Stadium. 

Fitzgerald credited Petras, saying he played his best game of the season amid what he called the Hawkeyes’ “best game of the year.”

But it wasn’t just Petras that powered Iowa’s victory. The Cats’ defensive breakdowns, missed tackles and miscues certainly helped Iowa’s cause. Quiet individual performances only added to NU’s woes, as no individual recorded more than 10 total tackles. Senior defensive linemen Adetomiwa Adebawore was not his usual disruptive self, finishing without a tackle and only making it on the stat sheet with a single quarterback hurry.

Fitzgerald said he has tried to urge players to show up to compete on gameday. 

“We need our best players to play better,” Fitzgerald said. “I challenged them a couple weeks ago that (in) Big Ten football, (if) you’re a starter, you’re expected to perform and play well. If you’re not, you have no other thing to do than point a thumb.” 

Defensive breakdowns only made matters worse for the Cats’ offense, which, at times, appeared beyond its depth. Sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan started his second game for NU, going a competitive 23-for-30 and tallying two touchdown passes. But he managed just 159 yards, and Iowa’s defense sacked him seven times for a loss of 54 yards.

Sullivan frequently connected with junior running back Evan Hull, who finished as the Cats’ leading rusher with 32 yards on Saturday. Hull credited Sullivan’s strength under center, saying that he has the necessary confidence to lead as quarterback. 

“He’s getting his feet wet,” Hull said. “That can come with struggles, but I’ve seen him take them head-on and embrace them and continue to get better.” 

Now, winless in the United States since October 2021, NU will regroup before taking on No. 2 Ohio State next Saturday. The Buckeyes have won eight straight, while the Cats ride a seven-game losing streak. 

Junior linebacker Xander Mueller said there will be no changes to preparation ahead of the weekend’s matchup. He said the team has embraced attacking each week at practice since the summer, and they’re ready to do the same this week.

For Fitzgerald, preparation for the Ohio State game began immediately following Saturday’s loss.

“Number one, they’ve got to walk out of the locker room and leave this (in Iowa),” Fitzgerald said. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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